ESPN: Miami's turnover chain: 36 inches and 5.5 pounds of sapphire-studded swag
AJ Machado got a text from his brother on Halloween night. When he opened the message, Machado saw a picture of a young boy he didn't recognize. Then he realized why his brother sent the photo.
Around his neck, the boy wore his own makeshift turnover chain made from a shoelace and cardboard.
"My brother thought I had to see it," Machado says with a laugh.
Machado, a jeweler known as the King of Bling with hundreds of NFL clients, has seen these makeshift turnover chains pop up across South Florida, in honor of the gaudy, blinged-out chain he handcrafted for the Miami football team over the summer. The brainchild of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, the chain went viral after it made its debut in Week 1.
It also spawned a burgeoning cottage industry: Two companies now create officially licensed turnover chain T-shirts, and people from the little boy trick-or-treating to secretaries at the University of Miami to fans across South Florida have made their own homemade chains with supplies from crafting stores.
Back in late August when he finished the jewelry, Machado had no idea how popular it would become. Nobody inside the Miami football offices did, either.
"I knew it was going to be big because no one has done the chain, but this has been crazy," Machado said.
The driving force behind its popularity is what it represents. The chain is quintessential Miami: flashy, swaggy, in your face, loud and flamboyant. Of course, it helps that Miami is 7-0 and ranked No. 10 headed into a crucial ACC Coastal Division showdown against No. 13 Virginia Tech on Saturday in prime time.
Diaz initially came up with the idea to give his players extra incentive to create turnovers. It was not a novel approach: Alabama gives out a championship belt, and other teams have their own little gimmicks. Cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph had hired Machado for jewelry in the past, so he called him up and told him what Diaz wanted.
Former Miami defensive tackle Vince Wilfork happened to be in the jewelry shop at the time Rumph called. They all agreed they needed a thick, 10-karat-gold Cuban link chain because its screams "Miami." Then they decided on a massive "U" charm filled with orange and green sapphire stones, to elevate the swag to the highest possible level.
Jeweler explains Miami's 'turnover chain'
AJ Machado, the owner of AJ's Jewelry in Miami, has worked with plenty of professional athletes, but says the Hurricanes' customized "turnover chain" is one-of-a-kind.
Machado got to work, special ordering all the stones, then setting each one by hand. The price tag remains a secret. When he delivered it to the Miami coaches 10 days later, they were floored.
"Literally, I was at a loss for words," said Joel Rodriguez, director of player development for the defense. "I was like, 'That's the most enormous, gaudy thing I've seen in my entire life.' But it's supposed to be larger than life. That's what it's for."
Diaz planned to show it to his players the morning of the season opener against Bethune-Cookman. But he needed a carrying case first. The only one big enough to fit the chain -- 36 inches long and weighing 5.5 pounds -- was an old poker-chip case Diaz had in his house. So he emptied out the poker chips and put the chain in.
When Diaz dramatically opened the case and showed the chain to his players, Rodriguez said they all seemed temporarily stunned.
"It was almost like the briefcase in 'Pulp Fiction,'" Rodriguez said. "It kind of glows gold, and you never see what's in it. It kind of had that aura about it."
The coaching staff decided Rodriguez would be the one to bring the case onto the field, and the one to get the chain ready after the first turnover. It finally happened in the fourth quarter when Malek Young intercepted a pass in the end zone. As teammates ran toward Young to celebrate, Rodriguez ran away from everyone to get the chain out of the box.
Then he realized he had a small problem. He couldn't tell who had come up with the interception.
"I'm trying to wade through the crowd, get to the case, open it and also, as I'm doing that, I look up to the corner Jumbotron to see who has the ball in their hand," Rodriguez said. "It wasn't an efficient operation. By the time I figured out who it was, they were on me already. 'Where's my chain?'"
Cameras found Young as soon as Rodriguez put the chain around his neck. Young sat down on the bench, and the cameras stayed on him as viewers, announcers and fans wondered: (a) where the chain came from, and (b) where they could get one of their own.
Before the week was out, bootleg turnover chain T-shirts cropped up across the internet. Miami apparel sponsor Adidas got the go-ahead to sell the first turnover chain shirts. Harry Rothwell, the general manager for 25 years at allCanes in Coral Gables, Florida, got his first shipment of 200 shirts right after the Toledo game Sept. 23 and sold out almost immediately.
Keeping up with the demand is nearly impossible. Earlier this week, he only had three shirts left in the store as he awaited another shipment.
"It's been one of those things that just grew into something everybody wants a piece of, and it fires the fans up almost as much as it fires the players up," Rothwell said.
Former Miami linebacker D.J. Williams secured the second licensing agreement to sell turnover chain shirts, for his company Dyme Lyfe. But Williams wanted an even bigger, glitzier turnover chain on his own apparel. He got together with his designer, known as "Esko," and came up with a slightly different concept.
"We were like, 'This is Miami, people want flashy,'" Williams said. "I wanted the turnover chain on my shirt to be oversized, just like the actual chain. It's ridiculous, it's obnoxious, but that's what makes it cool. I want the shirt to look like when you wear it, you're going to have lower back problems due to how heavy the Cuban link is."
"That's the most enormous, gaudy thing I've seen in my entire life."Joel Rodriguez, Miami's director of player development for the defense
He put the shirt up for presale. The next morning when he woke up, he had nearly $20,000 worth of orders in his inbox. So far, he has sold $200,000 worth of turnover chain shirts -- including baby onesies that outsell the adult shirts.
Also this week, Williams debuted his own version of a turnover chain necklace, the first company to put those to market. But the competition is intense. Williams said he has already had to send four cease-and-desist letters to other companies trying to steal his design.
Over at AJ's Jewelry in South Florida, Machado has filled a handful of custom orders for smaller-scale turnover chains. He has received hundreds of requests either to his store or through social media, but for a custom jeweler, they are painstaking to reproduce: Each chain takes approximately two weeks to make. Still, Machado said the chain has been good for business. And he has gotten recognized for it, too. When he attended the Miami-Florida State game in Tallahassee with his son last month, fans asked for pictures and said, "You're the one who made the turnover chain!"
"My son said, 'Dad, you're a celebrity,'" Machado said.
The turnover chain has been a merchandising dream, and it has had the desired effect on the field. Through seven games, Miami has created 16 turnovers -- well on pace to exceed the 19 it had all of last season.
"It's amazing. We're like, 'Who's going to get the turnover chain this week?'" defensive back Michael Jackson said. "No matter what happens, no matter what time in the game, we all want that chain. I know everybody else in the country wants that thing."
Certainly everyone in South Florida. Rothwell said he has seen youth sports teams coming up with their own version, in addition to fans going to games at Hard Rock Stadium with their own chains. His store also is working on a promotion to give out a cardboard cutout "U" for customers to make their own chains. "It really has created another folklore for Miami, as some sort of tradition that could go on for years to come," Rothwell said.
Count Rodriguez, a former Miami player himself, as one of those believers.
"There are a lot of other schools that have turnover apparel, whether it's a belt or a trash can or a cane or whatever it is," Rodriguez said. "They're all good ideas, but what does a trash can have to do with program X or a belt with program Z? To me, a big, gold, Cuban link chain is Miami. It fits the program, it fits the culture of where we are, it fits our attitude, it fits what we want to be about. It's one of those perfect storms where everything came together. It just fits."