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'This is something to root for': Texas tight ends partner with fans for unique NIL deal

Texas tight end Cade Brewer, playing in his fifth season, has caught six career touchdown passes.

His first college reception forced a second overtime at USC in 2017. He scored on a trick play against Oklahoma State. Additional trips to the end zone were booked against Kansas, Kansas State and UTEP.

The sixth score in Brewer's UT career was a 6-yard catch in the season-opening win over Louisiana. It gave Texas a 14-3 lead in a game the Longhorns eventually won by 20 points. It had an off-field impact, too. After Brewer's touchdown, Texas fans went searching for burnt ends.

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Burnt Ends organizers Rick Vasquez and Rob Blair, center, stand with Texas tight ends on the UT campus. The program is paying each Longhorns tight end at least $10,000 in a crowdsourced NIL deal this year.

No, this isn't a story about brisket (but this is Texas, so brisket is still involved). This is a story about the Surly Horns Burnt Ends program. And organizers say that after Brewer scored on Sept. 4, they immediately had 60 signups for the crowdsourced name, image and likeness program specifically designed to line the pockets of Texas tight ends.

"It's the first fully crowdsourced endeavor in NIL history," co-organizer Rob Blair said.

Run by Blair and fellow UT fan Rick Vasquez and primarily funded by the die-hards on the Surly Horns message board, the program has simple parameters. All seven UT tight ends, including walk-on Nathan Hatter, have signed NIL deals that will pay them $10,000 annually. The program has already hit its fundraising goal for this year, which runs from August to August, so any additional money will be split evenly between the tight ends.

Technically, they aren't just being given money. They will earn their keep by providing content for Surly Horns. Brewer, for example, recently did a podcast interview. Each tight end will participate in an "Ask Me Anything" session. They also will meet some of the donors for a dinner catered by Pinkerton's Barbecue.

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Texas tight end Cade Brewer blocks during the Longhorns' season-opening 38-18 win over Louisiana. The fifth-year senior caught a touchdown pass in the game.

Most of the access to the tight ends is considered exclusive on the Surly Horns website. Blair feels there is a responsibility to separate the players from some of the unsavory content on the message board and the posters who haven't bought in on the plan.

"We thought we'll give it a try and as long as it stays on the up-and-up and everything's good and it's not embarrassing, they don't get the kids and put them in a bad light, (we're) all for it," said Bob Brewer, Cade's father. "I like the fact that they're treating all of them the same."

Blair said that "if I could give every kid a million dollars, I would do it, but I don't make that kind of money." Neither do most of Burnt Ends' contributors. The various tiers of the program call for monthly contributions that range from $10 to $50. With higher pledges come better perks. 

"What we're seeing with the fan base is if they had an avenue to get involved with some of these NIL things, they would," Vasquez said. "Right now, it seems like the barrier to entry for NIL really is that the people ... don't have the thousands of dollars that would be attractive.

"Adding a community in the middle and making it feel like somebody belongs to that community and then bringing the players into that community and then establishing something that's a little bit cooler than that, that's very exclusive, is something that people really want to get involved in. The more we can get people involved with this, the better it is."

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In the Texas locker room, the Burnt Ends program might be among the more unusual NIL deals. Running back Bijan Robinson is endorsing Raising Cane's and Pinkerton's. A few Longhorns are pushing their personal brands through clothing lines. Kicker Cameron Dicker shot a commercial with a local roofing company.

"If you play your cards right, the NFL will be a second option because you're just building (your brand) from using Texas," linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said. "The logo itself brings in so much."

As the NIL ball got rolling over the summer, Blair and Vasquez were among the college football fans who wondered how they could get involved. Vasquez wanted Surly Horns to do something big, but he also thought it would be more prudent if the website held off and let someone else be the guinea pig. Blair didn't want to wait.

So over the course of a night that involved five or six margaritas, Blair came up with an idea. After he put his plan into what he described as "literally the world's crappiest PowerPoint," Burnt Ends was born.

Initially, there was some hesitancy from the Surly Horns community about Burnt Ends. Additionally, angst existed over a public proclamation about paying players. But after UT's compliance department OK'd the plan, there was an increase in pledges. Vasquez said this week that 600 donors have signed up.

"I think that's super important not just for the University of Texas, but for the University of Texas fan that really hasn't had a lot to root for lately," Blair said. "You know, this is something to root for."

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There has already been talk of eventually incorporating another sport such as volleyball into Burnt Ends. The program might involve another football position group in the future. But for now, tight ends are the only ones who can claim to be Burnt Ends.

Why did Burnt Ends gravitate toward the tight ends? Texas often plays two of them at the same time, and head coach Steve Sarkisian has said it's the second-most important position in his offense. And since there are only seven tight ends on the roster, Blair and Vasquez figured they'd get more bang for their bucks.

The Burnt Ends founders hope the program will become a recruiting tool for high-level prospects — four-star tight end Jaleel Skinner currently has Texas in his top five — and walk-on candidates. A $10,000 security blanket could also help with retention in the age of the transfer portal, Vasquez said.

"I think the real benefit is not going to be in Year 1," he said. "The real benefit for Burnt Ends is going to be Year 4 and Year 5 and Year 6. We have no plans to stop this at any point."