Former San Diego Chargers star Shawne Merriman made his impact felt in the NFL with a frenetic energy to get to the backfield to deliver bone-crushing hits.
Before tallying 45.5 career sacks—39.5 of which came during a three-year Pro Bowl stretch to kick off his career—the nine-year veteran pass-rusher earned the nickname “Lights Out” for his hell-raising hits when he was a sophomore in high school.
Now the former Chargers and Bills linebacker has turned that nickname into an apparel brand. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has partnered with Bellator MMA for a line of workout clothing, and he’s now taking the brand into NASCAR. Merriman is also the owner of a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West car, adorned with the Lights Out logo, driven by Jesse Iwuji.
Merriman has been a racing fan since he was a kid growing up, and watching the sport on TV. Since being the grand marshal for the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in California in 2008, he’s become friends with famous NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. And now, he hopes that Iwuji, who is African-American, will work his way up the NASCAR series ladder and connect with new fans—both racing and Lights Out.
“Bringing diversity into any sport is really going to open up the eyes of people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other direct involvement with it,” Merriman told AListDaily.
Merriman said especially in his home state of Virginia and the nearby areas of Atlanta, the cities and the communities that identify with NASCAR know what a great sport it is.
“But there’s a large audience that can’t identify with the sport because they’ve never been a part of it and have never attended a race,” Merriman said. “And hopefully these diversity programs will bridge the gap and get people exploring what racing is all about, what Lights Out is all about.”
This year Merriman is launching a line of NASCAR licensed Lights Out clothing aimed at the African-American consumer.
“I hope the Lights Out brand is able to help bridge the gap and connect the dots with new people in NASCAR,” Merriman said. “Hopefully, these clothes symbolize something greater than just putting on a T-shirt.”
Connecting with kids early could be a way for NASCAR to grow its audience. The sport has struggled of late to fill the stands at race tracks.
“Imagine if a 12-year-old Shawne Merriman gets a chance to go to a NASCAR race and sees the excitement of what goes on there?” Merriman wondered.
Merriman said the Lights Out NASCAR line will be sold across a large amount of different retail outlets, as well as online.
“We’re going out there with the racing theme and what I hope that this line symbolizes is the excitement of the sport being spread across a different demographic,” Merriman said. “And that kind of excitement is what I hope connects with new fans. We have a bunch of community outreach programs lined up that I hope will have positive results for the people in the community and the cities.”
NASCAR is the second sport Merriman has embraced with his brand. The former NFL sackmaster actually used MMA to prepare his body for the grind of the gridiron when he was an active player until 2012. Merriman never played a full season and four of his campaigns lasted no longer than five games.
Last September, he signed a deal with Bellator MMA, a combat sports promotion that rivals UFC and airs on Spike TV. All fighters wear Lights Out clothing while training and during fights, which gives the brand wide exposure to MMA fans.
“One thing I’ve really concentrated on since I retired is building my Lights Out brand,” Merriman said. “We signed a partnership with Bellator MMA about nine months ago and the Lights Out brand is featured on the top of the cage and in the ring. The fighters walk in and out with the Lights Out T-shirts. It takes a lot of work because you want people to really identify with the brand and what the brand stands for. If you do it within a certain sport with the right team of guys who are really vocal, that’s what the brand is about.”
Merriman became interested in clothing design as a student-athlete at the University of Maryland. He also worked with Nike to help the brand design athletic clothing.
“The one thing about Lights Out is I don’t want to put the brand in a box and have anyone say it’s ‘this kind’ of a brand,” Merriman said. “I was a Nike athlete my entire career and I got a chance to see a great brand being built. I was always heavily involved and hands-on for what I was doing. And over the course of time I picked up a huge amount of information, and it’s helped me get to this point with Lights Out. And every day I’m still learning, which is great.”
With Bellator and NASCAR now under the brand, Merriman has lofty aspirations for the future of the Lights Out brand.
“Five years from now I want Lights Out to be out there with the other big sports brands out there, and since we’re constantly growing every single day, I expect it to get there,” Merriman said.