Collin has come to terms with the meme in recent years as he has developed another identity through football, which he plays at Division II Lake Erie College in Ohio. This month, the 18-year-old used the meme’s popularity to sign a sponsorship deal with Popeyes that will attach his name, image and likeness to advertisements.
“At first it was really hard,” Collin told The Washington Post. “But the family and friends that I had told me, ‘Hey, this is going to be something good. You can really flip this.’ A part of me now is pinching himself.”
A Popeyes spokeswoman confirmed the sponsorship deal, adding in a statement: “From memes to dreams, Dieunerst and Popeyes will grace social media feeds once again.”
In August 2013, Collin said his father, Evens, ordered a family chicken meal at a Popeyes in Irvington, N.J. Collin said he filled his white cup with sweet tea and waited for his family to exit the restrooms. A man, who was recording a video on his phone, approached Collin.
The videographer believed Collin looked similar to Lil TerRio, who was popular for his dance moves on Vine before it was shut down in October 2016. Collin didn’t know whether the videographer was speaking to him or the person beside him, he said, so he looked at the camera and glanced beside him before shifting his eyes toward the camera again. Collin said he dismissed the encounter as a joke.
Then about three weeks later, his sister, Everlyne, shared the video. People used the short clip to express reactions to awkward moments, such as seeing a teacher outside school or being asked to work weekends. As a fifth-grader, Collin said classmates nicknamed him “TerRio” as he became well-known for the meme.
Collin said he felt accepted two years later in middle school when he met new friends who had not learned about the meme. In high school, Collin said, football helped him form his identity and find belonging. Collin’s teammates provided him with a new nickname, “Killer Whale,” for his blocking on the offensive line.
“People began to know who I really was,” Collin said.
When Collin’s high school coach, Rae Oliver, learned about the meme, he said he invited Collin into his office. Although he often internalized his emotions, Collin said, he explained his difficulties overcoming bullying. Oliver said he saw a chance for Collin to transform the meme into a marketing opportunity.
After East Orange Campus won a football championship in December 2021, Collin posed for a picture with the trophy while looking sideways to mimic the meme. When an influencer asked Collin what he would do after winning, Oliver said Collin responded: “Man, I want some chicken.”
At Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, coaches learned about the meme when they began recruiting Collin in 2021. When Collin committed to the small college in February 2022, word of the new classmate spread across the student body.
“I don’t think we bargained for the light that Dieunerst was,” Lake Erie Coach Demir “D.J.” Boldin said. “After we truly got to know him, he’s one of the greatest kids, like, ever.”
Collin, who’s 6-foot-1 and 330-pounds, redshirted in the fall to develop. Around January, sports personalities across social media began connecting Collin to the famous meme. Collin, who studies communications, tagged Popeyes in a Jan. 8 Instagram post in which he wrote he was ready to talk business.
Within a day, Collin said Popeyes responded. He danced across his dorm after settling a deal, and Popeyes designed a billboard featuring Collin in Newark.
He’s now Lake Erie’s first football player to receive a paid sponsorship deal, Boldin said. Collin declined to disclose his wage but said, “It’s a lot.”
“He’s accepting of who he is,” Oliver said. “He’s been able to take the power from the negative side of it and turn that pain into profit.”