(CNN) — College freshman Dieunerst Collin’s road to internet meme fame started with a confused side-eye at a Popeyes in New Jersey.

It was a decade ago, and the then 9-year-old was in line waiting for a family pack of chicken, biscuits and fries at the fast-food chain in Irvington. A stranger pulled out his phone and started recording Collin, comparing him to Lil TerRio, a boy who was famous on social media at the time for his dance moves.

Collin, holding a Popeyes lemonade cup, gave the man a sideways glance, wondering why he had a camera in his face. The stranger later posted a clip on Vine, the video-sharing app, where it went viral and became widely used as a GIF to express unease or bewilderment, along with captions such as “When your teacher catches you cheating on a test.”

A decade later, Collin is a freshman on the football team at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, and he’s come full circle. Popeyes signed the 18-year-old this month for a sponsorship that will use his name, image and likeness on billboards and other advertisements for the fast-food restaurant.

He’s finally cashing in his six seconds of internet fame — although his family was not thrilled about it at first.

“When it happened, we didn’t want to be in the spotlight. And just having that out there, people were coming to my dad and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve seen your kid on this,’ trying to make a joke of it. My dad didn’t like it for his kids to be joked on,” Collin told CNN. “But now, the fact that I switched it into a blessing, he likes it.”

Collin is cashing in on a NCAA policy that allows college athletes to earn sponsorship money
A name, image and likeness deal — commonly referred to as an NIL — allows college athletes to receive compensation from brand partnerships that use their name, image or likeness for marketing and promotional content. The deals stem from an NCAA policy change in 2021 that allows student-athletes to profit from sponsorship opportunities.

Popeyes announced the deal this month after a social media campaign by Collin and his fans. To kick off the partnership, the fast-food chain posted an Instagram video of Collin narrating his unlikely tale.

“This is where our story started,” he says in the video with the viral image of him at Popeyes in the background. “The moment that made us a meme. We didn’t ask for it. We didn’t understand it. But don’t worry little man, we didn’t let it stop us. Because the more we grew, the tougher we got. We learned to lean in. We turned the attention into motivation and the motivation into championships. This is where our story started and now it’s where a new one begins.”

The first Popeyes billboard featuring Collin went up last weekend in his hometown of East Orange, New Jersey. It features the viral image and a new photo of the adult Collin mimicking his 9-year-old expression with a larger Popeyes drink in his hand.

“Fans should keep an eye out for other fun content to come,” Popeyes said in a statement. “From memes to dreams, Dieunerst and Popeyes will grace social media feeds once again.”

The partnership started with a call on social media
The new partnership is the result of yet another social media moment.

On January 8, Collin posted a throwback of his viral photo on Twitter and Instagram and urged his followers to help him get Popeyes’ attention for an NIL deal. His fans rallied and tagged Popeyes in posts supporting Collin.

“Collin Dieunerst is now a freshman offensive lineman at Division II Lake Erie College and if this guy doesn’t have an NIL deal by tomorrow, the Louisiana kitchen needs to clean house on upper management,” one man tweeted.

Even other fast-food restaurants joined the push.

“Popeyes do it for the Vine,” Buffalo Wild Wings tweeted, referring to the now-defunct video platform. “Let’s chat over lunch,” rival KFC tweeted in a message tagging Collin.

Within a few hours, Collin said, Popeyes sent him a private message and a company representative called him with an offer. A few days later, Popeyes announced the partnership on social media. “Proud to welcome Dieunerst Collin to the fam,” it said.

Collin said he’s excited about the new partnership, and hopes it ends with him getting his own meal at Popeyes — like rapper Travis Scott and other celebrities have with fast-food chains like McDonald’s. Until then, he’s happy to promote his favorite fast-food chain, where his go-to meal is a chicken sandwich, fries, a biscuit and, yes, a lemonade.

He was stunned that people from all over the country supported his effort.

“A lot can happen with the power of the internet behind you,” Collin said. “I can’t believe I can say I’m officially sponsored by Popeyes. Thank you to everyone who helped spread the good word!”

He hopes to play pro football after college
Collin declined to discuss the financial aspects of his Popeyes deal.

Louis Moore, associate professor of sports history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, said it’s unusual for a national brand to sign a relatively unknown athlete to an NIL deal.

“Traditionally, male athletes have to be very popular before they get a national brand endorsement. But they’re popular because of their success on the field, not because of a meme,” Moore said.

“Linking up with Collin shows that there is a change in this thinking. Popularity does not have to be based on athletic success anymore. Because of social media, young athletes can come into college already having a brand, which can be attractive to companies.”

Such NIL deals mean more economic opportunities for college athletes, he said.

Collin, a communications major at Lake Erie College, hopes to play professional football before becoming a sports analyst. He never imagined the Vine clip would bring him fame — and a brand partnership — a decade later.

In fact, his family tried to get the video removed from the internet, he said.

“I just never thought it would get that big,” he said. “I just thought people will move on and forget about the meme. When I talk to my father, he actually gets really emotional because he never expected this (success) for me.”

The meme has grown on him and his family. Collin said his dad plans to put up his Popeyes’ “Memes to “Dreams” poster in his barbershop so he can share his son’s story with customers.

Does Collin use his meme on his friends? Not so much. Most times, he prefers to send emojis.

“I’ve used it less than 10 times,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of using it, because it’s me — but sometimes I’ll send it just to be funny.”

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