SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. ― Nolan Kromke sits at a table in his kitchen, staring intently at a large iMac screen adorned with Wisconsin Badgers stickers, the sounds of rapid-fire clicks breaking the silence. His hands work in synchronized harmony between mouse and keyboard, like a pianist composing music, to create his latest piece of Badgers football art.
Kromke, who is 16, has become a popular guy among players over the past few months for the quality and uniqueness of his graphic design work. Like several other projects, this one comes via special request.
He has received a Twitter direct message from outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel’s girlfriend, asking for him to generate an image of Van Ginkel that she can turn into a canvas portrait. Kromke happily obliges.
He uses two computer programs: Adobe Photoshop and a photography software platform called Topaz, which softens the picture into something that more closely resembles a watercolor print. Kromke starts by clicking multiple layering effects to achieve the vision he wants.
Kromke drags over Van Ginkel’s image and selects the player so he can delete the entire background and superimpose a new one behind him. A motion blur feature creates an outer glow around the body. Kromke zooms in and rolls an eraser tool around Van Ginkel’s arms to smooth them out and then alters the skin tone to magnify the intensity of Wisconsin’s red home jersey.
Thirty minutes later, after cross-checking his work, Kromke is satisfied and overlays his signature imprint: BadgersDigitals.
— Badgers Digitals (@BadgersDigitals) January 26, 2018
Kromke goes by that online handle on Twitter and Instagram, where he has built a following of Wisconsin players and high school recruits for his ability to construct images and YouTube highlight videos on iMovie.
Cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams recently asked Kromke to make a highlight video and requested specific times of YouTube clips to use. Cornerback Derrick Tindal sent music suggestions for his highlight package. Safety Joe Ferguson asked for highlights so his manager could provide it to NFL scouts.
Kromke pulls out his cell phone to reveal a string of Twitter direct messages.
“Are you trying to make me a highlight tape?” Badgers cornerback Lubern Figaro asks.
“You making videos?” wide receiver Quintez Cephus wants to know.
“All of them really like it,” Kromke says. “Since they like it, I keep on doing it. I’m getting a pretty good response out of it.”
Meanwhile, Kromke’s “jersey swap” images, as he calls them, have been retweeted and used as Twitter profile photos by countless Wisconsin recruits and players. Former Badgers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, running back Corey Clement and point guard Bronson Koenig have shared his work on Instagram. The posts from Watt and Koenig generated more than 31,000 likes on their Instagram pages.
Kromke quickly has become the go-to source for Wisconsin football players through dogged determination, deft editing skill, the power of social media and a desire to support his favorite team. Where it leads from here is a project he can’t wait to explore.
Collin Kromke dabbled in photography for years, and he has watched with awe at the manner in which his son’s digital editing passion has evolved. Collin remembers Nolan possessing a natural curiosity when he would take photos and put them through rudimentary edits on his computer. Nolan constantly asked questions about how to perform background changes and manipulate images.
When Nolan was 12, he decided to compile his own edits. It began when his father snapped photos of a softball game involving Nolan’s older sister. Nolan asked if Collin could send him some images to work on in Photoshop.
“My sister really liked them,” Nolan says. “That’s how it started, and then I created an account for the Badgers. Nobody else really created one for the Badgers at the time, so I thought that would be cool.”
Collin acknowledges Nolan’s initial compositions were “rough.” But Nolan watched online tutorials and worked for months through trial and error to develop a style that looked as professional as any full-time graphic designer. What Nolan has created is something Collin couldn’t have foreseen four years ago.
“He has this thing that he’s incredibly passionate about, and he’s self-taught,” Collin says. “He just basically started with, ‘Hey, Dad, can you get me Photoshop? And can you show me a few things about how to use it?’ And the rest is history. I can’t do anything that he does. I don’t know how to do any of it.”
Nolan’s jersey swaps are a staple in his editing arsenal and have become a signature achievement. He starts the same way every time: By using a picture of Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor and superimposing his jersey onto a potential Badgers prospect, as he did recently with 2019 quarterback commit Graham Mertz.
For the Mertz edit, Nolan used the number 5 from a photo of Tindal as the jersey number and borrowed the Wisconsin helmet from an image of quarterback Alex Hornibrook. After Nolan crafted the design, he uploaded a 3-minute, 53-second YouTube video of the entire process sped up as a tutorial for anybody who wanted to see how it was produced.
The Kromke family has Badgers football season tickets, and Nolan has grown up a fan of the team. He says his first memory of attending a Wisconsin game was David Gilreath returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010 during an eventual 31-18 upset victory. It was only natural that he began to merge one passion with the other.
Every summer before the season begins, Wisconsin hosts a Family Fun Day at Camp Randall Stadium. For the past two years, Nolan has arrived with a hardcover book, filled with pages of images he has curated of Badgers players. The goal is to make sure each player in his book autographs the corresponding edit.
Collin will never forget what happened two years ago after Nolan approached Clement. When Clement realized Nolan was behind the social media images and videos he had seen, his face lit up with a smile. Clement then stood and yelled across the stadium to teammate Rob Wheelwright.
“He’s screaming, ‘Wheels, this is BadgersDigitals right here,’ ” Collin says. “I’m sitting here thinking this kid is here to get your autograph and you’re making this huge big deal out of him like he’s the celebrity in the place. It was just the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.”
Nolan takes pictures with all the players in his book, which he cherishes as a special keepsake. But Wisconsin players and recruits clearly pay attention to him, as evidenced by the growing list of requests he receives. Linebacker Chris Orr, who has struck up an online correspondence with Nolan, once asked him to superimpose a black visor over his eyes in one image featured in Nolan’s book so he could look like teammate Dare Ogunbowale.
Nolan’s Twitter inbox recently included new messages from Badgers running backs Chris James and Rachid Ibrahim asking for video highlights. Offensive lineman Logan Brown, a 2019 Wisconsin commit, inquired this week about a new image to use as his Twitter avatar.
Last week, 2019 tight end recruit Hayden Rucci told Nolan he was committing to Wisconsin and requested a picture to use in his commitment video, which posted Monday. Rucci now has the personalized image saved as his Twitter avatar, as do eight other Badgers commits from the 2018 and 2019 classes.
“Nolan is awesome,” Rucci says. “He gets football and loves Wisconsin. It’s amazing how quick he works and is able to make these awesome edits. The edit he made me was perfect for my video and fit in nicely.”
Those types of compliments are a big reason why Nolan continues to honor requests during his spare time. When Nolan makes photos or videos, he tags those players on Twitter and often earns a retweet, which spreads his work to the masses.
“It’s satisfying to see people notice,” Nolan says, “since I put a lot of effort in it.”
Nolan makes clear his long-term professional goals with a tweet he has pinned to his Twitter profile that reads: “I will be a graphic designer for the Wisconsin Badgers one day.”
There is little doubt his work has become a useful and free marketing tool for prospective Badgers recruits. Nolan, a junior in high school, has managed to strike a chord with football players. He has not reached out to Wisconsin’s athletics department about any potential work opportunities but may do so.
“He’s just so into football, and the football players really are the ones that appreciate what he does,” says Nolan’s mother, Amy. “For him to get in with the Badgers would be, I think, a dream come true for all of us.”
Nolan’s talent could help provide Wisconsin with an important advantage in the recruiting race against competitors down the road. Ohio State, for example, employs a 10-person recruiting support staff that includes videographers and designers with a massive reach, who readily organize personalized graphics for potential prospects.
Brian Mason, Wisconsin’s assistant director of athletic communications, says Wisconsin currently employs four graphic designers, three in the marketing and athletic communications offices and one in the football office. Between its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, Wisconsin’s official football accounts have accumulated roughly 836,000 followers. With a platform that wide, there is ample opportunity to carve out a special niche.
“The rise of social media as a primary way for us to communicate has really increased the importance of the work our graphic designers do across the board,” Mason says. “But football recruiting is certainly one area where design is in the spotlight.”
Nolan acknowledges he likely doesn’t have the grades to qualify academically for Wisconsin and will pursue college elsewhere. But his skills are so advanced that when he took a graphic design class in high school last year, he finished a three-day project in 30 minutes. Soon, he found himself instructing the teacher about how to perform editing tasks.
The biggest project Nolan has completed was a comprehensive edit of every incoming freshman on Wisconsin’s football team, which took more than a month and drew considerable attention from recruits on Twitter. As soon as he finished, he began a similar process for members of the following recruiting class.
— Badgers Digitals (@BadgersDigitals) January 20, 2018
Nolan’s parents say they are fully supportive of his plan, even if he doesn’t wind up working for Wisconsin. Amy says she hopes Nolan can earn a graphic design job with a sports franchise to feed both his artistic side and sports fanaticism. While he doesn’t charge the Badgers players and recruits for his work, his reward is a growing portfolio to show to prospective employers.
Still, Nolan has found ways to monetize his work, which has proved to him that his skill has value to others.
His dad occasionally will receive PayPal deposits through the website RedBubble after someone has purchased a graphic Nolan has created for a T-shirt. YouTube vlogger Shay Carl, who has nearly 5 million subscribers to his channel, once paid Nolan $500 to edit the end of his YouTube videos. But Nolan’s heart always returns to the Badgers.
“It’s just fun to watch him have this huge passion about this and spend time on it,” Collin says. “Sometimes we have to get on him because it gets in the way of things like homework once in a while. If he’s got a choice between doing homework and doing a major edit on a photo of a Badger player, I’m probably going to catch him sitting in front of his computer doing an edit on a photo.”
Nolan has big dreams for his future. But first, he has smaller goals to achieve. He has put together a folder on his computer of new football images. After all, he has more autographs to collect ― and perhaps more Badgers players to impress ― at Wisconsin’s next Family Fun Day event.
“For him to go to Family Fun Day and have some of the top Badgers players recognize him and give him high fives, it’s pretty cool,” Amy says. “They want their picture taken with him, too.”