By TYLER ELLYSON
CLEVELAND – Just before kickoff at every Cleveland Browns home game, a celebrity with ties to the city is introduced to fire up the crowd.
They walk onto the field, open a guitar case and reveal an instrument representing the opposing team. Then the guitar is smashed over a giant amplifier, sending the fans into a frenzy.
“The atmosphere is incredible,” said Cassidy Stelling, “and I have no problem with my guitars being smashed whatsoever. I actually love it. It’s on TV. It’s in front of thousands of people. And even though they’re booing it because it’s the other team, I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s something I created.’ It’s super badass and people really love the experience.”
A Kearney native and recent University of Nebraska at Kearney graduate, Stelling designs the guitars for this unique pregame activity, using digital illustration software and her artistic ability to elevate this new tradition, started in 2022 as a nod to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame located there.
So far, her creations have been destroyed by professional wrestler and television personality The Miz, former Cleveland Cavaliers player Daniel Gibson and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. Her designs for six more home opponents – the 49ers, Cardinals, Steelers, Jaguars, Bears and Jets – will be unveiled throughout the regular season. The 22-year-old has complete artistic control over the project.
“What I wanted to do was make the design so killer that when it’s smashed, the reaction feels even better,” she explained. “That was really the vibe I was going for.”
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 1, 2023
As a digital design intern for the Cleveland Browns, Stelling has a hand in numerous projects that promote the NFL team and its corporate partners. She designs graphics and ads for the website, social media and app, creates content for sweepstakes and email campaigns, and provides in-game scoring updates for followers around the world.
Among her favorite designs are the “100th Battle of Ohio” graphic promoting Cleveland’s game against Cincinnati, “4 Days Until Kickoff” featuring quarterback Deshaun Watson and a post announcing the team’s new “whiteout” helmets and uniforms.
“Those were really cool to make because I know they are fully mine and the reaction that we got on social from the fans was super positive,” she said.
Stelling is at Cleveland Browns Stadium for every home game, and she also has a chance to connect with the community. She photographs the Browns High School Game of the Week every Friday, allowing her to showcase another talent.
“It’s definitely a creative position,” she said. “It’s not just strictly design and sitting in the office. It allows me to get out and be a member of the community, which has greatly added to my experience.”
For Stelling, the opportunity to work for an NFL franchise represents “the best of both worlds.”
Along with art and design, sports are another passion.
“I’ve always been very athletic, so I think that’s kind of where it all started,” she said. “I’ve always been the athlete of the family.”
Stelling participated in volleyball, basketball and track when she was younger, but focused on other activities during her time at Kearney High School, where she was a member of the Bearcat Marching Band. In the classroom, she showed an immediate flair for graphic design and quickly advanced to the upper-level Bearcat Design Project, a capstone course that gives students real-world experience working with clients.
“I remember I did the boys soccer schedule my first year,” Stelling recalled. “The coach had always been a real big stickler on designs, but he liked my designs and wanted me to continue doing projects for the team.”
Because of her experience at Kearney High, Stelling arrived at UNK with a skill level that put her ahead of most classmates.
“She had a really good launch pad,” said Sam Rapien, an associate professor in the UNK Department of Art and Design. “She came in already having pretty good taste in design and a lot of strong foundational skills from Kearney High. The other thing that really set her work apart is that she was looking at a lot of contemporary, professional design, so she was already in that world. She was kind of setting a standard for herself at that professional level.”
Both Rapien and professor Rick Schuessler, a fellow UNK art and design faculty member, immediately recognized her drive and dedication.
“She was one of the most hardworking students I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Rapien said. “She kind of lived and breathed design. Things were never good enough for her. She was constantly trying to find ways to better her work and to hold herself to a really, really high standard. I think that allowed her to continually grow and never plateau. And that’s something that we wish for all of our students.”
“Very early on, she had her goals set and she knew what she wanted to accomplish,” Schuessler added. “Then she just constantly pushed toward that.”
Stelling was involved in the UNK Art Society, UNKlay ceramic club, Phi Eta Sigma honor society and Loper Programming and Activities Council. She also worked as a graphic designer for UNK Student Engagement and photographed Loper football.
Off campus, she connected with 24 Hour Tees co-founder and Nest:Space co-owner Chais Meyer, who helped launch her freelance photography career, and worked on murals in Lincoln and Hastings with fellow Kearney High graduate Ashton Masek.
“I was constantly designing, creating and being artistic, and I think that’s what really helped me in the long run,” said Stelling, who also does freelance design work for Fearless Ink Custom Apparel.
Stelling won multiple American Advertising Federation awards during college, and her senior exhibition was among the best Schuessler has ever seen.
“That senior show really encapsulates her whole experience – her passion, her drive, her visual abilities. It just spoke of her,” Schuessler said. “I can only think of a handful of exhibitions over the time I’ve been here that accomplished what she was able to accomplish.”
And it was about serial killers – not sports.
“I’m a true crime junkie, wholeheartedly, through and through,” Stelling said with a laugh. “I wanted to do something with true crime, but I didn’t really know what to do exactly. I didn’t want to glorify serial killers, but I wanted to make sure I honored the victims, as well, so it was a very tricky and touchy subject to work around.”
The end result was an exhibition promoting “Crime Junkie,” one of her favorite podcasts, with both artistic and psychological elements.
“By the time she left here, a lot of her work didn’t look like student work,” Rapien said. “It looked like work that would come from someone who had about five years in the business already.”
Stelling graduated from UNK in May with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication and design.
Less than a month later, she was offered the paid position with the Cleveland Browns.
“I’m at the highest level of professional football right now, as my first out-of-the-gate experience, and that’s insane,” Stelling said. “The fact that I can showcase my skills at such a high level is incredible. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
She plans to use the internship as a “test run” before deciding which direction to take her career.
“Honestly, I’m very open to whatever comes my way,” she said. “Because the more I experience, the more I grow and the more I learn. I don’t think I want to do one thing for the rest of my life. I just always want to be creating and growing and learning.”
No matter where she ends up, whether it’s professional sports or another industry, she’s destined to succeed.
“As far as I’m concerned, Cassidy is going to write her own check,” Rapien said. “She’s going to push herself and she’s going to find her way to whatever she wants to accomplish.”
“This internship is just the tip of the iceberg,” Schuessler added, “because she is not afraid to open other doors.”