A frothy examination of Master Tesfatsion's enormous sneaker collection turned briefly serious when the sports journalist started talking about a childhood void of such extravagances.
The now former Strib Vikings beat writer and local radio personality was talking about his sophomore year of high school in Irving, Texas, when his sister Fifi, a D. C-based, makeup artist with 13,000 Instagram followers – bought her younger brother his very first pair of coveted stylist sneaks.
"We couldn't really afford to have these nice expensive shoes growing up so," Tesfatsion said softly. "We didn't have much growing up. Usually I would just have one pair of shoes that would last for three years. Kind of crummy, you'd just squish your feet into them and make them work. I was always a big sports fans, wanted Js [Jordan's], T Mc's [Tracy McGrady's]; [Allen] Iverson's. And so once my sister [got a] job, it was actually a month before my birthday, she got me some Air Jordan Retro 3s because that is when they dropped. I wore them hardly ever, once or twice every two weeks at school; got them rotated in. They don't even fit me anymore. I keep them just as a reminder, a sign of how far you've come."
Tesfatsion's parents came a long way to Texas. His parents are from Eritrea.
"My dad moved here in the '80s and then my mom came later. They left because there was a war. Eritrea was trying to gain its independence from Ethiopia, so it was a war-torn country. They fled and wanted to find better opportunity," he said. "She's been working at TGI Friday's all of her life and my dad is a sheet metal mechanic. He's been in and out of jobs but he recently got a new one. Financially, I don't know how they made it work with three kids, where the things you always wanted just weren't on the priorities list, including clothes, shoes. We went [to Eritrea] about 10 years ago. Even as different as it is, my parents … you should hear some stories about how they grew up. To the point where these shoes, they don't really care. They grew up without shoes, stepping on rocks and stuff. They barely got electricity in the houses they had been in before all their lives. It was tough. Helped me appreciate it. As parents they helped me realize they did the best they could, under the circumstances."
The Arizona State grad's circumstances are much improved, but memories from his childhood are never far from the fore: "Being honest, me just being able to go out and buy groceries when I want to, it's crazy because you always had to wait until they had paychecks and you made it work, with whatever we had."
Now Tesfatsion has a great deal more, especially sneakers-wise, although he said he is starting to buy more dress shoes that actually go with how he dresses up on NFL game days. The fashion statement he has in mind goes way beyond shoes and sports, for my colleague who recently took a job the NFL's D.C. area team. He tried to play down his journalistic ambitions but it was obvious to me that that personality wasn't long for this market — something about which I asked him when we shot video for this Q&A at the south Minneapolis pad he shared with two other bachelors.
Q: What's it like to have white people always address you as Master?
A: [Boisterous laughter.] You want a short answer to that?
Q: Have you ever booked a hotel room in Mississippi?
A: [Laughter] Alabama!
Q: What'd they say?
A: It's hilarious. [Using a more refined tone of voice] Oh, that's an interesting name. You're always going to get that the first time you meet somebody. [Even] people who know you, to this day, laugh about it. I can't believe his name is Master.
Q: At what age did you realize that was an unusual name?
A: It was probably middle school. My parents took me to a charter school which was predominantly white. There were two black males in my grade and they would always make jokes about my name. It kind of hit me. Nobody else has got a name like this. Everybody else is Tom and Justin and Marvin and Jimmy.
Q: When you learn about American history and slavery, that's when it really had to hit you.
A: Yeah, I've got all these rich white folks in this school and I'm this poor black kid and they call me Master. The irony was just hilarious to me.
Q: Did your parents realize the irony of that name when they gave it to you?
A: I don't think they did. My dad came up with that name. He tells me it's because I was the second child, first son. You know how those Africans get down; they come up with some bold names.
Q: But African names usually mean something, unlike most strange black names.
A: They do [Laughter.] I'm happy [with] the name. It's a cool name.
Q: What are the other names in your family?
A: My dad is Habte. Mom is Meaza. Younger brother is Abel.
Q: You have all these shoes. Are you putting any money in a 401K?
A: Oh yeah. Come on now. This is just something on the side I like to do, you know. When I see my dad he says [disapprovingly], Are you saving money or are you buying shoes, still?
Q: How many pairs of shoes do you own?
A: Everybody always asks me that. I don't know. I'd say, rough guess, somewhere between 60 and 70. In college [his peak], the most I had was in sophomore, easily over 100 pairs. Like 120. The study desk I was supposed to have in my apartment was just stacked with shoes; underneath, the chair, the closet. Shoes everywhere.
Q: Can you look at a shoe box and tell what kicks in there?
A: Oh yeah. Sometimes you lose track of how much you have, but for the most part I'm pretty good at remembering because I wake up in the morning and [think] I've got to rock these. [Now what] jeans and shirt do I want to rock with them?
Q: We're supposed to wear a different part of shoes every day because it helps the shoe recover and breathe. You can't have any foot odor if you are wearing a different pair of shoes everyday, right?
A: You can't. Also just to change it up. Honestly it is [about] looking dope. Sometimes I wear the same clothes.
Q: You'll shower and put on the same clothes?
A: For example, I had to go to an event after Byron Buxton's [Twins] home debut. I changed. Came home, took a shower, put on some new shoes. I love fashion; being able to express yourself.
Q: What do you look for in a pair of shoes?
A: Just something I can see myself rocking in or something other people wouldn't like. I want to be different. I want things that stand out and are different.
Q: Which of pair would be considered the Manolo Blahnik of sneakers? Don't you have a $600 pair of shoes?
A: Let me think.
Q: What's the most you've ever paid for a pair of shoes?
A: Probably those dress shoes. Hugo Boss. There is this one pair of Pippens I have; no one dropped them when I went to Arizona State, no one had them in that state at all. I went on eBay and dropped, like, I want to say $350-$400 and the shoes were worth $150-$180. Yeah.
Q: Whenever I think someone has a big collection of something strange but harmless, I say: It's not cocaine.
A: You know what I'm sayin'? I could be doing a whole lot worse.
Q: You were at the Star Tribune almost two years, how much longer are you going to be here? [I asked not knowing he'd be gone early in the Vikings season.] You are clearly a young man going places.
A: [Laughter] We'll see how it goes. I'm happy where I am right now.
Q: What's your ultimate job?
A: Working for myself in fashion or being on TV. People try to box me in so much because of what I do, especially on Twitter: Stick to sports. I feel I've got more to bring than just that, you know. You can't just box me in as a sports journalist. I want to create fashion, create shoes. This is just one of those outlets to get me to that.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try email@example.com and to see her check out Fox 9's "Jason Show."