One day, when Dieunerst Collin was 9 years old, he, his dad and little brother took a trip to their local Popeyes to pick up dinner for the family. That trip became a pivotal moment in the now-18-year-old’s life that set him on a path few can relate to.
“We arrive and get our food, a Family Meal, and my dad gives me the bag and a cup and says, 'Get me a sweet tea,'" Collin tells TODAY.com. “My dad and little brother go to the bathroom and I’m standing in line.”
While Collin waited for his family to come out of the restroom, a stranger approached.
“The guy who recorded me came in with a bunch of his friends, you know, having a good time and all that,” Collin says. “As soon as he starts recording I look at the camera and I’m thinking, ‘Is he recording behind me?’ But then he starts calling me TerRio. And I’m like, ‘Who is that?’”
The man recording Collin was a Vine user, TheRealSnoopy, who published a video on the now-defunct social media platform titled “Terio At Popeyes” on Aug. 21, 2013.
In the seven-second clip, Collin is asked to deliver viral sensation Lil TerRio’s catchphrase. "Say oooh ... oooh,” he instructs Collin, who delivers the perfect side-eye in silence while holding a Popeyes cup.
The video went viral, garnering more than 19 million views on Vine, and inspiring countless memes.
Collin says he was watching a movie with his mom the moment he found out he went viral, getting word that a Facebook post featuring him had received over a million likes.
“I had never been in that spotlight before the video," he says. "Out of nowhere, I just started crying to my mom and dad. I said, ‘I don’t like this at all.'"
The virality didn’t exactly die down, either. For years, Collin’s image has been used as a reaction meme, used to make jokes about everything from awkward moments in public to dating during the pandemic. To this day, simply searching “awkward kid” or “Popeyes kid” in any GIF library will bring up the image of Collin in that fateful moment.
“I was like, ‘I don’t ever want to walk outside again.’ It would just hurt me. Because you know a person just walked up with a camera in my face,” says Collin. He says that people would call him "TerRio" to indicate they knew him from the meme.
“Certain people (would recognize me from) online, laughing and all that,” he said. But with time, he found an outlet.
“In eighth grade I was introduced to playing football by one of my coaches, Coach Diesel,” Collin says, adding that football built his confidence, particularly when strangers approach him. “I knew, ‘This is going to make me tough.’ Starting football made me able to get to where I'm now able to embrace it.”
Collin says he was able to build his confidence, playing football throughout high school. Later, on Dec. 5, 2021, Collin went viral for the second time in his life when his football team at East Orange High School won a triple-overtime victory, taking home the state championship.
A Twitter user posted about his win — writing “From Popeyes to State Champion!!” along with the original meme photo and one of Collin holding the championship trophy — and that tweet went viral, too.
Collin is now a Division II lineman at Lake Erie College. On Jan. 8, he posted a call-to-action on Instagram asking social media users to tag Popeyes in an attempt to secure a sponsorship from the company.
Many folks who wanted to see the college football star to secure his well-deserved bag tagged Popeyes repeatedly — and it worked.
“(Popeyes) hit me up in under 24 hours,” Collin says, now with a fully secured NIL (name, image and likeness) deal with the chain.
“Social media continues to propel Popeyes as a culturally relevant powerhouse brand. If you look at the viral meme from 10 years ago unofficially dubbing Dieunerst the Popeyes Kid, to just a few weeks ago where he used his strong community of friends, family and fans to get our attention on Twitter, it’s undeniable,” Sami Siddiqui, President of Popeyes, tells TODAY.com.
“We knew we’d been handed the perfect opportunity to sign an authentic brand partner who’d already made headlines and generated a ton of buzz about his love for our brand,” Siddiqui adds. “We’re thrilled to have Dieunerst as a part of the Popeyes family!”
After signing the deal, Collin appeared on Popeyes official social media channels and on a billboard in Newark, New Jersey, showing both sides of his public identity as a meme and a football champ.
He was also photographed standing in front of the billboard, and since has been tapped by Popeyes to appear in videos using his tagline, “From memes to dreams.”
In addition to running his growing social media channels on Twitch, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, among others, going to football practice at 5 a.m. and juggling academics for his major in Communications, Collin continues to work with Popeyes as a spokesperson.
“You know, when you think positive, blessings will come,” Collin says to those facing challenges, meme-related or otherwise. “For me, it got me to college, I can work with brands and help my family out.”
Collin says this deal led him to do the one thing he avoided doing since he became a meme nearly a decade ago — return to the Popeyes location where it all started.
“It was nerve-wracking. It was hard to bring back memories,” Collin says. “When I walked in there, the bad part of everything that happened to me was popping in my head, but I did it. I’m not worried about that now.”