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Nike's Holy Grail: Bowerman family unearths long-lost waffle iron
Published: Monday, February 28, 2011, 9:40 PM Updated: Monday, February 28, 2011, 11:42 PM
By Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian
As Melissa Bowerman reached deep into a cupboard for a blanket against the night chill, she discovered a box stuffed with mud-caked shoes and a rusty appliance.
She showed the things to her husband, Jon, and his brother, Tom, who had found them buried near the house in Coburg where their father, former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, lived for decades with his wife, Barbara.
Melissa said she could sell the things at auction -- she had a good cause in mind -- but the two men laughed.
"'No one's going to want those,'" Melissa recalled the men saying last spring.
Oh, how wrong they were.
Excitement from the discovery would ripple across the state, from the headquarters near Beaverton of the company Bill co-founded to the tiny town of Fossil hours away where he spent his childhood. In addition to shoes with treads handmade by Bill, Melissa had stumbled upon Nike's Holy Grail: the long-lost waffle iron that inspired him to craft the revolutionary sole that launched an athletic empire.
"It truly is the headwaters of our innovation," Nike historian Scott Reames said. "From a historian's standpoint, it's like finding the Titanic."
Phil Knight is Nike's well-known business and marketing brain, but Bowerman was its mad scientist. His eureka moment came one Sunday morning in 1971 in that house overlooking the McKenzie River.
Bill and Barbara were fixing breakfast -- Barbara wasn't at church, a common mis-telling -- as Bill raised a familiar topic: how to make shoes lighter and faster. Oregon's Hayward Field was transitioning from a cinder to an artificial-surface track, and Bill wanted a sole without spikes that could grip equally well on grass or bark dust.
"It was one of the few (footwear-related) things he ever talked to me about, so it was kind of fun for me," Barbara told Reames in an interview he conducted for Nike in 2006. "I picked out a couple pieces of jewelry and things that had stars on them, or things that we thought would indent or make a pattern on the soles. We were making the waffles that morning and talking about (the track).
"As one of the waffles came out, he said, 'You know, by turning it upside down -- where the waffle part would come in contact with the track -- I think that might work.'
"So he got up from the table and went tearing into his lab and got two cans of whatever it is you pour together to make the urethane, and poured them into the waffle iron."
Bill's breakthrough spawned Nike's Waffle Trainer, released in 1974, the first innovation in a company that became known for them. Before it, most athletic soles were flat with shallow patterns. The waffle had nubs that protruded like the tread on a motorcycle tire.
The distinctive shoe took off, Nike's "air" technology used in Air Jordan basketball shoes soon followed, and the Swoosh was on its way to becoming the top-selling athletic brand in the world.
A dwindling team
By 2009 Jon and Melissa's son, Conlan, wanted to run track for Condon-Wheeler. The blended team of small central Oregon high schools also serves Fossil, which the Bowermans' ancestors founded not long after pulling off the Oregon Trail.
Jon and Melissa found the team on life support: no coach or uniforms, no transportation and no pole-vault pit. They couldn't bear the thought of Bill Bowerman's hometown high school going without track so they volunteered to coach, commuting 90 miles round trip to Condon High from the family ranch in tiny Clarno.
That spring, six kids came out for the team. They ran in booster club-bought uniforms and rode to meets in buses that Barbara rented. As they trained, Melissa stared across the field at the 15 eighth graders working out. How would she and Jon outfit those kids next season? She wondered.
In August 2009, the Bowermans' phone rang.
It was Mike Yonker, chairman of an organization that stages all-terrain races to benefit charity called the Wild Canyon Games. Yonker wanted to hide a commemorative coin featuring Bill himself -- who died in Fossil in 1999 at age 88 -- on the Bowermans' property, a prize in a GPS-aided treasure hunt.
He was a Nike executive, Yonker explained, and Nike was the race's title sponsor.
Melissa saw her chance. She welcomed the coin on their land, but explained that the high school track program needed shoes, uniforms, bags -- just about everything. One high jumper had been practicing in basketball shoes with the sides blown out.
Yonker was shocked that Bill's local team had fallen so far. Yonker added it to the Games' beneficiaries, and just before the 2010 track season a roomful of boxes arrived from Nike.
Melissa heard giggles and chatter caroming in the locker-room of Condon High as the kids unpacked shoes and singlets, shorts and warm-ups. It was a bounty rarely seen in nearby Wheeler County, where many on the track team live and the poverty rate is nearly triple the state average.
"I handed a kid his bag, and he was a kid who was homeless off and on," Melissa said. "He said, 'This is better than any Christmas I've ever had.""
The kids began to dream bigger. A few said they wanted to try the pole vault.
Unearthing an icon
Nike's original waffle iron was as mysterious as it was iconic. Visitors to the company's campus, letter-writers to Barbara from around the world -- all wanted a glimpse of the totem from the brand's origin story. Barbara told them all the same thing: She threw it away.
One of the shoes unearthed in a rubbish pit on Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman's property, now on display at company headquarters near Beaverton, shows his experimentation with waffle-inspired soles.
Then came that cool night last spring in Coburg, and that rattling box. Because the house sits atop a steep slope, garbage trucks didn't visit. So Bill had buried his junk on the property.
Last year while planning to expand the house's carport, Tom had stepped on mushy ground and found a rubbish pit. In it he uncovered the old shoes, some tools and the waffle iron. Tom threw the things in a box and planned to throw them out.
Melissa persuaded him that someone would value the items. She contacted Nike, and on Aug. 29 Reames opened an e-mail to startling news: The waffle iron had survived.
"I thought, 'That can't be possible,'" Reames recalled, "because Barbara threw that away."
But Melissa had shown it to Jon and to Barbara, before she died May 29. Both confirmed it was the original, distinctive for its Art Deco accents and missing metal plates. In his inspired haste, Bill had glued them together then thrown them away. They're still missing.
Reames assured Melissa that Nike wanted the items, and to compensate the family for them.
"'He said, 'What number were you thinking?'" Melissa recalled. "I said, 'To be honest, all I'm thinking about is trying to get a pole-vault in.'"
They traded donations: the relics going to Nike and a "generous sum" going to Condon-Wheeler track. Reames declined to say how much, but Melissa said it is enough to build a pole-vault pit.
On Monday, track season started at Condon-Wheeler with 35 kids out for the team -- half the enrollment at Condon and Wheeler High Schools -- and plans under way to build the pit.
Nike officials cleaned up the artifacts and unveiled them to surprised employees last Monday, two days after what would have been Bill's 100th birthday.
The tale of team meeting trove shows what the Bowerman family has known for generations: From a breakfast food to a hole in the ground, inspiration lives everywhere.
-- Rachel Bachman; follow her on Twitter
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