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Me, Pre, and the Birth of Nike

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 26, 2024 3:01 am

Me, Pre, and the Birth of Nike

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 26, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, since its start in 1972, Nike has employed nearly half a million people. Only four have outlasted our next storyteller, Steve Bence. He is the author of 1972: Pre, UO Track, Nike Shoes and My Life with Them All.

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Lee Habeeb

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Since its start in 1972, Nike has employed nearly a half a million people. Only four have outlasted our next storyteller, Steve Bence. Bence is Nike's program director in global sourcing and manufacturing, and was an All-American runner under legendary track coach at Oregon, Bill Bowerman, who became the co-founder of Nike.

Let's take a listen. Hi, my name is Steve Bence. I was born in Tennessee. I started kindergarten in Japan, and I graduated from high school in Spain. I went to the University of Oregon to run track and later started with Nike. The way I discovered running was during my junior year in high school. I went out for football in seventh grade because all my friends were going out for football. But at home, we never watched sports, so even though I was on the football team, I really didn't know the rules or the strategy, so I sat on the bench the whole time. In the winter, I went out for basketball and sat the bench again. And when one of the games was out of hand, the coach put me in, and four times I brought the basketball up court.

Four times I was called for traveling. I looked over at my coach, and he was just shaking his head. As luck would have it, the coach was also the track coach, so we both knew from experience that I wasn't an athlete, and he treated me that way. I still came out every day and worked out with the track guys, but when we had a track meet, on the bulletin board was a posting of all the entries. And every time I looked, my name was never on it, so I missed all the track meets until the last one. It was the district championships. I went, and my name was on the 400 meters, a quarter mile, one lap around the track.

And I didn't know if somebody was hurt or injured or what, but I was going to take advantage of this opportunity. So the last track meet that year, the district championships, I took second in the 400 meters. And the coach came sprinting across the field and gave me the biggest bear hug and looked me in the eye and said, Vince, you're a runner.

In the spring of 1979, I was a sophomore, and I had learned that my best race was the half mile. So I won our district championships, which qualified me to go to Los Angeles to run in the CIF Southern Section quarterfinals, which were some of the best athletes, not only in our section, but in the United States. So I went to the quarterfinals not expecting much. Nobody was expecting much out of me, and I qualified to move on to the next round.

So next week was the semifinals. I advanced again. I ran fast enough to get myself into the finals, and I went and I took third place.

And I was on cloud nine, right? And then I found out my dad was going to transfer to Torjón Air Force Base near Madrid, Spain. I went to school on base. It was called Madrid American High School. And so I got to go to Germany, where we ran against all the schools in the European area. And the big schools were in England and Germany. And the first heat was actually the semifinals.

I won in 159, which was a school record and the first time I ever broke two minutes. And one of the coaches from a German school came over and talked to my coach because he didn't know who I was. He said, where did this guy come from?

Right. And we talked a little bit. He asked to see my shoes. And there were these clunky, bordy leather spikes that my mom bought for me when I was a freshman. And they were size 11.

At the time, I wore about size eight. And the coach was saying, you broke two minutes in these shoes. And so he disappeared for a while and came back with a pair of shoes that pit me, probably one of the other runners. And I tried them on and just putting those shoes on made me feel faster. So in the finals the next day, I ran three seconds faster.

So I was 156, which broke the European record. And I learned the importance of a good pair of shoes in running. And so I had my final senior year living in the barracks. But the most important thing my senior year was trying to find a college in the United States where I could go. And I'd written to Ohio State, Kansas State, USC and Oregon State. I was accepted academically at all schools, but there was very little interest in me running there. And perhaps the most blunt letter I got was from the USC coach who said, your time might be pretty good in Europe, but it's a dime a dozen here in Southern California. But I found out one of our dorm counselors threw the javelin at Oregon. And he said, have you considered Oregon?

I pulled out the letters and everything. I showed him everything I had done to that point. And he goes, why did you pick Kansas State? And I said, that's where Jim Ryan went to school.

Jim Ryan was my hero. He was a world record holder in the mile. He goes, he didn't go to Kansas State. He went to Kansas. He got the wrong school.

Right. Then he asked me, why did you write to Oregon State? I said, because they're a good running school. He says, no, no, Oregon's a good running school, not Oregon State.

So I picked the wrong school. And he saw the letter I got from USC, but he contacted Coach Dellinger back in Eugene and told him I was interested in going there. And the answer I got was that that would be fine because Bill Barrowman allowed walk ons. Anybody that wanted to walk on and train with the team was fine. You know, you never knew who's going to be good enough to run. And they said, if you do really well, maybe you'll get into a race or two.

But there would be no scholarship. That was fine with me because Bill Barrowman, he coached Oregon from nineteen forty eight to nineteen seventy two. Bill wrote the book on jogging. He brought jogging first to Eugene and it spread across Oregon, across the United States and then across the world. He's in the Hall of Fame four times for a track coach and one time as an inventor.

He invented the modern day athletic shoe. So I flew space available on military flight to Dover, Delaware, and then I worked my way across the United States and got to Eugene. I had two suitcases in my hand, found a motel six close to the university. And Dellinger told me, when you get to Eugene, come see me in my office. And so there were people there already.

So I didn't know if I should go in or not. And Bill signaled me in and in his office was Jim Ryan looking in a phone book for something. My high school hero, who I wrote my term paper for, was there sitting in a chair with Steve Prefontaine, the greatest American distance runner in the United States. When he died in nineteen seventy five, he held every American record from the two thousand meters to the ten thousand meters.

There's been a book written about him, the documentary and two different movies. And in the doorway was Phil Knight, Phil Knight, who with Bill Barman co-founded Nike in nineteen sixty four. I had my camera with me, so I took a picture in the office, which I have in my book. And so I was just like in awe of the people I had met. And I shook hands with them and said, should I even wash my hands after this? But the guy in the doorway, that Phil Knight, I'll tell you in a minute, he was probably the most important person in that room because he's the one that co-founded Nike and would later change my life. I walked out of that office thinking, wow, what I just seen. But at the same time, it was am I in over my head?

Can I rise up to this level? I was a walk on who was rejected by all the other universities that I had written to. About two weeks later, Barman had the freshman in the stands. It was a freshman meeting and I looked around when I got there and there was about 50 people in the stands all wanting to run track. And I asked someone if who's on scholarship. And he said there's only three people on scholarship. And it turned out to be Mark Feig. There was Russ Francis, who threw the javelin and third person was Tinker Hatfield, who some people might recognize that name. He's a world famous designer that designs Nike shoes for us now. But Bill Barman came out and he said, statistically, based on all the years that he coached, only three of us of the 50 would actually make it to our senior year.

Everybody else would drop out of school, quit, and he would be proven right. It was two of those guys. It turned out to be me as well. It was the only three that made it to our senior years. He also told us you can only do two things well. And he says one of them has to be a student. You have to be a good student because if you flunk out, everything else doesn't matter. But he said the second thing, based on what he observed, was you could either be a good athlete or you could be, he said, a good lover.

You can't do both. And he said you're just going to have to pick. And I remember looking around and a few heads were looking down like, is that true? And he said something profound. He said, if you can find meaning in what it takes to stay on this track team, you'll probably find meaning in another absurd pastime life.

And that was in the movie Without Limits if you've seen that. And you're listening to Steve Bence tell one heck of a story. Imagine being a young kid, a college freshman, in the same room with Phil Knight and Pree and Jim Ryan and Bowerman. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, me, Pree and the birth of Nike.

Because on this day in 1951 and 1964, Nike was founded and Steve Prefontaine was born. Here on Our American Stories. This episode is brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. It's a special thing to be a member of Navy Federal because they are a member-owned, not-for-profit credit union that invests in its members with amazing rates and low fees. That's why members could earn and save more every year. Plus, they serve all branches of the armed forces, veterans, and their families. So if you're interested in becoming a member, learn more at

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See slash Amazon Prime for details. And we continue here on Our American Stories. And we've been listening to Steve Bence and the book he's written. 1972, pre-UO track Nike shoes and my life with them all. Because on this day in 1951 and 1964, Nike was founded and Steve Prefontaine was born.

Let's continue with Bence and his story. Nike was born on May 1st of 1972. I didn't know it when I was at the University of Oregon running.

I was on the track team and I was kind of oblivious to everything going on around me. But I gradually started to learn that the tiger shoes that I was wearing was actually blue ribbon sports shoes. And blue ribbon sports was a handshake deal between Bill Bowerman, the coach, and Phil Knight, the athlete, in 1964.

Bowerman was a coach but he was also, he experimented. He always loved problem solving. And so he's always trying to come up with stuff to make athletes better.

And it could be anything. Like he worked on track surfaces and of course shoes and even apparel. And so people would be wearing handmade shoes that he did. But he didn't have really a good business sense. Phil had that business sense. He was an athlete. He was a runner.

He was coached by Bowerman. And so the two got together to create a new company. At first it was blue ribbon sports and Phil had written a paper in college at Stanford University that just like cameras were, very good cameras were coming out of Germany and they were expensive. But they were able to get good cameras out of Japan at a much cheaper price. And at the time all the shoes were, the good shoes, the competitive shoes were made in Germany. It was Adidas and Puma. And Phil speculated that you could make just as good shoes in Japan at a much cheaper price. And so they paired up and they went to Japan to find somebody to make the shoes.

A lot of them were designed by Bill Bowerman. And so they were able to mass produce good shoes for kids in high school at an affordable price. And that was the Tiger shoe. But Phil picked May 1st, 1972 as the birthday of Nike.

The Nike brand was starting to evolve. But that was the day the letter he received from Japan, Onitsuka Tiger, that they would no longer allow him to sell Tiger shoes in the United States. And so when most of the company at the time heard that news, they thought this is the worst day of our life. We're all out of jobs.

But Phil said, no, this is the best day of our life. You know, we can create our own brand and control our own destiny. So that's when the Nike brand was born.

Again, I was a little bit oblivious to the business part of it. I was just running. But Bowerman twice had me wear test shoes. And the first time I wore a pair of his test shoes, he came in the locker room and said, hey, Bence, you wear a size nine, don't you? And I go, yeah.

And he goes, try these out. So I was going out for a six-mile run. And about two miles into it, my Achilles was really sore and my calf.

I said, just my luck. When I'm supposed to be testing these shoes, I get hurt, right? So I went back to the trainer and explained what was going on. He said, let me see those shoes. And he looked at them and Bowerman flipped the bottoms instead of the padding under the heel, he put it under the forefoot. So every time I took a step, I was putting a strain on my Achilles. And the trainer was saying, you can't be a guinea pig for him.

Your career and track is just a little too important. So why don't you take these shoes back to Bill and tell him you can't test anymore? And I didn't want to do that first.

But I waited for a week and I felt confident. And I went into the office and I said, here's the shoes. And he said, what do you think? And I said, well, I got hurt wearing them. And he goes, well, what happened?

And I said, well, it's in my Achilles and calf area. He goes, ah, that's great. That's what I thought would happen. And that was it. And I was thinking like, what?

He's either mad scientist, you know, or he's testing me out or maybe he's just hazing a freshman. I didn't know what it was. But anyway, I didn't want to deal with any of that anymore.

So I didn't do that. But that was my lesson in he was motivated to try to find the best things to make athletes better. And he wasn't afraid to fail. You know, a lot of company cultures, you know, failure is not good. There's backstabbing and politics that goes into it. But Tom Clark at Nike at one point had a had a poster in his office that said the company that makes the most mistakes wins.

You know, problems are good. The story about the waffle iron and Bill Bowerman making souls in his kitchen is partially true. But there's a lot of truth to the fact that, you know, he was constantly looking for ways to improve performance for athletes and weight, take weight out. So he did that. The first I understood the first time he used the waffle iron, he put some rubber or whatever in there and he closed it. And when it stuck, you know, just kept it up.

I had to throw that thing out. So he had a couple of steps before he actually figured out how to do it. But the waffle iron was intriguing to him and he was trying to get that. But if you think about what a waffle looks like, they're indentations.

And if you look at the outsole, it's the mirror that goes the other direction. But it was the concept that he had. And then he worked locally with rubber makers and he was able to experiment with that until he got it right.

But then they just got sheets of rubber with the waffle outsole that they made and they just die cut it to go into the bottom of the shoes. There's four of us that we went to talk to Tom Bowerman, Bill's son, who lives in Eugene in the house where Bowerman used to live. And we told Tom, first question, we said, when he got up in the morning, what was it like for him to innovate? And Tom said Bill wouldn't even know what the word innovation means. He was a problem solver.

He said if he didn't have a problem to solve, you know, he wouldn't know what to do with himself. Innovation, the word innovation is overused these days. And even our innovation group, Product Innovation at Nike, they took the word innovation out of their title because it doesn't mean anything anymore. Track season started and there were nine people listed in the newspaper that could run 800 meters or the half mile back then. And out of the nine half-milers, with their personal best times in there, out of the nine, I was number nine. So I was the ninth person on the team going into the track season. And where I'd been promised maybe I could run a few races if I was good enough, I ended up winning my first seven races there.

And the seniors and juniors and sophomores weren't all that excited about it. And I went to the Pac-8 championships. It was the Pac-8, not the Pac-12 back then. I ended up taking second place at the Pac-8 championships and they made note of where the USC guy was, the first USC guy. I looked behind me and he was in fourth place.

In 1974, I was a junior and Prefontaine by then was a good friend and teammate of mine. But he was competing on his own now. The previous year, he was still a University of Oregon student having a scholarship. And he was on the USA national team, which paid for all of his transportation, room and board, and so forth as he competed around Europe for the United States. And he said they also gave him four dollars a day for spending money. But what he found out when he was running over there, after one of the races that he won, one of the competitors suggested that they pick up their prize money and go out and have a few beers. And Prefontaine was like, what prize money, right? All the money that came in for U.S. athletes went to the AAU, the federation. The athletes that he had to compete against in Europe were getting prize money from the meets and their governing bodies were supporting them financially. And so he was pissed and he said, why should I care about the AAU?

They don't care about me. So in 1974, he decided he was going to go to Europe, not compete in any AAU meets and get his prize money. But he talked to some of us to join him, including me. And I was kind of excited, you know, like I didn't know if I can continue my track season after my junior season, but I wanted to go to Europe and compete and see how I do.

So I accepted that. And you're listening to Steve Benz tell the story of, in essence, the founding of Nike. And it's a heck of a story about running and sports and commerce. And in the end, this thing that, well, let's face it, Bowerman, as we already learned, didn't like the word innovation. And most innovators don't because they're just trying to solve a problem. And indeed, it was a problem right in front of him that had to do with his coaching and with winning. And then that's what he really wanted to do, have an advantage over everyone. And the net benefit was he created this remarkable sneaker company.

More of the story from Steve Benz, because on this day in 1951 and 1964, Nike was founded and Steve Prefontaine was born. Here on Our American Stories. Luckyland Casino asking people, what's the weirdest place you've gotten lucky? Lucky? In line at the deli, I guess?

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See website for details. This episode is brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. It's a special thing to be a member of Navy Federal, because they are a member-owned, not-for-profit credit union that invests in its members with amazing rates and low fees. That's why members could earn and save more every year. Plus, they serve all branches of the armed forces, veterans, and their families. So if you're interested in becoming a member, learn more at At Navy Federal Credit Union, our members are the mission, insured by NCUA. And where Black is cozying up next to your booth with more new releases like Role Play.

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See slash Amazon Prime for details. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Nike and how it came to be. And so much more about the running world in the 1970s, in its infancy that would spawn what we now know as the modern world of track and field, and so much more. In 1974, running phenom Steve Pre Prefontaine decided to take a stand against the Amateur Athletic Union, the AAU, which demanded that athletes who wished to remain amateur for the Olympics not be paid for appearances in track meets, even though they drew large crowds that generated millions of dollars. At this time, the AAU was taking away the amateur status of athletes who were endorsed in any way. Because Pre was accepting free gear from Nike, he was subjected to the AAU's rulings and he found himself living on food stamps. He spoke very publicly against the AAU and asked his friend and Oregon track teammate, Steve Bence, to join him in Europe to race in defiance against the AAU.

Here again is Steve Bence. We started in Finland. Prefontaine had to help us get into a meet. In the first three track meets, I won and I got my prize money, which was $27 at each meet.

So I had three times $27 for my first three races. It wasn't much, but it was illegal. It was against the rules of the NCAA and the AAU. Now, the European competitors picked up their prize money, but we weren't supposed to do that. So I was being rebellious because of Pre.

He was talking us in to do that and we were supporting him, probably because he thought there was safety in numbers. And in 1978, this is after Prefontaine died, Congress passed a law that changed the whole thing. It abolished the AAU and allowed athletes to start being able to win money, which changed the whole sport and in a way vindicated us, in my opinion. The next story I'll tell is on May 29th, 1975. And anybody that knows Prefontaine history knows that he died on May 30th, 1975.

So this is the Thursday. There was a track meet that evening and Pre had invited the Finnish national team to come to Oregon to compete. But the last race of this tour was going to be at Hayward Field. And it was going to be that evening, May 29th. But Pre came into our apartment with Mark and I.

We left the door unlocked and he just felt at home, so he always would come in and out. And he insisted that we go over to his house and play spades, play cards. Because he was so hyper, you know, because he had to have a good meet that evening to be able to recover some of the money.

And he had promised that he was going to try to break the American record in the 5,000 meters to get as many people in the stands as possible. And Pre ran his race and then afterwards we went back to our dorms to shower and Pre had graduated so he went to be with the Finns at a party. Went to bed that night. I had a final exam the next day.

So I knew I had to get up and study. And at six o'clock in the morning the phone rang. And it was a friend who had graduated the previous year and said, I just heard on the radio that Pre Fontaine died.

And I was like, no, he couldn't have, you know. We were just with him all day yesterday. He was just here last night, you know, that kind of thing.

So I called the radio station and they said it was true that he was in a single car accident and that he was dead. And I just remember taking my books and going over to the student union because I had to study. And I remember, oh boy, there was music in the background playing and I remember it was, wishing you were here.

And that hit me, just hit me again. And I thought about what inspired me most about him. And it was reflecting back to Europe and defying the AAU. And even in that track meet the night before, he was defying the AAU by putting that on.

He wasn't allowed to put on a meet, but they backed off at the last minute. But just his rebellious spirit, you know, and his fight for justice, I wanted to be that. I wanted to live that. And so that became a part of who I was or who I am.

And Phil Knight later said, if Nike could have the personality of any human being, the personality he'd want is that of Steve Prefontaine. There's a place called Preys Rock in Eugene, which is where Prefontaine died, where his car flipped and it killed him. And people will go to Preys Rock to honor him and they leave stuff.

They leave shoes, they leave clothing and all those kinds of things. He was 24 years old when he died. It was 1975. And people still go to the Rock and kids are still inspired by him. And when I've been up there, sometimes I've talked to people. For example, one time I talked to a husband and wife who were coaching in the Midwest somewhere. And I said, what is it about Prey that your athletes love, which inspires them the most? And she said it's because he's so blue collar, he worked so hard, he was so competitive. The kids just believe if they do the same thing, if they work hard and do what they have to do, they can excel as well. And it's not his accomplishments that people admire him for. Although he had every American record from 2,000 meters up to 10,000 meters, it's not the accomplishments that people talk about. It's how he lived his life and how he competed. And many times, lead runners will just sit in the back until the last half lap and kick in and win the race.

Prey wanted to go out and be in front. Every race that he ran, he called a performance, and he was doing it for the people in the stands. And he would say, if you run in the back and just kick at the last 200 meters, that's chicken. He just did not believe that that was the right way to run a race. The only way to really run a race is in the front, flat out, as hard as you can go, and run as fast as you can every time. But also, one of the things that Coach Dellinger, Bill Dellinger, who was the assistant coach for the runners at the University of Oregon, he said the one thing he noticed about Prey is he never missed a workout, he never missed a race. He was there all the time. And Prey confided, you know, there were times that he wasn't feeling good, but he wouldn't tell anybody.

He would go out there and run anyway. So it's just that honorable, competitive, hardworking ethic, I think, is what young people today look up to. When I started with Nike, to me, it was just a bunch of runners getting together and moving into the next part of our life.

And I was trying to figure out, what was I going to do? I was teaching and coaching, and maybe I could have done that for my whole life, but I was looking for that job that inspired me, that kind of was meaningful to me, purposeful to me, and I didn't know Nike was going to be it. But when the company started, when BRS started importing Tiger shoes from Japan, Phil placed his first order to Japan for 300 pair of shoes. So that was 1964 Tiger shoes. And then, you know, maybe, I don't know where, we got up to about a million pair. I'm really only talking about footwear, because that's what I had in my experience.

And we usually talk in pairage. And to back up, when I told my mother I was working for Nike, and she asked me, what's Nike? And I told her about Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, and we're making shoes for runners and stuff. She says, you went to college, and I'm going to tell my friends that you're a shoe salesman, or whatever, you know. And she says, why don't you work for a company that makes something that a lot of people will buy, right? That's the way she was thinking back then.

That's the way we were all thinking, you know. It was a small market. But because of jogging in particular, runners and average, everyday people started getting running shoes to run in, because now we were starting to jogging. It just wasn't for elite runners. And people were wearing them to knock around and walk around in, because they were comfortable and lightweight. So we didn't start wanting to change the world. We were just trying to improve performance for runners. But the thing was taking off. So when people find out that it was a group of runners that started this company, and that's the culture that we have, it makes sense. You know, no one can imagine a bunch of football players getting together and doing this, or basketball players, or whatever.

But a bunch of runners, we pulled it off. And so the culture that we have as a company comes from that. I'm now settled down in Beaverton, Oregon. I've lived in my house for over 30 years. I adopted a girl in Taiwan when we were there. We adopted a girl in Korea when we were there. We had a son in the United States.

We moved back to Korea. My youngest was born in Korea. And they've all grown up here in this house. Now I have four grandchildren, ages 0, 2, 4, and 6.

They're over here all the time talking. So there's a big group, my four kids and those four grandchildren. And looking back on a career that has been incredibly rewarding and being a part, I never claimed to be a Phil Knight or anything major. I mean, I was just a guy getting the job done, a math nerd, that was excited about being a part of running still, about a part of the running culture. And when you have an opportunity to do something bigger than yourself and genuinely enjoy working with people, it's a pretty rewarding experience.

And that's where I am right now in my life. And a terrific job on the storytelling and production by Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Steve Bentz, author of 1972 pre-UO track, Nike shoes, and my life with them all.

Go to a bookstore and buy this book or wherever you get your books online. Phil Knight, the founder all the way through. The story of Nike. Because on this day in 1951 and 1964, Nike was founded and Steve Prefontaine was born.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-11 23:30:49 / 2024-02-11 23:45:54 / 15

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