Besides, as accountants went, Nelson was a standout. He’d become a
manager in just five years, which was ridiculously fast. And he’d been
valedictorian at his high school. (Alas, we didn’t find out until later that he
went to high school in eastern Montana; his class had five people.)
On the minus side of the ledger, because he’d become an accountant so
fast, Nelson was young. Maybe too young to handle something as big as the
launch of an apparel line. But I told myself that his youth wouldn’t be a
critical factor, because starting an apparel line was relatively easy. After all,
there wasn’t any technology or physics involved. As Strasser had once
quipped, “There’s no such thing as air shorts.”
Then, during one of my first meetings with Nelson, right after I’d hired
him, I noticed . . . he had absolutely no sense of style. The more I looked
him over, up and down, side to side, the more I realized that he might have
been the worst dresser I’d ever met. Worse than Strasser. Even Nelson’s car,
I noticed one day in the parking lot, was a hideous shade of brown. When I
mentioned this to Nelson, he laughed. He had the nerve to brag that every
car he’d ever owned had been the same brown.
“I might have made a mistake with Nelson,” I confided to Hayes.
I WAS NO fashion plate. But I knew how to wear a decent suit. And because
my company was launching an apparel line, I now started paying closer
attention to what I wore, and what those around me wore. On the second
front I was appalled. Bankers and investors, reps from Nissho, all kinds of
people we needed to impress, were passing through our new halls, and
whenever they saw Strasser in his Hawaiian shirts, or Hayes in his bulldozerdriving outfits, they did triple-takes. Sometimes our eccentricity was funny.
(A top executive at Foot Locker said, “We think of you guys as gods—until
we see your cars.”) But most times it was embarrassing. And potentially
damaging. Thus, around Thanksgiving, 1978, I instituted a strict company
The reaction wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. Corporate bullshit, many
grumbled. I was mocked. Mostly I was ignored. To even a casual observer, it
became clear that Strasser started dressing worse. When he showed up to
work one day in baggy-seated Bermuda shorts, as if he were walking a
Geiger counter down the beach, I couldn’t stand by. This was rank
I intercepted him in the halls and called him out. “You need to wear a
coat and tie!” I said.
“We’re not a coat-and-tie company!” he shot back.
“We are now.”
He walked away from me.
In the coming days Strasser continued to dress with a studied,
confrontational casualness. So I fined him. I instructed the bookkeeper to
deduct seventy-five dollars from Strasser’s next paycheck.
He threw a fit, of course. And he plotted. Days later he and Hayes came
to work in coats and ties. But preposterous coats and ties. Stripes and plaids,
checks with polka dots, all of it rayon and polyester—and burlap? They
meant it as a farce, but also as a protest, a gesture of civil disobedience, and I
was in no mood for two fashion Gandhis staging a dress-in. I disinvited them
both from the next Buttface. Then I ordered them both to go home and not
to come back until they could behave, and dress, like adults.
“And—you’re fined again!” I yelled at Strasser.
“Then you’re fucked!” he yelled back.
Just then, at that exact moment, I turned. Coming toward me was Nelson,
dressed worse than the lot of them. Polyester bell-bottoms, a pink silk shirt
open to his navel. Strasser and Hayes were one thing, but where the heck did
this new guy get off protesting my dress code? After I’d just hired him? I
pointed at the door and sent him home, too. From the confused, horrified
look on his face I realized he wasn’t protesting. He was just naturally
My new head of apparel.
I retreated that day to my baseball-mitt chair and stared out the window
for a long, long time. Sports things.
I knew what was coming. And, oh, it came.
A few weeks later Nelson stood before us and made his formal
presentation of the first-ever line of Nike apparel. Beaming with pride,
grinning with excitement, he laid all the new clothes on the conference table.
Soiled workout shorts, ragged T-shirts, wrinkled hoodies—each putrid item
looked as if it had been donated to, or pilfered from, a Dumpster. The
topper: Nelson pulled each item from a dirty brown paper bag, which looked
as if it also contained his lunch.
At first we were in shock. None of us knew what to say. Finally, someone
chuckled. Strasser, probably. Then someone haw-hawed. Woodell, maybe.
Then the dam burst. Everyone was laughing, rocking back and forth, falling
out of their chairs. Nelson saw that he’d goofed, and in a panic he started
stuffing the clothes back into the paper bag, which ripped apart, which made
everyone laugh harder. I was laughing, too, harder than anyone, but at any
moment I felt as if I might start sobbing.
Shortly after that day I transferred Nelson to the newly formed
production department, where his considerable accounting talents helped
him do a great job. Then I quietly shifted Woodell to apparel. He did his
typically flawless job, assembling a line that gained immediate attention and
respect in the industry. I asked myself why I didn’t just let Woodell do
Including my job. Maybe he could fly back east and get the Feds off my
AMID ALL THIS turmoil, amid all this uncertainty about the future, we
needed a morale booster, and we got it at the tail end of 1978, when we
finally brought out the Tailwind. Developed in Exeter, made in Japan, the
brainchild of M. Frank Rudy was more than a shoe. It was a work of
postmodern art. Big, shiny, bright silver, filled with Rudy’s patented air
soles, it featured twelve different product innovations. We hyped it to the
heavens, with a splashy ad campaign, and tied the launch to the Honolulu
Marathon, where many runners would be wearing it.
Everyone flew out to Hawaii for the launch, which turned into a drunken
bacchanal, and a mock coronation of Strasser. I was transitioning him from
legal to marketing, moving him out of his comfort zone, as I liked to do with
everyone now and then, to prevent them from growing stale. Tailwind was
Strasser’s first big project, so he felt like Midas. “Nailed it,” he kept saying,
and who could begrudge him a bit of chest-thumping. After its wildly
successful debut, Tailwind became a sales monster. Within ten days we
thought it might have a chance of eclipsing the waffle trainer.
Then the reports began to trickle in. Customers were returning the shoe
to stores, in droves, complaining that the thing was blowing up, falling apart.
Autopsies on the returned shoes revealed a fatal design flaw. Bits of metal in
the silver paint were rubbing against the shoe’s upper, acting like
microscopic razors, slicing and shredding the fabric. We issued a recall, of
sorts, and offered full refunds, and half of the first generation of Tailwinds
ended up in recycling bins.
What began as a morale booster ended up being a body blow to
everyone’s confidence. Each person reacted in his own way. Hayes drove in
frantic circles on a bulldozer. Woodell stayed longer each day at the office. I
toggled dazedly between my baseball mitt and my recliner.
In time we all agreed to pretend it was no big deal. We’d learned a
valuable lesson. Don’t put twelve innovations into one shoe. It asks too much
of the shoe, to say nothing of the design team. We reminded each other that
there was honor in saying, “Back to the drawing board.” We reminded each
other of the many waffle irons Bowerman had ruined.
Next year, we all said. You’ll see. Next year. The dwarf is going to get
But Strasser couldn’t get past it. He started drinking, showing up late to
work. His mode of dress was now the least of my problems. This might have
been his first real failure, ever, and I’ll always remember those dreary winter
mornings, seeing him shamble into my office with the latest bad news about
his Tailwind. I recognized the signs. He, too, was approaching burnout.
The only person who wasn’t depressed about the Tailwind was
Bowerman. In fact, its catastrophic debut helped pull him out of the slump
in which he’d been mired since retiring. How he loved being able to tell me,
to tell us all, “Told you so.”
OUR FACTORIES IN Taiwan and Korea were humming along, and we
opened new ones that year in Heckmondwike, England, and Ireland.
Industry watchers pointed to our new factories, and our sales, and said we
were unstoppable. Few imagined we were broke. Or that our head of
marketing was wallowing in a depression. Or that our founder and president
was sitting in a giant baseball mitt with a long face.
The burnout spread around the office like mono. And while we were all
burning out, our man in Washington was flaming out.
Werschkul had done everything we’d asked of him. He’d buttonholed
politicians. He’d petitioned, lobbied, pleaded our cause with passion, if not
always with sanity. Day after day he’d run up and down the halls of
Congress, handing out free pairs of Nikes. Swag, with a side of swoosh.
(Knowing that representatives were legally bound to report gifts worth more
than $35, Werschkul always included an invoice for $34.99.) But every pol
told Werschkul the same thing. Give me something in writing, son,
something I can study. Give me a breakdown of your case.
So Werschkul spent months writing a breakdown—and in the process
suffered a breakdown. What was supposed to be a summary, a brief, had
ballooned into an exhaustive history, The Decline and Fall of the Nike
Empire, which ran to hundreds of pages. It was longer than Proust, longer
than Tolstoy, and not a fraction as readable. It even had a title. Without a
shred of irony Werschkul called it: Werschkul on American Selling Price,
When you thought about it, when you really thought about it, what really
scared you was that Volume I.
I sent Strasser back east to rein in Werschkul, check him into a psych
ward if necessary. Just calm the kid down, I said. That first night they went
to a local pub in Georgetown for a cocktail or three, and at the end of the
night Werschkul wasn’t any calmer. On the contrary. He got up on a table
and delivered his stump speech to the patrons. He went full Patrick Henry.
“Give me Nike or give me death!” The patrons were ready to vote for the
latter. Strasser tried to coax Werschkul down off the chair, but Werschkul
was just getting warmed up. “Don’t you people realize,” he shouted, “that
freedom is on trial here? FREEDOM! Did you know that Hitler’s father was
a customs inspector?”
On the plus side, I think Werschkul scared Strasser straight. He seemed
like the old Strasser when he returned and told me about Werschkul’s
We had a good laugh, a healing laugh. Then he handed me a copy of
Werschkul on American Selling Price, Volume I. Werschkul had even had it
bound. In leather.
I looked at the title: WASP. How perfect. How Werschkul.
“Are you going to read it?” Strasser said.
“I’ll wait for the movie,” I said, plopping it on my desk.
I knew right then that I’d have to start flying back to Washington, D.C.,
take on this fight myself. There was no other way.
And maybe it would cure my burnout. Maybe the cure for any burnout, I
thought, is to just work harder.