by Jeff Henderson·
Honestly, I didn’t really know Sandy Bodecker that well. He was a Nike legend far before I landed on campus in 1996 and I never worked on any of his teams. As a designer who struggled in the beginning I assumed I was invisible to people at that level.
Sandy wasn’t most people.
I’m certain there are 6453 stories to explain Nike Soccer and Nike SB, but their rise in industries that shunned them for being corporate posers is difficult to understand today. Nike was Running and Basketball and Baseball and American Football. The European football kid and the American skater were insulted by Nike’s presence.
As someone that had his hand in both rises I wanted to know how Sandy and his team managed to become relevant. Was it the cultural connection with athletes and art? Was it technical product introduced to consumers that were stuck in the performance-dark-ages? Was it the segmented distribution and cost incentives that put product in play?
During a Nike offsite of product juggernauts in Tokyo I got the chance to ask Sandy what the secret was. I wasn’t in the meetings, but I asked questions to every S++ that would give me two seconds between sessions.
“It was all of those things — product, marketing, distribution, but,” Sandy smiled at the simplicity of the answer he was about to tell me. “Five years.”
“Five years what?” I asked
Sandy was between meetings with high end folks so I knew I wouldn’t get much time to hear his answer. “I’ll tell you after this meeting,” he said before bouncing upstairs with the leadership team. I assumed that he’d get caught up with the next big mission and I’d be forever puzzled with ‘Five years’.
As the leadership team finished their meeting and began to do the corporate meeting-after-the-meeting where everybody makes their play for what they really want, Sandy comes back downstairs to explain to me what he meant by ‘Five years’. He didn’t take credit for the success, he just explained his thoughts on why it was successful.
To understand Nike you have to know that the most important consumer in the world is the 17 year old kid. Today I laugh when I hear people my age talk about how Nike has changed.
Nope. They’re still 17. You got old.
For most people the last age of true freedom is 17. They are free to be themselves before taxes and college and military and families and 401ks and car notes kick in. Their instincts about what is good and bad and right and wrong aren’t complicated by spreadsheets and politics. They are raw emotion. They decide what’s cool.
Listen to the kids.
But those 17 year olds in Europe didn’t grow up with Nike cleats or kits. Nike was an American brand that just wanted to come in and make money, right?They didn’t know how to make boots because they called them cleats. They were trying to add color and technology like their American basketball shoes. The 17 year old football crazy youth was disgusted by this blatant attempt at signing their players and teams and showing up in their magazines and television shows.
But there Nike was. In the middle of the pitch. Winning some. Losing some. But always in the middle.
Because when you’re in the middle you see what’s happening first hand and learn from your mistakes. You fail and succeed with a kangaroo leather boot that everyone else makes just as much as you fail and succeed with a synthetic leather boot that look like a toy.
The important thing is that you are standing next to that 17 year old every minute of the day. You’re learning the culture and absorbing the game, yes. But you are also being watched. Closely.
If the 17 year old is a year away from losing their freedom, the 12 year old is just beginning their independence. They no longer focus solely on what their parents and teachers tell them. They have new role models. They have a new barometer of cool and serious and hopeful and educated and valued.
The 17 year old.
Now imagine standing next to that 17 year old for five years. That 17 year old that says you aren’t official. You aren’t relevant. You don’t know the game because he or she didn’t grow up with you.
Five years later you’ve been there as long as 12 year old can remember. On his favorite players boots and kits. On her favorite magazines. At the shops he frequents. In the programs she watches.
In five years you’ve gone from poser to official with the 17 year old. Who cares if the 22 year old still thinks you’re a poser? That 22 year old has too many responsibilities to worry about so fashion and sport lose priority. They might as well be 42.
The new 17 year old is happy to see the integration of old-world craftsmanship and modern technology in their boot because five years of conversations have lead to amazing product that those old 22 year olds would never wear.
The same thing happened in skate. Sure there were product wins, cultural moments and athlete signings, but consistency over five years gave them the historic credibility that no individual success could have given them.
Those teams worked incredibly hard to merge the culture of the sport with technical prowess, but authenticity was not something could be won or purchased over night. It had to be earned. You couldn’t leave just because they said you weren’t good enough or didn’t understand the culture. You had to stick it out. Eventually you would get better and the next generation would take notice.
Over the next seven years I made sure to schedule annual meetings with Sandy. Some years he was sicker than others but he was always happy to talk. And he always focused on a bigger picture for whatever he was working on.
Other legends I’d meet with made more sense in my design career — Kilgore, Aveni, Hatfield, Hatfield. I never got the feeling that Sandy and I really connected.
But somewhere along the way Sandy started following me on Instagram. I was shocked. Of course I followed him back. He liked images of my kids that he’d never met and I liked images of George — who I’ve never met. I watched the new SB building grow from nothing while the cats ran around guitars. There was nothing more Nike than seeing those images while I knew he was seeing mine. I was a blip on his radar.
But I was a blip for a problem solver and I was happy.
I was in Taiwan with a 30 year Nike vet when the news of Sandy’s passing spread. A floor above our meeting room was a mural of Sandy and a few other Nike legends signing the contracts to start building shoes together. The mural was based on the photograph taken at the meeting. It was the ‘80’s and Sandy was wearing a suit and tie. I had no idea.
Somewhere around year five of my career I started to figure some things out. And maybe after five years of meeting with Sandy, I became authentic on campus. Or at least that’s when I felt it.
As of last December I’ve officially been self-employed for five years.