Never Forget Where Your From (profile)
Feb 06, 2008 14:20 PST
In Step With American Indians
Feb. 05, 2008
Sam McCracken grew up on an American Indian reservation in northeastern
Montana watching his people suffer from diabetes.
The disease even hit his mother. She suffered for years, and after her
liver stopped working, the disease killed her in 2001. She was 69.
McCracken didn't stand still. He saw that other Indians were more prone
to diabetes than others, partly because of genetics and partly because
of lack of exercise, leading to weight gain. He wanted to promote
physical activity among his people.
So, as head of Nike's (NYSE:NKE) Native American Business (OOTC:ARBU)
Program, he helped create a shoe that fits the distinctive shapes of
McCracken and his team came up with Air Native N7 last September. The
shoe has a large toe box, plus thick cushions and air bags. The toe
box's height helps avoid ingrown toenails, blisters and irritation.
McCracken distributes the shoes to Indian communities at half the price
of regular shoes and gives the profit back to tribal communities. Since
November, his outfit has spread 10,000 pairs of shoes across the
The National Indian Gaming Association is so impressed that it gave
McCracken its Leadership Award last year for promoting health and
disease prevention among tribes.
In Indian communities, diabetes can mean the same as cancer, says Dr.
Rodney Stapp, who at the Urban Inter-Tribal Center in Dallas treats
people from over 100 tribes. He says that among some tribes in recent
years, half the adults were diagnosed with diabetes. And the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention report that Indians are 2.6 times more
likely to have Type 2 diabetes -- contracted partly because of obesity
-- than whites.
Loosen 'Em Up
While he studied medicine, Stapp, who is an Indian, heard people give up
with such remarks as "there's nothing you can do about it" and
"eventually have somebody cut my feet off so I can die."
In poor rural reservations, people often share shoes with family
members. That can be dangerous for diabetics. When their shoes are too
tight, the ill can suffer ulcers and even amputation. "Sam is the first
one who recognized the need for the shoes," said Stapp, a member of the
Comanche tribe whose mother also died of diabetes.
He met McCracken a few years ago, just when the doctor was modifying
shoes for his patients. Teaming up, they developed a mission: Don't let
Indian kids go through the same pain of losing their moms.
McCracken followed up by hitting the pavement. He visited Indian
communities in Oregon, Montana and Florida and scanned 200 people's feet
at 70 tribes. The data showed that Indians' average toe size is bigger
than other Americans', especially with women, who require a toe box four
sizes wider than for traditional Nike women's shoes.
After two years of research and lab work, Air Native landed. McCracken
is so sure of the sneaker's solidity, he said, "If my mom would have had
access to this shoe, or have been encouraged to do physical activities,
she might still be here."
McCracken pulled off the product launch by connecting poor American
Indian reservations with a multibillion-dollar shoemaker. As he puts it,
his Nike job is the only one in a Fortune 500 company that "serves
native communities full time."
"I was determined not to fail," McCracken told IBD. "Because if I fail,
I would let down my community."
His original community was in Montana, where he grew up on a wheat and
cattle ranch amid Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck
McCracken saw his single mother work hard as a surgical nurse while
providing for him. When he graduated from high school in 1978 without
knowing what to do, his mother told him to work at a ranch with his
uncle, and to coach a local youth basketball team.
She had a reason for her advice: The moves would give him a character
boost. His uncle, Joe Day -- McCracken calls him grandfather -- taught
him traditional Indian values and discipline through hard work.
"Uncle Joe made sure that I don't forget where I came from, our family
and our roots," McCracken said. "In our tradition, we always think the
creator will take care of you, and that's kind of stayed with me."
The 19-year-old had never coached basketball, but his mother insisted
her son needed to give something back to the community -- and could use
the leadership skills. Coaching quickly became his passion. Even when he
moved to California, where he worked as a forklift operator at
warehouses, he coached at night.
He's still at it three decades later.
Mark Loureiro, the athletic director at Escalon High School in Northern
California, remembers the day he met McCracken. "It was like a blind
date," he told IBD. "Sam walked in my office with a resume and said, 'I
am interested in coaching basketball.'"
Loureiro said fine -- and was soon rewarded. He recalls how McCracken
turned a "lower-level freshman team into a winner."
Don Francis, a coach in Sherwood, Ore., whose daughter was on
McCracken's team, told IBD: "Sam likes to take kids to play the toughest
team they can find." Whereas other coaches might seek easy opponents,
McCracken wanted his players to aim high.
Tony Dorado, who coached with McCracken at a high school in Hayward,
Calif., and is now Nike's national high school manager for basketball,
said: "What's unusual is how quickly he became an accomplished coach. He
makes players want to do well for him."
While coaching on the side, McCracken shot up the corporate ladder. He
began his Nike career at its Wilsonville, Ore., distribution center as a
receiving clerk in 1997. Soon the firm asked him to help its Indian
employee network as a volunteer.
Once in that post, he heard from his hometown tribe. Its disease
prevention coordinator asked Nike to give Fort Peck Indians products to
promote physical activity.
"If my tribe wanted to have access (to products), why wouldn't all
tribes?" McCracken asked himself.
So he sat down and wrote a business plan to distribute sneakers, outfits
and other athletic gear among Indian communities nationwide. He took the
plan to Nike's sales director and made a convincing point that such a
move would be a win-win -- for Indians and the company.
"They came to us and told us what they needed, instead of us going to
them and telling them what we were going to do," McCracken said.
Nike figured that the more physically active Indians became, the more
the company could benefit from a growing consumer fitness market. With
that, Nike in 2000 made the warehouse worker head of its Native American
Business Program -- his full-time job.
To The Rescue
McCracken's vision and action don't surprise Loureiro. The athletic
director remembers his old coach's urgency to help people, especially
Indian children who feel trapped in poverty.
"He never forgets the reservation, he never forgets how tough it was,"
Loureiro said. "Sam taught kids: Don't be afraid to step out and take a
Francis lauds him for having internal doors that he moves through fast.
When McCracken coaches, he displays his passion; off the court, he is
humble and shy.
McCracken's wife, Jodi, who assists him in coaching an eighth-grade
girls' basketball team in Sherwood, Ore., says he succeeds in sports and
business by treating people right.
Dorado agrees. "Whether he is coach Sam, friend Sam, he is always the
same and puts other people first regardless whoever he is dealing with,"
McCracken, 47, says he receives many e-mails from Indian college
students across the country. "How can I become like you?" they ask.
The man who wears size 11 N7 sneakers and loves Jimmy Buffett's music
intones this answer: "Have a vision and never give up. Never forget
where you are from."