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TALES OF THE TRAIL.

Byline: Ron Bellamy The Register-Guard

It is history that Phil Knight, the former University of Oregon runner, in partnership with his former coach, Bill Bowerman, founded Blue Ribbon Sports, the company that became Nike.

And it is history, too, that the first athlete who came to represent the fledgling company, as both symbol and salesman, was distance runner Steve Prefontaine, whose memory lives, 33 years after his death, in the Prefontaine Classic track and field meet Sunday at Hayward Field.

But there is this, too: If you lived in Eugene, and parts of Oregon, in the early 1970s, chances are that you bought your first pair of Nike running shoes from Geoff Hollister.

A graduate of South Eugene High School and of Oregon, where he was a steeplechaser for Bowerman, Hollister was Nike's third official employee. He opened the company's first Oregon store in 1968 at 855 Olive St., carving the name BRS West on two planks of pine wood and selling Tiger running shoes imported from Japan.

In 1972, after Hollister returned from serving as a navigator in the U.S. Navy, the store became The Athletic Department; pinching pennies, Hollister simply turned the sign around and carved the new name. By the time the first U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials came to Eugene that year, Hollister was not only selling Tiger shoes, but also more and more of the Bowerman-designed running shoes being produced under the Nike label.

In the next couple of years, Hollister and Prefontaine traveled the state, Pre talking to high school kids, Hollister selling shoes out of his car, and so he was there when Pre told a group: "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."

For the upstart company that became Nike, Hollister was far more than a shoe salesman. The former navigator helped steer the company's early course, recruiting athletes, listening to their needs, developing the partnerships that built on Nike's relationship with its first prominent athlete, Pre.

Because Prefontaine's exacting demands challenged the company to produce shoes that met his standards or he wouldn't wear them. That set the tone, over the years, for Nike's relationships with athletes such as Michael Jordan, John McEnroe, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods as the company grew from this wisp of an idea to the most iconic brand in sport.

Hollister himself became a shoe-maker, and the inventor of Nike's Aqua Sock. He became a promoter, a founding father of the Butte to Butte - after his wild "Storm the Butte" race met with controversy in 1973 - and the Nike-OTC Marathon, which became one of the best in the country and produced American records. He became an innovator, in the creation of the Athletics West club of postcollegiate athletes in Eugene.

And, in some ways, he became Nike's historical conscience, its keeper-of-the-flame, which manifested itself in his role in the creation of "Fire on the Track," the excellent and remarkably enduring documentary about Pre, and in behind-the-scenes battles won and lost over the decades.

At 62 and fighting an ongoing battle with cancer, Hollister has told his story in a new book, "Out of Nowhere: The Inside Story of How Nike Marketed the Culture of Running," published by Meyer & Meyer Sports.

Nowhere is the book more relevant than in Eugene, because Nike's history is a chapter of the city's history, and the university's.

Consider this: When Prefontaine first pitched his idea for a wood-chip running trail in the heart of Alton Baker Park, to an initially skeptical board of Lane County commissioners, Hollister went with him, and witnessed the sowing of the first seeds for Pre's Trail.

"I get a lot of feedback from the book," said Hollister, retired and living in Sequim, Wash., with his wife, Wendy. "I probably get three or so e-mails every day, and people call me. And there are a lot of different words, because they're all coming from different places in terms of how they read the book, but the word that keeps coming up is `inspirational.'"

The book is that, on a number of levels, including Hollister's frank discussion of the 2004 diagnosis that he had rectal cancer. He'd started writing the book earlier that year, and was forced to put the project on hold as he underwent cancer treatment and surgery. Last year, after being clear for nearly two years, he learned that the cancer had spread to his liver, lungs and adrenal gland.

"It was a big surprise to me, and to a lot of people," he said of the original diagnosis. "People look at you as a symbol of good health at your age; you feel like you're doing all the right things. I was running almost every day, and Wendy's a great cook and we eat the right foods, so you just don't know. ...

"I'm not complaining at this point. I'm doing pretty well with the treatment. It becomes part of your daily routine. At first you say `Gosh, I don't really know if I can do this.' And then you find out `Well, you better do it,' and you get better at it, and after awhile it's part of your regular day. ... I've got a great team of doctors, and I'm listening to them like my old coaches."

Hollister said his current treatment "has everything on the retreat;" the tumors have left the liver and adrenal gland, and the right side of his lungs, and he's enthused about attending Sunday's Pre Classic, an event largely sponsored by Nike, and the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials later this month.

The original bout with cancer ultimately spurred Hollister to return to the book project early last year.

"It was like I was on a mission," he said. "I guess from everything I experienced, I realized that if I don't do this now, I don't know what might come next. ... I had a real sense of urgency."

He wrote the equivalent of more than 500 pages, edited to 326 with the help of his writing coaches, Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Parts of the book are remarkably blunt; there are former co-workers, and even an athlete or two, not portrayed in the most flattering of lights.

"I made an effort to make this an accurate and honest portrayal of the events that happened and the people that I knew," Hollister said. "There are going to be a few people who won't be really happy that they're in the book, and actually I cut back on some stuff that was a lot worse than that.

"We did have a lot of battles, and that was one of my reasons for not leaving these things out. I didn't want people to think the Nike rise was one straight linear shot with no issues along the way. Shoot, we had fights every day, externally and internally. I just felt `you need to tell that story.'"

In Hollister's view, the course for Nike was set in motion by Bowerman, "Buck" Knight and Prefontaine. As he writes in the book:

"As a navigator, in charting the stars, three perfect sightings give you a celestial fix, a road map on the water. For this infant company, Bowerman was the first star. Buck was the second, representative of all of us who worked there. Pre completed the Nike corporate celestial fix. He was so demanding, yet so inspiring. We knew that if we could satisfy him, we could satisfy anybody."

(Prefontaine, by the way, had business cards printed up, billing himself as the company's International Public Relations Manager. "Which I thought was pretty funny, because of his profanity," Hollister said. "He would have been terrible at that job. But he did seem himself as an ambassador for the brand, and he took some pride in that.")

Hollister's book is that story, and more: About Prefontaine, whose death in an auto accident came shortly after a post-race gathering that included Bowerman, Pre's parents and others at Hollister's home. About Knight, and Bowerman and the company they inspired. About sneaker wars and battles for the allegiance of athletes, and battles on their behalf. About Joaquim Cruz, the Brazilian who ran for Oregon, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first women's Olympic marathon wearing Nike shoes, and all the creative forces that took Nike "out of nowhere" to now.

"It's not about how long you live, but how you contribute," wrote Hollister, who last fall was presented with Nike's first corporate lifetime achievement award. "It's about doing your best, and doing the right thing. It's about recovering from your mistakes and not giving up. It's about the baton pass to a new generation. It's about the realization that you cannot go it alone. It takes a team."
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Title Annotation:Olympics Track-Field Trials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 3, 2008
Words:1458
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