Back in 1986, shortly before the University of Kansas basketball season was to begin, Larry Brown, then the head coach, motioned KU assistant trainer Mark Cairns out to the Allen Field House floor for a demonstration of something called the Strength Shoe. Cairns took one look at the footwear and wondered if Brown needed a new pair of prescription horn-rims.
Who could blame him? The shoes looked like a pair of white low-cut sneakers with small waffle irons attached to the bottoms. Each sole was about six inches wide and stretched from the tip of the toe to the middle of the arch. From the arch back there was nothing but a 1½-inch drop from shoe to gym floor.
Cairns thought, These weird-looking shoes are supposed to increase your vertical jump five to seven inches, lower your speed in the 40-yard dash by two tenths of a second, improve your flexibility and strength in the lower leg? C'mon.
Cairns has since changed his mind. "I thought it was just a gimmick, somebody trying to make a buck," he says now. That was before Marvin Mattox, a KU junior forward at the time, completed a half-hour workout in the Strength Shoe, laced up his regular high tops and then stunned Brown and Cairns by doing a 360-degree dunk—his first ever.
This is how the Strength Shoe works: Place the balls of your feet on the thickest book you can find. Your heels will dip down, and before long, you will feel a pull in your calves because, without support for your heels, you will stretch the Achilles tendon and overload the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Do that for a while in the Strength Shoes and you will lengthen and strengthen those same tendons and muscles, enabling you to run, jump and move better.
Of course, the shoes take a little getting used to. When you walk in them, your heels bump slightly against the ground, and running in them is even trickier. They feel clumsy and heavy at first, but soon you are sprinting and jumping without thinking twice about them. For beginners, it's the next day, when the calves are as taut as piano wire, that you know you had something different on your feet.
Ever since the days of good ol' P.F. Flyers, people have claimed that their sneakers make them run faster, jump higher. Paul Cox, the inventor of the Strength Shoe, not only claims that his shoe (if used properly) increases speed and jumping ability, but he can also indicate by how much. He can click off success story after success story, dropping the names of such Strength Shoe clients as St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith and outfielder Vince Coleman, Minnesota Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti and dozens of major college basketball players.
Cox, who began working on the idea in 1966, says he wanted to make a shoe that would help the average athlete. In 1972, after tinkering for a while in his Jackson, Miss., garage, he presented a Jackson State sophomore running back named Walter Payton with the second pair ever made: They were black leather football shoes mounted on a prototype platform sole.
Cox sold the patent rights to Strength Footwear Inc. in 1986 and has since watched the sales grow, from next to nothing in 1986 to 7,000 pairs in 1987. According to David Bouza, president of the company, sales for 1988 were between 15,000 and 20,000 pairs. The shoes don't come cheap: $99.50 a pair, less if you buy in volume.
Several Houston Oilers now use the shoes, all with the blessings of Oiler strength and rehabilitation coordinator Steve Watterson, who checked with the St. Louis Cardinals before giving the O.K. "The shoe makes your calves bigger and stronger," he says. "It allows you to have stronger legs, jump higher and run faster."
As for safety, Watterson reports no problems. The same goes for KU's Cairns. "If you think about it, they should help to lessen injuries," says Cairns. The shoes come with a 28-page training manual: required reading, say the makers, who emphasize that people must not try to do more than the manual indicates—the Strength Shoe program has been carefully worked out to avoid injuries.
To order, call 1-800-451-JUMP or write Strength Footwear Inc., 2701 Independence St., Metairie, La. 70006.
Gene Wojciechowski is a sportswriter for "The Los Angeles Times."