It all started with Run-DMC. The pioneering rap group who became worldwide celebrities singing about their sneakers. “My Adidas” was the song that hooked millions, and it hooked me too, a 10-year-old kid from New Jersey who found a way to convince his mother that he had to have the shell-toe adidas.
It wasn’t long after that when I started my first paying job, selling newspaper subscriptions door to door, and there was no debating what I would spend my first paycheck on. The Air Jordan 2 cost $100. A price that doesn’t sound like much today, but in 1987 it was considered outrageous. At least to my mother, but she didn’t need to know how much they cost because I bought them with my own hard-earned money.
Little did I know then that I was starting a love affair with sneakers that would last a lifetime. 30 years later I can still get a thrill from opening a pair of kicks I’ve been chasing after. My wife can’t begin to understand it, but my two sons are starting to get it, because slowly but surely the same sneaker bug that bit me more than three decades ago is starting to bite them too.
In my 20 years as a sports writer I’ve come to find out that there are sneaker heads in all walks of life, and in every sport. The soccer world is teaming with them. It can be the team’s manager, captain, rookie and even camera man. It can be the young American player, or even the veteran from Eastern Europe who points to your Jordans and gives you the, “Nice kicks,” that can make your day.
Many of them have similar stories to me, the same tale of being the kid who didn’t have much growing up, but found a way to get the sneakers that became their most prized possessions. Even athletes who now can have any sneakers they want will wax nostalgically about their first pair of Jordans or first pair of adidas.
You also get those athletes who have to set aside their love for certain sneakers because of contractual obligations. I’ve heard, “I wish I could wear those,” more times than I can count, while also hearing stories of the shoe collections gathering dust in basements, waiting for the day when show contracts might expire, or when the players might retire and once again be free to wear whatever sneaker they want.
Non-sneakerheads struggle to understand the appeal, and fail to realize that the emotional connection isn’t as much about the combination of leather, plastic and rubber that makes up the shoe. For some, it can be simply about the look, and the style, and how it helps you present yourself. For others, it is about the feeling of completeness and of security a prized sneaker can provide. A cool pair of kicks can be like armor for a kid who doesn’t have much else, helping some find the confidence to be their true selves.
That’s a feeling you don’t forget, which is why you see sneakerheads go particularly crazy about the shoes they wore when they were young. A few years ago I made it my mission to track down a pair of white, black, and red Jordan 2s, more than 25 years after I bought an original pair. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t remember the actual act of buying the original pair, and had no pictures of me wearing them back then. That didn’t stop me from opening the box of my new pair and smiling, suddenly conjuring up emotions I hadn’t felt in ages.
I’ve only worn those Jordan 2s a couple of times, but I take them out of the box every now and then and just stare at them, like looking at an old photo album, remembering the days when it was the only pair of sneakers I had, back when I never could have imagined owning as many sneakers as I own now, back when I couldn’t have imagined being a journalist lucky enough to have a career writing about sports.
That emotional connection to sneakers isn’t confined to the United States. Step onto any continent with a fresh pair of kicks and you will feel some love. I’ve covered four World Cups, on four different continents, and never failed to find conversations about kicks. From Tokyo to Cape Town, Berlin to Rio, sneakerheads have stories to share, and memories resembling the ones experienced here in the USA.
I will be partnering with Kicks to the Pitch in the coming months to bring you stories like mine, speaking to players and coaches and people throughout the American soccer community to share their love affair with sneakers. A love affair enjoyed by more people than you might realize.