In sports, or with any competition or public appearance for that matter, half of the battle is a gray area that involves motivation, ability, strategy and determination.
The other half?
Not so gray.
To put it simply, half of the battle is looking good.
It worked for the inmates of “The Longest Yard” in their football game against the prison guards. It was true for those who visited “Fernando’s Hideaway” and looked “mah-valous” on the Saturday Night Live skit starring Billy Crystal. Looking good most certainly helped the marching band in the musical “The Music Man.” And don’t forget how the Ohio State Buckeyes and Oregon Ducks looked in last January’s college football national championship game.
So, with a new high school football season almost upon us, why not the Westhill Vikings, too?
Thanks to Nike, the Westhill High School football team will indeed be looking sharp this fall. The apparel company and its CEO, Mark Parker, a 1973 Westhill graduate, have donated 80 home and away, top-of-the-line, purple and white uniforms to the football program this season. The Vikings might not win the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship, but there is little doubt that they will be the best-looking team in the league, if not the entire region.
“Nike told us we will be the best-dressed team in all of New England, high school or college,” Westhill coach Frank Marcucio said. “Looking good is a big part of becoming a winning program.”
Nike has donated Westhill these unique uniforms — the national championship model worn by Ohio State and Oregon — worth $409 each, or $30,000-40,000 wholesale ($60,000 retail). And it all happened because Marcucio found out Parker was a Westhill grad and sent him an email with a request. The answer came quickly.
“I received a note from Frank and he said they weren’t expecting much but would appreciate anything that we could do,” said Parker, who was named CEO of Nike in 2006 and recently became Chairman of the Board. “It took about two minutes for me to say OK, we’d like to help.”
Parker, 59, was a long-distance runner at Westhill and then at Penn State before landing a footwear designer position at Nike in 1979. Ten years later he was named Corporate Vice President before taking over the company, which earned $24 billion in 2014.
Throughout his meteoric rise, Parker, married with three grown children, never forgot where he came from.
“I loved my years at Westhill,” Parker said. “I try to stay grounded, to remember where I came from, it’s the way I was raised. I’m connected to sports on an everyday level, not just with Nike. My wife coaches track in high school and I believe that some of the best sports are played at the high school level. I wanted to help in any I could.”
“To have him remember Westhill like he has is pretty cool,” Marcucio added. “For him to be living out in Oregon and give back like this to his old school here is just great. I’m probably the only coach in the world getting emails from the CEO of Nike. I feel very privileged.”
And so will Marcucio’s team this fall. The Westhill program, like many schools in the area, has been the victim of a tighter athletic budget in recent years. The freshmen football team, for example, has been wearing uniforms that are 15 years old.
“I asked him if he could help us out because money is tight and he responded that he would authorize whatever we needed,” Marcucio said. “It’s just great for the program. The kids feel special. Hopefully this will help change the culture here.”
The Vikings, who lost a large number of seniors last season, including their top eight tacklers and the entire offensive line, were 3-8 in 2014. However, four of the losses were by eight points or less. In Marcucio’s four seasons the team has gone 11-21, a winning percentage that beats just about every other four-year period in the program’s history, save for a winning stretch from the mid-to-late-80s.
Actually, if you ignore four forfeitures the CIAC hit the program with in Marcucio’s first year because of an ineligible player, the record is a respectable 15-17 on the field. It is obvious the Vikings need something to get them over the hump. Could Parker’s donation be the answer?
The uniforms won’t only look great. They are, according to Parker, lighter, better fitting and move with the body in motion. They are also recycled polyester, which keeps with Nike’s commitment to ensuring the company remain environmentally conscious.
“We’re constantly pushing innovation and the design is based on athlete feedback; the athletes drive the design,” said Parker, who will also supply new uniforms for the Westhill boys and girls lacrosse teams next spring. “So performance-wise, from a collegiate standpoint, the players love it.
“But visually, it’s pretty striking,” Parker added. “Part of performing is having the feeling that you look good. That’s huge. You can get transformed if you look good. We see it happen all the time.”
The Vikings will undoubtedly take the field this month with a new-found confidence level, knowing that they look great. Marcucio, however, will attempt to keep them grounded.
“This will help out building a winning attitude,” Marcucio said. “The kids feel special, but I told them, ‘Don’t forget where you came from.’ ”
In other words, just do it . . . the same way Mark Parker did.