Byline: Lorilyn Rackl Daily Herald Staff Writer
Before teenagers scrape together more than $100 for a pair of Air Jordans and show them off on the basketball court, chances are someone at North Central College had a pair.
And if you want to be the first to get a glimpse of Dennis Rodman's new shoe, complete with zipper, you'll have better luck looking at feet on the Naperville college's campus than on shelves of the biggest shoe stores.
That's because before many athletic shoes hit the market, they go through a rite of passage of sorts: The Athlete's Foot WearTest Center.
The facility's mission: Develop a personality profile on athletic shoes to see which are best suited to which feet and why.
That information is passed along to employees at more than 650 Athlete's Foot stores worldwide. They, in turn, help customers wade through a sea of choices in the ever-expanding athletic footwear market.
The Athlete's Foot WearTest Center, the first and only facility of its kind to be operated by a retailer, has been tucked away for the last 12 years in a small office at the Merner Fieldhouse at North Central College.
That's where people go to offer their feet as guinea pigs, hoping to try the hottest trends in athletic shoe technology.
"We give away more shoes than some stores sell," said Director
The 44-year-old former running coach changed his career path from priest to footwear consultant in the 1970s. He says he's sure there's a joke to be made about soles/souls, but he hasn't quite figured it out yet.
Brunick estimates the test facility hands out more than $250,000 worth of shoes a year to hundreds of "testers," from toddlers to 78-year-olds.
Most people don't get to keep the shoes after the 10-week trial period. Often the shoes are sent back to the Athlete's Foot headquarters in Atlanta, given to charities or used as props during one of Brunick's many lectures on athletic footwear.
So what's in it for the testers?
A free foot exam by a podiatrist, for one.
Each tester has a foot evaluation to help pair them with a particular shoe. No detail is overlooked. If there's a bunion, it's documented.
If the foot is wide, it may be ideal for a certain brand of shoe. The doctor even measures the foot because most people think their feet are smaller than they are, Brunick said.
Not just anyone can be a tester.
You have to have some affiliation with the college, whether it be as a student, alumni or employee. And you have to be fitness-oriented. You don't have to be on the basketball team to test a basketball shoe, but you have to at least play the sport.
"A lot of people come in and think they don't have to do anything and they'll get free shoes," Brunick said. …