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Phil Knight : The Man Behind the Myth

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It is quite fitting that Nike Corp. be named after a Greek Goddess, as the company’s co-founder, Phillip Hampson Knight, has become somewhat of a mythical figure himself. Phillip Hampson Knight, the 7.3 billion dollar net worth, enigmatic figure at the helm of the most successful athletic company in the history of the world, has become a legend, especially here in Oregon, his home state.  Since Nike currently sells 40% of the nation’s athletic footwear, it is sometimes easy to forget about the company’s humble beginnings.

It started at a time when Phil Knight and his friend, Nike co-founder, college track coach, mentor, and source of inspiration, Bill Bowerman, would travel around to running events, participate, and, afterwards, sell running shoes out of the back of their car. With one’s gaze fixed upon today’s Nike shoes, absolute pinnacles of athletic footwear, it is easy to forget that the road to these innovations began with two determined men and a dream to create better running shoes for all.

I recently had the incredible opportunity to speak with the legend they call Phil Knight. Admittedly, as a naïve sophomore in college, I was surprised when I first heard his voice. It did not boom down from the top of a mountain. Instead Knight’s voice was calm and collected, passionate and intelligent, humorous and understanding. And above all, human. I was speaking to a legend, and it was remarkable to experience that legend transforming into mortal flesh and blood before me. I spoke to the side of Phil Knight which many people overlook: the human side.

Phil Knight is an accomplished and wildly successful man, but he has been, and still is for that matter, as vulnerable to defeat as any of us are. In the face of such legendary success, we sometimes overlook the fact this man faced the same setbacks in business and in life that we all face, or will face. The most important lesson to learn from Knight’s life story is that, when we are armed with determination and a dream, even during our darkest days there are no such things as unconquerable obstacles to greatness.

The year 1972 held some of those darker days for Phil Knight. For a moment, an unsettling yet familiar feeling had coursed through Phil Knight’s veins. The Japanese company for which he was distributing shoes in the US, Onitsuka, had pulled out of their contract with Knight’s company, then named Blue Ribbon Sports. By attempting to cut Knight out of the picture and signing contracts with five other distributors in the US, Onitsuka was attempting to take over the United States shoe market that Knight had been so successful in capturing. Now Phil Knight was left with no shoes to sell. Knight had to ask himself, had he lost? Had his dream been prematurely shut down?

Knight had lost before, but he had learned how to deal with defeat. Under the tough love and guidance of Bill Bowerman, he learned that with a bit of determination, adversity could be transformed into opportunity.

“First and foremost,” Knight remarked, “Bill Bowerman was really a teacher of competitiveness and determination, and I think that was what he was a teacher of as much as anything.”

Phil Knight believes that determination is the single most important characteristic that anyone who wants to become a winner can possess. And, refreshingly, he adamantly believes that determination is not an inherent characteristic of personality. “Oh, I think determination absolutely can be learned,” Knight enthusiastically told me, “And I think it’s probably more learned than natural. No question that Bill Bowerman played a large part in inspiring determination within me. Determination is absolutely one of the most important lessons anyone can learn from sports.”

“He also taught me how to prepare for a competition,” Knight reflected. “He taught me how to get my mind totally focused on the competition, how to rise up and do my best for that competition, and to accept the win or the loss afterwards. Those are all lessons which I will never forget.” In that moment in 1972, the lessons Phil Knight had learned from Bill Bowerman served him well.

Knight paused as he recalled that dark day in 1972, the human element in his voice more powerful than ever. “There were times in Nike’s history when we were hanging by a thread. I mean, we were almost out of business. I think in all of those hard times, one’s moments from their youth and the athletic field are helpful, because they taught me how to lose, how to fight a loss, and how to come back from the loss that I had.

I think that was a big help to me when dealing with stressful situations. If one is an entrepreneur, there are going to be a lot of dark days, days when they are not sure if they are even going to make payroll the next week.  One needs to be emotionally and intellectually equipped to deal with that, and I think that, regarding the emotional aspect of facing adversity, one can really learn no better lesson than in the athletic arena.”

One specific defeat from his track days remains vivid in Knight’s mind. “In my mind,” Knight recalled, “the biggest race that I lost was a race for second place against USC in a dual meet. USC hadn’t lost in something like 125 dual meets, and I was beaten by a step, one fraction of a second. I lost. It would have been a four-point swing, and we lost by eight. I remember that to this day. But if you compete in the arena, you’re going to have your share of losses in the long run, and you have to just try and learn from them.”

The University of Oregon team did not let this defeat keep them down. Knight smiles as he remembers the determination of the team, “That same team went back literally a week later, and in the four mile relay at the Drake relays, set a new national record. It felt good to have a part in that win.”

However, Knight was adamant that the most important competition does not occur between two teams or two individuals. “It is paramount to remember that, except in very, very, few cases, there is always someone in the world who can and will beat you.” Knight paused and chuckled, adding, “Sometimes he or she is in the adjoining dorm room.” Returning to a more serious tone, however, Knight noted that, ultimately, “in all competitions you are competing against yourself. So the real test is standing up under competitive pressures and setting a personal record.”

To further flesh out the man behind the myth, it is important to note that, while Phil Knight was one of the most enthusiastic and determined track athletes during his time at the U of O, he was not the best. “Neither for the half mile nor the mile,” Knight casually recalled, “I ran a decent 1:53 half mile though.”

“I was on a really good team for three years,” he adds, “and it was a great experience for me.”

Knight then took a brief moment to reflect upon his days as a member of the University of Oregon track team, “Wins are easier to take than losses. I was never one to gloat on the wins much, but I think sometimes I dwelled a bit too much on the defeats.”

I believe that Knight was being modest when he used the word, “dwelled.” He didn’t exactly dwell on the defeats. He analyzed his losses and, with a great deal of determination and tenacity, discovered how to turn each one into an opportunity to learn and grow not only as an athlete, but also as a person. “There is no question that day in 1972 was a very, very dark day, but in retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened to us.”

Knight used the loss of the contract with Onitsuka as an opportunity to leave the hastily created brand name Blue Ribbon Sports behind, and to create a new, stronger, brand.  Now instead of selling someone else’s shoes, he would create and sell his own shoe designs.

“Nike came about in a dark moment,” Phillip Knight recalled, “Basically, Onitsuka pulled out of our contract and set up contracts with five other distributors in the United States and we had nothing to sell.”

Phil Knight did not despair however, and quickly took matters into his own hands. “We knew where the shoe factories were, and we said next time we do this we are going to sell under our own brand name. We would pick a name and we would make this name mean something. But first we needed to pick one. So we had 45 employees, each one submitted a name, and we picked the one that we all wanted. We picked Nike.”

It was a fitting name, Nike being the name of the Greek Goddess of Victory. The Goddess Nike was typically represented with a pair of wings, representing the fleeting nature of victory. Perhaps this symbolizes Phil Knight’s tendency to always remain humble, not to let his victories inflate his ego, and to always learn from his losses.

Nike sold $3.2 million worth of shoes in 1972, and over the next ten years, revenues for the company skyrocketed.

Phil Knight recalled the 1974 meeting he had with Bill Bowerman that sparked Nike’s epic quest to perfect athletic footwear, “We had a meeting and decided that there had been virtually no innovation in running soles in the last 50 years. So Bowerman literally went back that weekend and stamped out a urethane sole on his wife’s waffle iron.” That year, the Waffle Trainer, featuring Bowerman’s unique Waffle Sole, became the best-selling training shoe in the country. In 1980, Nike surpassed Adidas to become the industry leader in the United States. The rest is history.

Due to his rich, inspiring, yet tumultuous life, Phil Knight has a great deal of incredibly valuable advice for the future athletes, entrepreneurs, leaders, and winners of the world. Nike represents more than just athletics, and Phil Knight honestly hopes and believes that Nike helps create winners.

“It begins with the product,” Knight reflected, “which is designed to let the athlete train longer while remaining injury free. Then there is the game or meet product, which is lightweight and comfortable. In addition, we have a great network of people who have performed at a high level from Michael Jordan to Carl Lewis to Cynthia Cooper and a few others, and we try to make those people available to counsel up and coming young athletes.

Sports can play a huge role in a young person’s education. It takes a good coach, the right competitive situation, and the right attitude of the student, but sports can be as valuable in a person’s education as any subject in high school or college.”

As for advice for graduates, Knight thinks back to his days after graduating from the University of Oregon and later Stanford University. “I think it is very important for young graduates to think, not about the first job, but about where he/she wants to be in ten years, and to think about that in taking that first job. Don’t take that job in order to make the most money. Take it for the best learning experience possible.”

In the remaining moments in which I spoke with Phil Knight, he made sure to address one of the most important differences between athletics and life, “One thing about sports is that the scorecard lets you know how you are performing. Off the playing field, where no score is published or noticed by the outside world, it is important to be honest with yourself on how you are doing. In a lot of ways having a good teacher or coach can help that effort, and the need for that does not end with college.”

And as I look toward my own future, Knight’s words are still fresh in my mind.  I hope that I, and everyone who reads this article, will forever remember Phil Knight’s life story and his valuable advice. I hope that we all some day will be able to match his sense of determination and reach his pinnacle of greatness. However, I acknowledge that sometimes we will stumble, and sometimes we will fall. After all, we are only human. Including the myth, the legend, the man; the one they call Phil Knight.

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28 Comments - (Leave a comment! »)

  • Brenda – Louisiana said:

    It never once dawned on me that there was one man, much less two men behind the brand NIKE. I just thought it was another corporation that had been in existence for forever. But it wasn’t. It came about because of another corporation being sneaky. In a way it is sad, but also a blessing. A blessing because we now have the NIKE shoe brand and all that goes with it.
    The creator of NIKE gives credit where credit is due. He gives it to his partner; Bill Bowerman who taught him fortitude. The man who mentored him into not giving up when things did not go his way. He also gives credit to his co-workers/employees who helped come up with the name for the new company. He could have taken credit for all of it, but he did not.
    Phil Knight was not just an entrepreneur, but also an athlete. And an athlete knows how to go on after losing. And after he was dumped by the other shoe company he went on. He could have quit, but did not. Today, he has amassed a huge fortune, but never forgets where he comes. He is from Oregon, where the weather at times, can be the worse. He could have given up and moved away. Instead, Phil Knight persevered. His perseverance shows in his company.
    I enjoyed the article. I was able to learn something new and found it to be quite interesting.

  • Mehmed – Turkey said:

    I like the angle of the story and where Tyler took it.

  • Dale – New Mexico said:

    This story on Phil Knight was informative and interesting and I feel I got a good sense of the man.

  • Matt – Alabama said:

    My overall opinion of the article is that it is of a good quality; well written and successfully expressed to the reader. It immediately relates to the reader that Phil Knight may be worth billions today but that he did in fact have much humbler beginnings. The article relates a small time Oregon start up and idea of two friends which morphs into a dreamlike reality of great success. It proved to be an inspiring read which was able to express Phil’s own personal characteristics as well as the traits he felt were most important to his success. The shared emotions of Phil can wear off on the reader and leave them evaluating their own Self worth in these areas. This is a good quality to any paper or article and is a definite plus for this one. The writer also does of good job flowing from one given area or topic to another which I feel was vital to the success of this overall interesting and vibrant read. I also commend Tyler on leaving the reader with the exact feelings he had hoped to inspire in them by the end of the story, as stated in his closing paragraph; a feeling of lasting inspiration held together by the valuable advice of Phil knight and a lingering sense of determination.

    I feel this was a well chosen article and successfully represents the other types of articles a reader can expect to find on this site.

  • Tyler (writer) said:

    Alisa, you make valid points, but so does Alex. I think the fact that both of you can make valid arguments regarding this issue demonstrates how tricky the issue really is. My personal opinion is that it’s not so black and white as some make it out to be. From our U.S. perspective, the working conditions of Nike’s workers are harsh; but on the other hand, these hundreds of thousands of individuals who were once living in abject poverty now have jobs thanks to Nike. One also has to acknowledge the fact that we can’t demand reforms from one single company. The efforts you advocate must be global, all-encompassing, and keep all actors accountable. If Nike would institute the reforms you and many others ask for, we could applaud their efforts all we want, but they would fail to be a globally competitive company. Then other companies, most likely companies in other countries subject to much less regulation and companies who wouldn’t even dream of making the progressive changes that Nike made.

    Nike, while perhaps not being a perfect company, did create a great deal of good.

    In short, I didn’t want to get into a political and economic argument in my article. I think that no one can deny that Phil Knight is a Winner in his own right. He had a dream, he followed it, he achieved it; despite great hardship. That is what this article focused on, and that is what I believed was important for the purposes of this article.

  • Alex the Editor said:

    Alisa,

    You are presenting the Fox News version. If you research this you will find just the opposite is true.

    Improving lives is a key step in improving profits when you work in the developing world. Nike learned this first hand by collaborating with suppliers to limit overtime, ensure freedom of association and extend other conditions taken for granted in the industrialized world.
    Who would willingly work 70 or 80 hours every week, or send their young children to toil in a factory? For many people living in developing countries, the obvious answer is “people who want to eat.” That’s a reality Nike faced when it first started working with its suppliers in the third world.

    When the company began contracting in these regions, providing jobs was good enough. By the end of the ‘90s that changed.The western world was outraged to learn of the sweatshop working conditions that seemed endemic in developing nations. Nike, an extremely recognizable brand using offshore manufacturing, became one of the major fall guys.

    The company took immediate steps to correct the situation, implementing a code of social responsibility throughout its supply chain that improved working conditions for some 800,000 employees at 700 factories in 52 countries. Its goal was systemic change for both its suppliers and the entire industry.

  • Alisa – Ohio said:

    I was disappointed that the writer seemed to over-glamorize the entrepreneur. I can appreciate the concepts of applying the mindset of sports to business to the extent where you pick yourself up and try and try again no matter what happens. Nike has been highly criticized, however, for using sweatshops and child labor to attain the “greatness” the writer of this article mentioned. This article doesn’t seem appropriate at all for a site like this that claims to seek to elevate those who address the troubles of the world and make it a better place. It may be that the writer admires Nike for bringing money to its’ community in Oregon, but at the price of other communities in the world. I’m not an idealist. I don’t believe that anyone is all good or all bad. I don’t believe it’s possible to be. Everything we do has a consequence that could have both positive and negative effects. I can admire Phil Knight in many ways as I’m a fan of capitalism, but only as long as capitalists absorb negative consequences as well as the positive rewards. I can admire Phil Knight in many ways but I would have been more interested in hearing about initiatives Phil Knight could implement to balance out the way his corporation gets ahead by exploiting many people with something like offering profit-sharing to all employees world-wide.

  • Ryan -- Pennsylvania said:

    I enjoyed reading about the human side of this wildly successful man who did not let the obstacles thrown at him — losing his only supplier of shoes — when starting out deter his ambition to chase his dreams.

    I also liked the line on how Knight and his partner were initially selling shoes “out of the back of their car.” This one sentence paints a powerful image of a humble professional beginning.

    The story also does a nice job of highlighting how athletic competition can provide powerful lessons about succeeding in life both personally and professionally.

    Indeed, Mr. Knight notes in the interview that under the pressures of everyday life people are ultimately competing against themselves to achieve their goals and perform their responsibilities. I found this story to be a motivational one that highlights the timeless theme of never giving up in the quest to grow and succeed.

    The one criticism I have is with the use of quotes from Mr. Knight. The writer describes the unfortunate situation in 1972 with Onitsuka and this anecdote serves as the example of the dogged determination to succeed that defines Phil Knight.

    The only problem is that no quotes are attributed to him in this part of the story. A few lines from Knight about how this would have impacted his life at that point would have made a better article. Did he have a young family to support? Was he deep in debt with his first business venture? Did this unfortunate turn of events make him think of quitting?

    The first quote from Knight in the story refers to his admiration & respect for his partner Bill Bowerman.

    I like the theme to your magazine Mr. Scandalios. Thanks and have a good day.

  • Rory -- Florida said:

    Nike has been a big part of my sporting life. And, I’ve alway respected Phil Knight’s philanthropy: how he’s used his donations, creativity, and influence to position the UO football program as a winner and, now, cultural icon.

    Phil Knight has also been a mystery to me. The story revealed a vulnerable side all entrepreneurs face. I agree that dedication and persistence can be learned in the sporting arena. And lessons learned from sports can be transferred to entrepreneurial challenges – those gut-check moments.

  • Jatinder -- Canada said:

    The Phil Knight piece was intriguing to me because it gave an interesting perspective on his success and how he crafted arguably the most dominant empire in athletics.

  • Sarah -- Canada said:

    I read Tyler Scandalios’s article on Nike guru Phil Knight in the hopes of discovering something new and unique about a man I already knew so little about.

    The decision to take on the human side of a man defined by the corporation he heads was interesting and, it seems, characteristic of the work your zine is looking to publish. I loved the author’s revisiting of the company’s past and the personal tone he took on in explaining his own admiration for the man he was interviewing.

    Having said that, I have found such personal pieces often fall into the same trap; that of over editorializing. Granted, Knight’s story is one that conveys strong emotions and is likely to inspire many; but in my opinion, his story alone could do both of these things without any of the over dramatizing or fluffy narrative happening throughout the piece.

    Tyler’s vocabulary though, is great- colorful, passionate and varied. His choice of quotes was also quite interesting, and though I often find myself letting the interviewee tell most of the story as I jump in to fill in the blanks; I enjoyed and admired the tone of the dialogue happening between Tyler and Mr. Knight. The author was also great at sticking to his main idea and theme, that of perseverance and struggling through the hard times in order to become a better and stronger person. He never once lost his focus and his stream fell right into line with the messages vehicled by your zine; those of hope, strength and the power of one.

    This, of course, is but my humble opinion. But I genuinely enjoyed the piece and appreciate the work you and your team are trying to accomplish.

  • Martine -- Canada said:

    I really like the lead.

  • Victoria -- Hawaii said:

    I enjoyed the ‘Phil Knight : The Man Behind the Myth’ article. I was reminded that even though we all come from humble beginnings and face major setbacks, we can all succeed in the end. This story also spoke to my current situation of looking for employment to jump start my career. The writer’s constant emphasis and reminders of the urgency of never giving up and having constant determination is what sold me on the article.

  • Lauren from New Jersey said:

    As a former athlete, I could relate when he mentioned how his involvement in sports allowed him to perservere through life’s difficulties. I enjoyed clicking my way through Winners Within Us™
    .

  • tim said:

    I had the opportunity to read the article “Phil Knight: The Man Behind the Myth.” These are always extremely inspiring articles to read. To know that a billionaire started from humble beginnings and was able to build an empire, and struggled at points while doing so, can motivate people beyond words. It shows that individuals, no matter the circumstances, can find it within themselves to create greatness. In Mr. Knight’s case, this “greatness” has developed into one of the most successful athletic apparell companies in the world.

    The article was very well written and told the story in a very “readable” fashion. I was curious as to why some sentences were in a bolded font. I haven’t seen a format similar to this before. As someone who works in a non-profit setting amongst large numbers of “unsung heros” it’s encouraging to see magazine of this nature.

  • JT --0 New York said:

    I was particularly intrigued by the profile article of Nike co-founder Phil Knight. It was very effective in capturing the personality of a man who is determined and focused on attaining the best in himself, despite business adversities and circumstances that seem insurmountable. The author described how Mr. Knight did not let early setbacks stop him and how he was able to learn from defeats in his athletic career to come back stronger. I strongly agree with the point made about athletics can teach young people lessons that may be applied to other areas in life.

  • Antonio -- New Mexico said:

    I found this article enjoyable and uplifting. I appreciate the parallels between athletics and life, and the inner competitor. At the same time, the interview shows how Phil Knight gives credit to Bill Bowerman. I think your magazine is laden with messages of hope and the better things about the human race. I find that very appealing. I found this article on Knight a little long, but that didn’t stop me from finishing it, just in case I found another clue on good living and success. I do believe that good news is something we lack in our society. Thanks

  • Casey -- Missouri said:

    I enjoyed the Nike article. I thought it was very well-written. I also thought that the readers posed some good comments and made the article even more interesting through different view points.

  • BBE -- Utah said:

    When I saw Winners Within Us, I was very impressed by the scope of motivational and inspirational stories of real people. I love that you’ve created a vehicle inside the internet that celebrates such positive people, experiences, and places in the world. I particularly liked how the articles were categorized and the fact that they were categorized by a person’s background. I can imagine a company looking for a special speaker, for example, and heading to your website to review big names like Phil Knight and sometimes practically unknown but equally motivating people, like Lori Booth or Bella, who each came near to losing their lives. I am touched by each of these people. Well done!

  • robert said:

    Overall I liked the article. I particularly liked how the author repeatedly used the imagery of the juxtaposition between the mythical and human aspects of Mr. Knight and his company but always made sure that the human side was what the reader ended up noticing, since that is the part that is often times left out when speaking of a corporate giant.

  • Anand said:

    I like your magazine and the style of writing that revolves around actual quotes and life’s experiences of the subjects. I particularly enjoyed reading about Kroc and Knight, founders of two of the greatest businesses of our time.

  • T said:

    Yes, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • MK said:

    It’s a complicated situation, isn’t it?

    I’d like to define where exactly you’re criticizing the multinational corporations such as Nike- because it seems like the argument is against exploitation of workers, referring to long work schedules, poor working conditions and a terrible quality of life.

    I believe people can protest minimal wages, dangerous conditions and unfair hours- but you can’t cite a poor quality of life as an attack on multinational corporations… because by the numbers, the most devastated people in the world are not the slum dwellers of India but those in sub-saharan Africa, people in countries with minimal resources, no jobs, overrun with diseases and millions, approximately 13 million, children orphaned by AIDs alone.

    With this in perspective, I would argue that factories are horrible, but are an improvement over areas where there is no foreign investment or sweatshops- like Sub-Saharan Africa- the only region on earth with countries that have life expectancies under 40 years.

    Asian countries known for sweatshop conditions (such as India, Indonesia, Bangladesh) have both greater life expectancies and greater per capita income- next to nothing by first world standards, but rising. People will suffer in factories, working long hours in dangerous conditions. Before the factories, however, the problems of poverty still existed- lack of access to medical care, lack of food to eat, etcetera.

    Your argument suggests that it is Nike’s responsibility to see that it’s sweatshop workers receive medical care and fair wages. As a corporation, Nike is more likely to withdraw it’s factories from a country that demands significantly better pay and benefits than to concede them. We don’t have sweatshops in America now, but at one time we did- back when our standard of living was much less. Factories will continue to move to the areas with the lowest standard of living in order to use the cheapest possible labor at the lowest expense/ required benefits. Eventually, as the world continues to modernize, corporations will be forced to pay workers more- AND be forced to provide better benefits- because the bare minimum, workers in the poorest areas of the world, will have attained the first level of economic development.

    Some of the problems we’re discussing are similar to those associated with the industrial revolution that largely shaped the world we presently inhabit. People should want better conditions, better wages- unions should exist and unions should fight for their workers- but don’t write off Nike as destroying the lives of these people. Nike is trying to use these people as a resource- not trying to help them- but inadvertantly, these people are better off, as foreign investment tends to lead to overall growth and development.

    I don’t like Starbucks, nor am I particularly a fan of coffee in general, but Starbucks is a multinational corporation that has lots of positive press concerning the treatment of their workers and working conditions. They offer much better than average wages and some benefits for their overseas plantation workers, all the while enjoying enormous success across the globe.

    I would argue that companies should care for their workers and help them enjoy respectable living conditions, but in discussions such as this, we also need to realize how radically different our worlds are- minimum wage in America for an hour of work is generally more than 5X the pay a person living in extreme poverty will get in 5 days of work. You state that Nike workers are getting abut $1.25 per day, and lobbying for $3 a day. The people are wishing they could have $3 a day- which is next to nothing by G8 first world standards!

    So, as a general question, how fair is fair, and when can we be satisfied that workers are being treated right? No one is saying $1.25 a day is fair- but would we say $3 a day is fair? It’s a step in the right direction, I suppose.

  • Sean Creighton said:

    I am little confused why you decided to glorify an individual responsible for paying factory workers in underdeveloped countries 13 cents an hour. It’s one thing to start from next to nothing. It’s another to ensure that others will not be able to do the same.

    I guess it was ingenious.

  • Garrett Thierry - Personal Trainer said:

    Found your site just now- really great!

  • Denise Turney said:

    Great informative and motivational article. I enjoyed reading it from top to bottom.

    Good job!

    Denise

  • Todd Ratajik said:

    That was a very well written and enthralling article, I enjoyed it very much.

  • jamaya said:

    I am so inspired by this man. To think that he started this giant company from the trunk of his car. That is absolutely incredible! I am a student at the U of O and until I read this article I only knew him as an incredibly generous man who has given the U of O so much. This article showed me a human side of him that motivates me. If he can do it, why not me, too. Go Ducks!

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