When Matthew Walzer speaks, important people listen.
His impassioned plea to Nike for shoes designed for people with physical challenges went viral in 2012 — remember #NikeLetter? — and sparked the athletic-gear giant to “just do it.” He collaborated with the company on the design of a groundbreaking easy-entry sneaker, was flown to Los Angeles for the product launch in July 2015 — meeting NBA superstar LeBron James in the process — and ended up in a national media spotlight.
The 20-year-old FGCU junior was back at in September at the Design For All Showcase in Washington, D.C. Walzer had the ear of the fashion industry at The White House, where he spoke on a panel about designing apparel and assistive technology for people with special needs.
“To have this on a huge stage like The White House is inspiring and empowering,” he says. “There’s not a lot of big companies designing cool things for people with disabilities. Products should be accessible to anyone. People with disabilities deserve to have choices, too.”
Walzer will be back in the spotlight Oct. 28 in Orlando when he and Nike are honored as the 2016 Corporate Advocate of the Year by The Arc, the oldest and largest advocacy organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “The thought and passion behind the design of this shoe is inspirational,” the organization says on its Catalyst Awards website.
Walzer was born two months premature and weighing less than 3 pounds. His under-developed lungs did not deliver enough oxygen to his brain, which led to cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. Doctors said he’d never walk, but Walzer overcame many of the physical limitations. He can walk independently at home and uses crutches or a motorized scooter in public.
But tying shoes remained a challenge. That’s where Nike swooshes into the story.
As a junior in high school in 2012, Walzer was weighing college options just like his peers were. Holding him back was the prospect of needing help with his shoes. How could he be independent like every other college student?
Walzer launched a call to action in an open letter on his blog to Nike CEO Mark Parker, challenging the company to become a “forerunner in producing athletic shoes that will make the difference in the quality of so many lives.” Walzer had worn Nikes all of his life and admired the company’s “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” ethos.
“Out of all the challenges I have overcome in my life, there is one that I am still trying to master, tying my shoes,” he wrote in his letter. “Cerebral palsy stiffens the muscles in the body. As a result I have flexibility in only one of my hands, which makes it impossible for me to tie my shoes. My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day.”
Walzer posted a link to the letter on Facebook and Twitter with the #NikeLetter hashtag and it went viral. Nice Kicks, a sneaker fan site, picked it up and launched a postcard campaign encouraging its members to get the word to Nike.
Within a couple of weeks, the company reached out to Walzer. Corporate footwear designer Tobie Hatfield had previously been involved in developing samples of a entry-and-closure system for athletes who have trouble getting in and out of shoes and securing them. With Walzer’s inspiration and months and months of input and feedback, Hatfield used the LeBron Soldier 8 model as the basis to develop a laceless wrap-around zipper system and a shoe that would be scalable for mass production: Flyease.
“When it went viral, it was completely unexpected,” Walzer recalls, chatting in the Cohen Center between classes. “It got more media attention than I or my family could ever have imagined. I talked to ESPN, USA Today, Sports Illustrated. It was really a privilege to do as many interviews as I did. To be an advocate for something this important on such a large scale is incredible.”
After the initial launch hoopla waned, Walzer returned to FGCU, where he’s majoring in sports management and active in Pi Kappa Alpha. He’s still in communication every few weeks with Nike, which has continued to expand its line of accessible shoes with models for different activities, different ages and different needs, such as shoes that fit over leg braces.
“There’s still so much more that can be done with this,” Walzer says. “I kind of feel like it’s my calling in a way to do this. I’ve never been able to compete in sports, but I’ve been able to have an impact by working with this company in athletics. It’s incredible the paths our lives can take.”