While Rebecca Kilburn was giving birth to her firstborn son, she remembers the obstetrician saying something odd but true: “These are the biggest feet I have ever seen on a newborn,” he told her and her husband.
“It was the best foreshadowing to what we ended up experiencing as he got older,” said the mother of two, who lives in Goodrich, Mich.
Now 14 years old, Eric Jr. stands at 6-foot-10, and wears a size 23 shoe — which, Kilburn learned, is pretty much impossible to find in stores or online.
With his soles, he has surpassed NBA great Shaquille O’Neal, who wears a size 22. Even Shaq wore large shoes for the NBA, where the average shoe size was reported as a 15.
For nonprofessional athletes, the average shoe size for a man is 10.5, which measures about 11 inches long. Meanwhile, Eric Jr.'s size 22 shoes (that he now wears, but no longer fit him) are nearly 17 inches from heel to toe, his mother said. In addition to having wide feet, Eric Jr. is also flat-footed, making it even more difficult to find shoes that fit.
“I’ve been almost terrified of his feet growing, because it’s been so hard to find shoes,” Kilburn said, adding that many standard shoe stores don’t sell anything above size 14. To date, the family has occasionally found bigger sizes at certain outlet stores.
Eric Jr.’s mother is 6-foot-2, and his father, Eric Kilburn Sr., is 6-foot-5. He has grandparents and great-grandparents that are close to 7 feet tall.
“We knew we weren’t going to have a small child,” Kilburn said, adding that her son was tested for endocrine disorders and other medical concerns, and his doctor confirmed he is healthy. “Tall is just normal for us.”
But being this tall can be burdensome.
There have been periods, his mother explained, when her son has had to wear Crocs — including during the winter months — because they couldn’t find other shoes that would fit. Eventually, the Crocs got to be tight, too.
“He just wants to be comfortable,” his mother said.
Eric hasn’t owned winter boots for the past five years and has recently been squeezing his feet into a pair of size 22 Nikes that a family friend, Kara Pattison, found at an outlet store a year ago for $29.
“My daughter and I started to really look everywhere we went for big shoes for Eric,” said Pattison, whose 14-year-old son is good friends with Eric.
Pattison — along with Eric Jr.’s extended family — have called countless shoe companies, inquiring about larger sizes, but they have had little luck.
“I was just told ‘no’ by so many companies,” said Kilburn, adding that her anxiety mounted recently, when Eric Jr.’s size 22 shoes were getting painfully snug.
Her son was getting worried, too.
“I started to really panic when my 22s got really small on my feet, causing blisters and such,” said Eric Jr., who has had six procedures on his feet for ingrown toenails, and has had two toenails permanently removed.
Eric Jr.’s size is limiting in other ways as well. Finding clothes that fit can be a challenge, he doesn’t fit in small cars and he can’t go on certain rides at amusement parks, as his height exceeds the limit.
“It’s difficult in many ways that you don’t even necessarily consider,” Kilburn said. “He handles it really well.”
In a desperate effort to find shoes for her son, Kilburn — who is a professional glass engraver, while her husband works in a management role at Detroit Diesel — uncovered what she thought was the only option available: custom-fitting shoes by an orthopedic specialist, at the cost of $1,500 per pair.
While she and her husband decided they had no choice but to pay the price, she said, “as his mom, I’m also thinking, how is he going to navigate as an adult when he doesn’t have what he needs available to him?”
Given that Eric Jr. is still growing and will require many more shoes in his lifetime, at $1,500 per pair, the financial toll would be overwhelming.
Pattison proposed starting a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy a few pairs of shoes. At first, Kilburn was hesitant about asking for help.
“Beckie is a person who doesn’t want to make her problems someone else’s problems,” Pattison said, adding that she repeatedly encouraged her friend to allow her to set up the fundraiser, until Kilburn finally agreed last week.
In the seven days since starting the fundraiser, people have donated nearly $20,000.
The Kilburn family is floored by the outpouring of support, especially from complete strangers across the country.
“I’ve gotten a whole new appreciation for the power of media and people sharing, and it’s just been so wonderful,” Kilburn said, explaining that she also received messages from major shoe manufacturers, including Under Armour and Puma, with offers to make Eric Jr. his own custom shoes.
“Any time we see a story like this, we try to jump into action,” said Max Staiger, the global head of basketball at Puma, which makes custom shoes for professional athletes with notably large feet. “It’s easy for us to help, and we’re excited to do it.”
Although Eric Jr.’s shoe size isn’t sold commercially, Puma has the expertise and manufacturing capabilities to create supersized sneakers.
A team from Puma will visit Eric Jr. during the first week of April to conduct a full foot scan and take specific measurements to figure out his exact shoe size. Then, the company will make him several pairs of custom footwear.
“It’s not going to be size 23 or size 22, it will be size Eric,” Staiger explained. “We want to help and make sure that the family isn’t burdened by anything. We’ll just make sure they have the correct shoes, and they don’t have anything else to worry about.”
Other companies, including CAT Footwear, also offered to make Eric Jr. custom shoes. In addition, he is getting a pair of dress shoes for school dances from an Italian shoe company called Mauri Shoes — although the cost is not yet confirmed, as the firm is waiting to make a mold of his feet.
The GoFundMe money will go toward those shoes, as well as ones from an orthopedic specialist, which Kilburn still plans to buy, so that her son has several options to choose from — a luxury he hasn’t had in many years.
“My son is set up for not only now, but for his future,” she said, explaining that the money that has been raised will be used for her son to buy shoes as he continues to grow in the coming years.
“I’m going to have shoes that fit me properly,” said Eric Jr., who is looking forward to having proper footwear to play his favorite sports, including basketball, football, and track and field. “Just to have shoes that fit me is nothing short of a godsend.”
His family is relieved.
“It’s alleviated my fears for his future,” Kilburn said. “I’m so happy that he’s going to be head-to-toe confident.”
She decided to pay it forward by starting a Facebook group called Big Shoe Network, so that other families who also struggle to find shoes could come together and help one another.
“I can’t even tell you the amazing amount of support we’ve gotten,” Kilburn said. “It just has filled my heart and made me want to help other parents in a similar boat.”
In a matter of days, nearly 1,000 members have joined the group.
“It’s something I felt really alone in for so many years,” Kilburn said, adding that 2BigFeet, the company she buys Eric Jr.’s socks from (he can no longer fit in its shoe selection) offered a discount code to members of the group. “It’s this whole community that I never knew existed, and I am just overflowing with gratitude and blessings.”
“I don’t want it to end there either,” she continued, explaining that she has plans to start a group to support big-footed people, and hold fundraising events and shoe drives. “This is becoming more than just about us.”
“My hopelessness has been replaced with hope,” Kilburn said. “Now, I want to give that feeling to others.”