San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was expected to be among the NFL’s top performers in the fall of 2008. A former league MVP, Tomlinson, known for his churning legs and quick feet, was one of the most reliable running backs, and he was set for another banner year.
But early that season his dominance was ended by — of all things — his big toe. He suffered an injury known as “turf toe,” a sprain of the ligaments that connect the big toe joint to the rest of the foot. Hampered by the searing pain, Tomlinson, known as “LT,” had a mediocre year and his career never recovered.
Falls Church student Brian Eck watched the star player’s decline. A lifelong football fan, Eck was surprised that such a small body part could change a player’s performance so dramatically.
“I was watching LT, and he was suffering from a turf toe injury,” said Eck, now a senior at Fairfax County’s Falls Church High School. “I heard the TV analysts talk about how important the big toe was for cutting left and right.”
So Eck started thinking: What if there were a way to isolate the big toe to give athletes better traction and improved agility, with less fear of injury?
Tomlinson’s injury inspired Eck to design an innovative cleat that does exactly that. Eck’s cleat separates the big toe from the others to give players an advantage on the field.
He patented his idea in the 8th grade and this year, after taking the field as the starting quarterback for the Falls Church Jaguars, he has been presenting his cleat idea to business executives.
“I came up with the design on my own,” said Eck, 18, adding that his cleats are similar to the popular Vibram FiveFingers running shoes, which separate each toe much like gloves separate each finger.
Eck has spent much of the past year perfecting his business plan for marketing his designs in Fred Coulter’s Falls Church entrepreneurship class.
“Not many 17- or 18-year-olds come to you with a patent in hand,” Coulter said. “But he didn’t really know what to do with it.”
Coulter said he immediately recognized the cleats’ potential, and through his contacts in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship arranged for Eck to meet with business managers.
“I had never seen anything like it before,” Coulter said. “His idea is unique. The big toe is cut out and allows for additional pivoting.”
Eck based his cleat design off of his own football experiences. As the Falls Church quarterback, Eck helped lead the team to a 7-3 season. Eck, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 230 pounds, threw for 1,609 yards and had 11 passing touchdowns. He rushed for 140 yards and scored five touchdowns on his own. He completed 114 of 188 passing attempts.
In meetings with financial experts at the Baker Tilly office in Tysons Corner, Eck promoted his cleats as the future of athletic footwear. Coulter noted that it takes a lot of guts for a teenager to be able to stand up in front of adults and pitch a homegrown business idea.
“I had a lot of confidence in him,” Coulter said. “I knew he could pull it off.”
Eck’s parents, who are lawyers, helped him attain a patent for his cleats. But now he’s looking to strike out on his own and start an athletic gear company. He came away from his business meetings with some advice on how to tweak his design. He’s invited back once he’s refined his idea.
Eck hopes to expand from footwear to other apparel. He’s already got a good place to start: Specially made socks with the big toe separated — to fit into his innovative cleats.
“It will increase our profit margins,” Eck said. “It’s like ink and a printer.”