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Nike N7’s Sam McCracken Leaves Footprint in Spirits, Hearts and Minds

Recapping Nike’s First Annual N7 Sport Summit

BEAVERTON, Oregon – The color turquoise wedded with an air of high spiritedness that just about set the Tiger Woods Building to shaking at Nike’s World Campus in Beaverton, Oregon, Oct. 28-30 during Nike’s first annual and sold out N7 Sport Summit. Nike’s U.S. communication manager Jill Zanger said 350 registered guests and some 50 Nike employees filled the building.

Passes hung around participants necks from turquoise lanyards. Nike employees volunteered their own time, sporting turquoise t-shirts. Guides to Nike’s sprawling campus wore turquoise rain gear. Summit participants donned the Nike shoes, compliments of each registration. And the air of spirit, the sheer exuberance? It came from Native youth who love to play, and from the adults passionate about those youth, their health and the well-being of Native communities.

And behind all of that is Nike’s Native American Business Manager and Chairman of the N7 Fund, Sam McCracken. The man leaves a footprint of his spirit in the hearts and minds of those he touches.

“Sam has spirit from over the top,” says Nike employee Michelle Osborne, Colville. She’s showing visitors around their Native Showroom. Shoes line one wall, giant murals of the best Native athletes line another. I’m looking at an enormous and beautifully framed certificate signed by President Barack Obama in honor of McCracken when Osborne whispers, “Our CEO just walked into our showroom again! He never comes down here, and he’s been in several times today. People believe in what Sam is doing, and Nike believes in what Sam is doing.”

McCracken himself is a pure joy to talk with. He calls himself a humble man. The approachable and motivated man knows, growing up with a love of basketball, how the power of sports can transform a person and a community. Nike’s N7 journey is very personal for him. His mother died of diabetes complications, and he stood by her side until he had to pull the plug.

“The People are at a point, they realize the health situation, but they don’t know how to fix it,” McCracken says. “We’ve been given as a people a unique opportunity to amplify and create change in our communities. Nike created a Toolkit, and a lot of my voice was in it.”

He points out an Elder in a traditional skirt wearing a colorful pair of Nikes. If we can inspire one person, he says, “then we’re doing what we’re supposed to. Our job at Nike is to hear your voice.”

McCracken, who grew up on the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux reservation in northeastern Montana got his start in Nike’s Wilsonville warehouse in 1997. “I feel blessed, Creator had a path for me,” he says. Nike recognized his talent, and soon McCracken was revitalizing their Native American Employee Network.

Gen7 partnered with Sam McCracken in delivering funds and support for N7,” says Richelle Williams, a Cowichan from Vancouver Island in British Columbia and a Gen7 Messenger for Motivate Canada, a youth driven organization with a goal of developing a world of empowered youth. “The core of our program is First Nations, Metis, Inuit aboriginal youth, and culture. Our Messengers go into communities across Canada and unite them with sports and recreation programs,” says Williams.

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McCracken found a tiny group of Native Hawaiians revitalizing traditional surfing. “One day I got an email from Sam, ‘I’d like to meet you,’” says Pohaku ‘Keaul’iahonuiokani’ana’ole’okuhio’ Stone, Native Hawaiian from Oahu. They met six months later when the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team played the 2010 Nationals in Oahu. Stone felt a close kinship with the Nationals. “They embrace that practice of warriorship to come and do battle,” he says. “It was clear what they would do if they went into a real battle. No kidding. True warriors.”

McCracken’s interest in the traditional aspect of sports drew him to Stone, an educator whose background is historic preservation, archaeology, and anthropology. Stone says there should be more emphasis on traditional sport practices in contemporary sports. He’s learned through academic research that all the ball games in existence today originated from Native peoples.

Stone’s own ancestors developed ancestral surfing, a sport they are revitalizing. “Traditional sports practices strengthen us,” says Stone. And the sole financial supporter of their small non-profit organization, Kanalu, which means the Wave? Nike N7. That’s where McCracken left his spirit footprint in Hawaii. “I hope I’m not the last,” says Stone. “I hope I’ve taught enough of the younger generation.”

By 2000, McCracken had moved into business management at Nike. He wrote a business plan focused on building relationships with 250 tribes receiving diabetes education grants, and 188 schools enrolled in the Office of Indian Education Programs. He established Nike’s Native American Diabetes Program. He created a working association with the Indian Health Service, and a unique alliance with the National Indian Health Board on their “Just Move It” program to promote physical fitness on Indian reservations.

The work resonates with Nike 7 board member Wilson Pipestem, an attorney, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Ietan Consulting. “I grew up in sports, track, long distance running, love to play basketball,” says Pipestem, an Otoe-Missouria tribal member and an Osage headright holder. “My dad did too; he went to the Minnesota Vikings camp.” Pipestem lost his dad at 56-years-old “to diabetes complications. His leg was amputated, and he was blind.” Both sets of grandparents had diabetes. “My dad told me, you’re a time bomb. You’ve got to keep running. There’s life in running.”

Number one is giving back, Pipestem says of his involvement in N7. “Sports saved my life, and now for me sports will save my life. I’m 42 years old, I’ve rediscovered exercise. I am hoping this summit will inspire a movement in the U.S. and Canada and that N7 will provide tools for that movement to succeed. Nike created a line of products but for N7 to succeed. We’ll need to go beyond that.”

National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. is a basketball fanatic. “When I was in my early 30s I had a Nike swoosh tattooed onto my calf, that’s how much I loved basketball. Nike motivates in different ways!” he says. Today this former basketball player who loved rez ball is on the road all the time. “I live in hotels and on airplanes,” Stevens says. “When I started on the Nike N7 board I weighed 320 lbs. Now I weigh 260 lbs. I’ve started light weightlifting, walking. It’s never too late to start eating right.

“We want to try to teach a new generation to live a healthy life. I’m here doing what I’m asking all of these folks here to do, take what you get here back to your communities. Give back.”

Nike’s CEO Mark Parker was visibly moved at the Oct. 29 opening ceremony. “The warm welcome and blessing means a lot to me,” he told the audience. “Having you here means a lot to Nike.” Parker said N7 was destined to have Sam behind it. “Sam introduced N7 over 10 years ago. And even more important is that we had Sam McCracken. Sam is N7.”

For his part, McCracken says, “The Chairman and the Board created this Summit. Our CEO was moved in a way I don’t think he realized would happen.”

“It got emotional when Parker came out,” says champion golfer Notah Begay III. “When in the history of our people has a CEO of a $16 billion dollar company done this. I don’t see Adidas or Reebok doing it. I don’t see them stepping up and saying, we’re going to let you use our platform.”