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Tinker Hatfield Oregon Sports Hall of Fame

It may be news to some Johnny-come-latelys on the Oregon sports scene, but Tinker Hatfield was a pretty big name even before he started designing a certain shoe.

That’s right. Nike’s esteemed vice president/innovation and special projects, the man most instrumental in the design of the Air Jordan sneaker line over the years, was an acclaimed athlete in his own right.

At Central Linn High in Halsey, Hatfield was one of the state’s top prep athletes of his era, a three-sport standout and a national-caliber track-and-field performer in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. At the University of Oregon, he was the school pole vault record-holder who finished sixth in the 1976 U.S. Olympic trials.

Hatfield’s athletic career was augmented by his nearly three decades of designing genius at Nike, which has led him to close relationships with such luminaries as Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong. The combination has earned the Portland resident, 56, induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame Thursday at Multnomah Athletic Club.

Hatfield grew up in a rural community, the son of the late Tinker Hatfield Sr., one of the state’s great names in high school track and field coaching. At Central Linn, the good athletes played all the sports. Hatfield went from football to basketball to track.

“If you didn’t play three sports, the school wouldn’t have enough players to field a team,” Hatfield says.

Nobody twisted his arm, though.

“I just remember sports as being so much fun,” he says. “Each season was like a breath of fresh air. You’d start with football, and then it would be on to basketball. And at a certain point — boom! — basketball was over, and it was on to track. After track, it was back to football.

“It was exciting. The variety of activities helped you become a better all-around athlete, and you didn’t have the off-season drudgery of training for just one sport.”

Hatfield — who grew to 5-10 1/2 and 155 pounds as a senior — earned 12 varsity letters at Central Linn. He was a three-year starter at tailback and a four-year letterman in football, a four-year starting point guard in basketball and a dominant force in track and field all four years.

In football, Hatfield was Class A-2 all-state his last three seasons as a tailback and was named to the Sunkist All-America team as a senior. He made recruiting visits to Arizona State, Oregon State, Southern Cal and Stanford.

In basketball, he led the Cobras in scoring, rebounds and assists for three years and was named second-team all-district as a senior.

“I felt I could have played college basketball,” says Hatfield, who was recruited by the likes of Maryland, Kansas, Ohio State and Oregon State for the sport.

Track was his specialty, though. As a freshman, Hatfield won Emerald League championships in the pole vault and low and high hurdles. The next three years, he led the Lions to state team titles, amassing 10 individual and relay crowns. As a senior, he won the pole vault and low and high hurdles and anchored the winning short relay team, becoming the first athlete in the state’s history to score 40 points at a state meet.

Hatfield’s biggest influence in sports was his father.

“My dad was quite an innovator and a motivator,” he says. “He was a fantastic cross-country coach, and he was a tireless worker. In those days, there weren’t so many restrictions about what you could do on weekends. He’d put seven or eight of us in his old Lincoln Continental, with javelins and pole-vault poles on the side, and take us to invitationals.”

Hatfield was a big Oregon State fan as a youth, but the school didn’t offer architecture, his major interest. That became a major sticking point at other schools through the recruiting process.

“Everybody was surprised how small I was during my visits,” Hatfield recalls, “but they were really taken aback when I said I wanted to study architecture. One of the reasons I didn’t go to USC is because they said no one can play sports and major in architecture at the same time. Kansas said the same thing.”

Bill Bowerman, the legendary track and field coach at Oregon, took the opposite approach.

“He was very interested in academics, and I think he was impressed I even wanted to try it,” Hatfield says. “He said, ‘We’re going to offer you a scholarship, and give you a shot’ " at majoring in architecture.

Hatfield set the freshman high hurdles record at Oregon in 1972, but he blew out his left ankle as a sophomore. After that, he focused on the pole vault, becoming the Ducks’ first 17-footer and setting the school record of 17-2 1/2.

In 1980, Nike’s Geoff Hollister hired Hatfield to illustrate a marketing book and manual for the company’s employees. The next year, Hatfield started full-time with Nike, making his biggest impact as designer of the most successful shoe in industry history.

Now he’s a Hall of Famer.

“It’s a great honor,” Hatfield says. “I’m thrilled.”

Thank Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune for the story.

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