Sox Appeal

After some initial slip-ups, TruSox, a company founded by Jim Cherneski ’97, is gripping the feet of athletes worldwide.

(Left to Right) Among the pros who wear TruSox are the NFL’s Mohamed Sanu and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, who wore them in Super Bowl 2017.

 

Jim Cherneski ’97 just wanted happy feet. His weren’t. In high school, in college and in a various semi-pro and professional leagues, his feet slipped in his soccer cleats. He couldn’t cut and run like he wanted. He felt unstable in his shoes.

Cherneski tried various DIY remedies—wearing shoes that were too small, shrinking his cleats in hot water, using sticky sprays to adhere his socks in his shoes. Nothing worked.

One night in 2007 he came home particularly frustrated after playing in a semi-professional game. He had gone up for a header and felt his foot rotate in his shoe as he landed. “I can’t stand it,” he told his wife.

“You’ve been complaining about this since 1993,” she replied. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

So the former TU soccer player resolved to put his feet first. Eventually he fashioned socks with nonslip gripping pads—inside and out—that anchor feet in shoes and give athletes more stability when changing directions.

His company—TruSox—now sells its patented socks worldwide to runners, boxers, and soccer, rugby, cricket and baseball players. “We had $3.2 million in sales in 2015,” he says. And, he adds, some of the world’s elite players wear his socks.

But his quest for the perfect sock was filled with side steps, missteps and stumbles. Through it all, Cherneski persevered with the tenacity, determination and the will to win that he’d honed on soccer fields.

His story just might knock your socks off.

Soccer yarns

Cherneski is on the phone from Manchester, England, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

Pretty much weaned on a soccer ball, he has a vivid childhood memory—at age 5—of asking his dad, “What is the most popular sport in the world?

“When he said, ‘soccer,’ that’s what I wanted to play.”

He did, and early on was coached by some of the greats in the sport. Peter Mellor, who played professional soccer in England for three decades, was the father of a classmate and his youth coach. Tony Frankovich, former pro player and executive director of FC Red Star, a soccer academy, also recruited and coached him.

Cherneski built an impressive soccer resume in school, on club teams and at TU. From 1993 to 1996 he wore a Tiger uniform, choosing the school not because both parents are TU graduates, but because he liked the coach.

“I visited a few schools but I liked Frank [Olszewski,]” he says. And he’s quick to admit he preferred the pitch to the classroom. “I went to Towson to play soccer. I wanted to play professionally.”

He majored in business because most of his teammates did. “It was great to have older players to guide you about which courses or professors to take—or avoid,” he laughs.

With Cherneski on the team, TU earned a final No. 20 ranking in 1995 when the Tigers went 14-4 and were America East runners-up.

“Jim was an important part of our program,” says Olszewski, now head coach at Davis & Elkins College. “His work ethic and drive to improve every day are what allowed him to be, and continue to be, successful. His optimism and passion were examples and inspirations for his teammates.”

Cherneski was rookie of the year in ‘93 and team captain in ’96, his senior year, but for him, his finest hour was beating third-ranked Maryland as a junior.

He also met his wife at TU during freshman year. (Erin Shanley Cherneski ’97, a gymnast, was elected to the TU Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, owning school records on vault, floor and all-around when she graduated. She was the fourth Tiger gymnast to qualify for nationals.)

The other pitch

After graduation, Cherneski played for the Delaware Wizards, a semi-pro team. The minimal pay translated into “playing for the love it,” he notes.

To make ends meet, he coached on the side and worked full time for MCI/World Com, selling phone services after the breakup of AT&T.

“I had a desk, a phone and a pitch book,” he says. “I made 50 cold calls every day. I hated it.”

But his training as an athlete gave him the drive and persistence to keep dialing number after number. “That is key,” he stresses. “You don’t give up. You review what you did wrong and learn from your mistakes.”

He never quit—not MCI; not soccer. He racked up seasons with multiple teams, moving to MCI’s offices in Massachusetts so he could play with nearby pro teams in Rhode Island or New Hampshire, eventually returning to Baltimore in 2005.

Two years later Crystal Palace, a professional soccer team in England’s Premier League, expanded to the United States. Cherneski became player/coach of the minor-league Crystal Palace USA, which launched in Baltimore.

He was in soccer heaven—when the team won. “Every game mattered,” he says.

In addition to feeling the pressure of competition, Cherneski noticed that the higher level of play in the league increased the movement he felt in his shoes. It upped his frustration.

On the hunt for a solution, he saw potential in the waistband of his uniform shorts—a tacky yarn that perhaps could be woven into a sock. With years of MCI cold-call experience, Cherneski got to work telephoning sock manufacturers to explain his idea. Finally, a sock mill in Alabama listened.

He would soon visit the mill, learn more about socks than he ever dreamed and walk out with a prototype. “I gave the socks to a few guys at Crystal Palace. Initially, they worked,” he says, but after 15 to 20 minutes, their feet began to perspire.

Cherneski headed back to the drawing board in search of a solution for wet and dry conditions.

Still, he knew he was on to something and began the drawn-out process of obtaining a patent.

During the next three years, he played and coached full time. There was no time for socks.

By 2010, however, Crystal Palace USA was insolvent. Cherneski wasn’t getting paid and was living off his credit cards. Then the patent attorney needed another $1,500 for a filing and he couldn’t come up with the cash.

Eventually, his brother and two Crystal Palace accountants came to the rescue in exchange for part of the patent.

For the next year or so, Cherneski’s house became a lab where he tinkered with various sock iterations. The following morning, he’d try them out while training with fellow soccer players. He was staying in shape, hoping to play for another club.

He researched nonslip hospital socks, melted thermoplastic elastomer pellets, visited or picked the brains of sock and clothing companies from North Carolina to Colorado. Call after call, idea after idea, sock after sock resulted in mounting failures, along with mounting debt.

He was behind on his mortgage. His mortgage was “underwater.”

Cherneki was undeterred. He just kept kicking. “If I fall I get up again; it’s not acceptable to lose. If I do, I figure out a way to win,” he explains.

His victory came in November 2011—a sock that gripped, stretched and recovered. And when it got wet, it gripped even more.

One foot at a time

Now the real crusade began.

“No store was going to carry a no-name product,” Cherneski explains. “Plus the socks were super expensive—$9 to make; $29 to $39 retail.”

He knew he had to get them onto the feet of the highest-level professionals. Then folks would see the telltale rows of trademark squares that snake up from the heel of the TruSox brand.

Once again, Cherneski worked the phones, calling contacts at home and abroad to give away his socks to prominent players. He even flew to England.
Victor Moses, a former Palace player, was the first to put them on, like them and request more socks for other players. The Nigerian National Team player still wears them in the Premier League where he plays for Chelsea. Now, Cherneski says, a quarter of Premier League players wear TruSox.

Cherneski repeated the tactic, employing former athletes to reach out to players of their respective sports. Top cricket and rugby players worldwide wear the product, as does baseball’s Miguel Cabrera and the NFL’s Mohamed Sanu, who sported them in the 2017 Super Bowl, Cherneski says.

Based on Cherneski’s sales figures, the giveaway idea worked. He reports sales totaled $70, 000 in 2012, $500,000 in 2013 and $1.9 million in 2014 with 15 percent of World Cup players wearing his socks.

Cherneski’s former TU coach Olszewski says if he were still playing, TruSox “would definitely be a part of my equipment. Every player wants the consistency that the product brings. In our game the feet are the instruments to produce the music on the field.”

Olszewski’s players at Davis & Elkins College wear TruSox. “Did it make a difference in us winning the GMAC championship this past year?” he asks. “I would say it certainly played a part in maintaining on-field confidence.”

“Now stores call me to stock the product,” Cherneski says, and he worries about how to keep expanding sock sales and develop new products, including shoes, while managing cash flow.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain.

Jim Cherneski will be putting one non-slipping foot in front of the other.

Ginny Cook is the editor of Towson.

 

 

When he wore a Tiger uniform, Cherneski was rookie of the year in 1993 and team captain in 1996.

 

Cherneski played and coached at Crystal Palace USA, when the English Premier League team launched in Baltimore.

  

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