As Seen in Sneaker Freaker Issue 45
When Dean Met Steven: A Tale of New Balance's First Skate Shoe
Back in 1987, a precocious 14-year-old by the name of Dean Futrell sketched out a few ideas for a ‘robust’ skate shoe and sent it off by snail mail to New Balance in Boston. That letter was intercepted by Steven, a talented young member of the design team who decided to poke around the warehouse and build a pair of New Balance ‘Pride’ with bleached stripes and custom ollie patches. By the time the shoes arrived at Dean’s residence in 1988, his feet had grown two sizes and the booty was duly stored away in pristine condition. From here the story goes cold for 33 years.
Following a serendipitous series of events that we can still barely countenance, Sneaker Freaker was there when these two finally met in real life. Turns out these mavericks have plenty in common and now live less than 10 miles away from each other in Oregon. What are the odds of that? Dean is well known in Beaverton circles for his Audi workshop while Steven is Steven Smith, the pre-eminent sneaker designer with a solid-gold greatest hits package that includes the Instapump Fury, adidas Artillery, the New Balance 1500 and 997, and many of the recent Yeezy releases. And yeah, there is a logical argument that these are the first pair of New Balance skate shoes ever made!
I just tore through skate shoes when I was a kid, especially $20 Chuck Taylors. We lived in Hillsboro, Oregon, so it wasn’t convenient for my family to go to a mall and buy Vans, Airwalk, or Vision Street Wear at the skate shops. We were really only 15 or 20 miles away in Portland, but for a 13-year-old kid, that’s the other side of the world. We usually ended up shopping at either Kmart or Fred Meyer. New Balance basketball shoes were about $25 and worked great for skating so they were a sensible option.
Then one day in the fall of 1987, I guess I just decided to take one of those shoes and trace the outline, then I added an ollie patch plus some reinforcements on the tongue. I mailed that off to New Balance in Boston and wrote something to the effect of, ‘Hey, you guys should make a skate shoe!’ In hindsight it probably read more like a teenager desperately saying, ‘Sponsor me!’ Lo and behold, I eventually got some correspondence back from Steven Smith at New Balance saying he was going to do it. He even sent me an autographed poster of James Worthy! What blows me away is that, unknown to me at the time of course, Steven was only 21 or 22 when I sent that letter, so his career was just starting. Sending that letter to Converse or Nike, I don’t think I would have received a reply.
I’m sure I lost my mind from excitement when the box finally turned up, but I think there was also a little bit of disappointment when I finally received the shoes, because they appeared to be based on a Chuck Taylor, and I initially had designed something more robust than that. Also, my feet had grown two sizes larger since sending the letter! Steven wrote saying, ‘These are special, one-of-a-kind shoes’, so I still wanted to wear them, but they were way too small for my feet. I might have been a bit bummed my design didn’t get fully used, but I was definitely very proud of those shoes. The fact that New Balance sent me – a 14-year-old skateboarding kid trying to get sponsored! – a pair of unique shoes just blows my mind. These companies rarely get back to you unless you’re incredibly talented and you’re sending them videotapes and stuff.
I showed them off the first few years I owned them, but eventually, girls and cars became the priority and the shoes went back in the box. They sat in the bottom drawer of my dresser inside a small keepsake box, which I dragged around for many, many years. Last summer I was watching Real Street on ESPN. Jamie Foy was on and I saw that he rode for New Balance. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, they’ve gotten into the skateboarding shoe game finally.’ I realised I had their very first pair of skate shoes, and that’s what the shoes are to me in my mind. I knew exactly where the box was stored, so I got them out and sent a couple of pictures to New Balance via Instagram in August 2020.
‘The fact that New Balance sent me – a 14-year-old skateboarding kid trying to get sponsored! – a pair of unique shoes just blows my mind. These companies rarely get back to you unless you’re incredibly talented and you’re sending them videotapes and stuff.’Dean Futrell
I was coy about them. All I sent was a picture of the box with a postmark stamp and a short note asking if they knew when their first pair of skate shoes was made. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll see what kind of reply I get back.’ But I didn’t get any reply at all. Maybe they didn’t see the message or whoever was doing their social media didn’t run past it. I asked one of those sneaker websites if they were interested in this story. Didn’t hear from them either. Go figure.
In February, Skate Shop Day was coming up and New Balance had a limited edition shoe coming out. So I messaged them again to ask about sizing and availability and that’s when they saw my original message. Things escalated pretty quickly after that. The following Monday, Steven Smith walks through the door into my workshop. I had no idea who he was of course but then he shows me an image of the box on his phone. What the hell! It was mind-blowing because I obviously had no idea he was coming in. It was honestly like being reunited with a long-lost first cousin. It was something like 33 years since he sent me those shoes and now he is standing there talking to me.
The Pride shoes won’t be locked away as a family keepsake. I would rather New Balance display them at their head office or somewhere the general public can see and enjoy them, maybe even somewhere connected directly to the roots of the sport. I’d love to see that happen.
I was only 22 and starting out on my career at New Balance when this kid, Dean from Oregon, wrote to the brand in late 1987. His letter somehow ended up on my desk. It was a crude drawing that looked like a Chuck with an ollie pad. We weren’t making anything like that but we had a pallet of Prides sitting around so I suggested I modify a pair for Dean. Skateboarding was way outside the scope at New Balance but it was cool that the kid reached out and I didn’t want to let him down.
I thought it’d be fun and positive karma, so I called Dean and told him, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you something special.’ I made shoes all the time when I was bored. I’d eat my lunch and then go out in the sample room and pick materials to make crazy one-off shoes. We had just gotten some cool fabric samples so I grabbed a piece of purple synthetic. I took home a pair of Prides in Dean’s size and a pair in my size to act as the guinea pig.
I knew I had to make these really special somehow, so I filled one of my brother’s insulin syringes with bleach and drew a cool spiderweb pattern on the Pride’s canvas upper, which I thought looked kinda cool. Then I did the same thing to Dean’s pair, which I dip-dyed purple. Then I took them back into the sample shop to cut ollie pads, added a ‘New Balance’ embroidery and hot-stamped the old NB five-bar logo onto the tongue. Then I put them in a NB shoe box that said ‘Smith, R&D’ and sent them to Dean. That was back in 1988, so it took me a few months to make them.
Like a lot of things I never heard anything back. Occasionally I wondered what happened to the shoes. Dean could’ve skated and destroyed them, then thrown them out. He had sent that letter, we talked on the phone, I made the shoes, sent them to him and life went on. Thirty-something years went by.
Just the other week, out of the blue, New Balance UK sent me a picture and asked if I knew anything about the shoes. Yes I did! They even had the shipping box with my name on it. What the! Where had they been all this time? I told Sam Pearce I hand-made them for a kid and Sam replied, ‘Well, that kid’s a grown man now!’ Turns out Dean had sent some pictures to the New Balance skate guys, who sent them to Sam in the UK, who then sent them back to me in Oregon. I’m a sneaker hoarder so I still have many of my prototypes. The Pride shoe is rare for starters, never mind a one-off that I hand-made. I was speechless. I swear I have a black and white photocopy of Dean’s letter. Either that, or I have the sketch I made to design the shoe. It’s just a matter of finding it in my basement.
Out of curiosity, I did a search to see if Dean was still in the Portland area. Sure enough, I found a 47-year-old guy with a car shop in the Beaverton area. It had to be him! Rather than call I just decided to show up. I walked into Dean’s shop and pulled up a picture on my phone. I asked, ‘Is this you?’ He goes, ‘Yeah! Where did you get that picture?’
I replied, ‘I’m Steven.’
‘I knew I had to make these really special somehow, so I filled one of my brother’s insulin syringes with bleach and drew a cool spiderweb pattern on the Pride’s canvas upper, which I thought looked kinda cool. Then I did the same thing to Dean’s pair, which I dip-dyed purple. Then I took them back into the sample shop to cut ollie pads, added a ‘New Balance’ embroidery and hot-stamped the old NB five-bar logo onto the tongue.’Steven Smith
I said, ‘Steven Smith. See the box?’ He almost fell over. I told him, ‘I made those New Balances for you!’ and asked whether he still had them. He pulled them out and told me, ‘I’m not a collector of things but I had this one cardboard box at my parents’ house with my sports cards and things that I valued inside. And I kept your shoes.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blue and white New Balance box from that era in better condition. It is insane he still has them in the original shipping box with my handwriting on them. It’s not even creased. It’s immaculate. I couldn’t believe they still existed.
It’s just incredible to meet this kid all grown up and to know I’ve had a positive impact on his life through something as simple as a pair of sneakers. The cool thing is that his workshop is all Porsches and Volkswagens. Could this get any weirder?
‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a blue and white New Balance box from that era in better condition. It is insane he still has them in the original shipping box with my handwriting on them. It’s not even creased. It’s immaculate. I couldn’t believe they still existed.’Steven Smith
Turns out Dean is into all the things I’m interested in as well as the sneakers. It’s just crazy that for 26 years, he has been one mile away from the Nike office in Portland. I probably would have seen him at a car event and never known who he was.
If he hadn’t sent that email we never would have connected, even though we are only 10 miles apart after all this time. I told Dean the Prides are worth a bit of money for what they are, but because of who I’ve become in my career, they’re worth a lot now because I touched them. Just so you know, of course!
- PhotosJoe Brook