‘It All Started in Youngstown’: Film About Nike Air Shoe Begins with a YSU Grad

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “It all started in Youngstown,” said John “Sonny” Vaccaro, the sports marketing legend known for launching the Nike Air Jordan shoe.

Vaccaro was speaking in recorded comments before an advance screening of the new movie “Air” at Golden Star Theater in Austintown on March 30. About 200 invited guests of the Youngstown State University Foundation, which sponsored the screening, were in attendance.

The film premiered in theaters April 5.

Vaccaro is a native of the Pittsburgh area who revived his college career at what was then known as Youngstown University.

John “Sonny” Vaccaro

The 1962 physical education graduate was signed as a football player by Youngstown’s legendary coach Dwight “Dike” Beede.

After injuries slowed Vaccaro and forced him to hang up his spikes before the season began, he went to work for the school’s assistant football coach and head basketball coach, Dom Roselli, recruiting players for the hoops team.

“My life started because of Dike Beede,” Vaccaro said. “But Dom Roselli put new breath in my life.”

Vaccaro said he has held an affinity for Youngstown ever since, and met his wife while attending Youngstown University. He and his wife launched a scholarship at YSU a few years ago, said Paul McFadden, president of the YSU Foundation.

The Full Story

After graduating from Trafford High School in Pennsylvania in 1957, Vaccaro headed to the University of Kentucky on a football scholarship. But he was determined to be academically ineligible because of his grades and transferred to a junior college in California.

He became injured while in California and returned to Trafford, Pa., where he wrote a letter to Beede asking to be allowed to join the Youngstown University football team. Beede agreed.

After graduating from Youngstown University in 1962, Vaccaro moved to the Pittsburgh area where he worked as a teacher. It was there that he launched the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the first national high school all-star basketball  game. It became nationally famous and ran for four decades.

Impressed with his work with the Dapper Dan, Nike hired Vaccaro.

The film, set in 1984, gives a Hollywood-ized look at Vaccaro’s career. He bucked corporate wisdom at Nike and put his own name on the line to sign Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan to an endorsement contract.

Vaccaro built the shoe’s marketing campaign around Jordan, and it worked perfectly. His first task was to convince Jordan not to sign with either Adidas or Converse, who were the industry leaders at the time, and he did it with a then-whopping $2.5 million endorsement contract.

The Air Jordan shoe became a success story that catapulted Nike into dominance in its field.

The film features actor Matt Damon in the role of Vaccaro.

Because Vaccaro is a public figure, he did not receive compensation from the filmmakers: Artists Equity, in collaboration with Amazon Studios, Skydance Sports and Mandalay Pictures.

However, director Ben Affleck, who also has a role in the film, did invite Vaccaro to shooting one day and sought his advice on some matters of historical accuracy, according to McFadden.

Vaccaro met the film’s stars, which also include Viola Davis and Jason Bateman, that day.

Pictured at top: Matt Damon stars as “Sonny” Vaccaro in a scene from “Air.” (Amazon Studios).