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The Bavarian village of Herzogenaurach is known as “the town of bent necks,” all because a pair of brothers couldn’t figure out how to get along with each other.
Their quarrel not only divided an entire population, but sparked international intrigue and ultimately generated the global craze for sports footwear.
In the wake of its defeat in World War I, Germany was economically devastated. The Dassler brothers, Rudolph and Adolph – better known as Rudy and Adi – saw the opportunity to launch a new kind of business. They combined their love of sports with the family tradition of making shoes.
The Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory was at first a humble enterprise. It began in their mother’s laundry room. Since Herzogenaurach’s electrical grid was notoriously unreliable, they sometimes had to pedal furiously on a stationary bicycle just to power their machinery.
By the 1930s, the brothers had made a major breakthrough. They invented the replaceable cleat – a key improvement for soccer shoes. For the first time, by changing the length of their cleats, players who competed in the world’s most popular game had a way to respond to changing weather conditions.
In 1936, the Dasslers reached out to American track and field superstar Jesse Owens. Would he be willing to wear their brand during the upcoming Olympic Games in Berlin? Adi handcrafted a special pair of shoes for Owens, who went on to win four gold medals and infuriate Adolph Hitler – which, when you think about it, was a pretty risky move for Adi, even though he shared the same first name as the Fuhrer.
In 1946, with Germany once again facing recovery from a humiliating wartime defeat, it appeared the Dasslers and their shoe company were on the verge of prosperity.
Unfortunately, that’s when the brothers had a serious falling out.
Rudy and Adi accused each other of being Nazi sympathizers. They sabotaged each other’s initiatives. Their bitterness grew so deep that they couldn’t even imagine working under the same factory roof.
Adi therefore took command of his half of the business, which included most of the technicians. He named his new company after himself: Adi Dassler, which he eventually shortened and pronounced Ah-Dee-DOSS. Today we call it Adidas.
Rudy, for his part, gathered up most of the sales force and moved to the other side of the Aurach River, which flows through the heart of town. He named his new company Ruda Dass. But that didn’t seem to have the same zing. Why not come up with something that would sound more imposing to his no-good, rotten brother? He decided to call his shoe factory Puma.
Thus was born Adidas versus Puma, the epic sports footwear battle which has been raging now for almost 80 years.
So, the next time you see a commercial for the Twix candy bar, with its silly pretend “fight” between the Left Twix and Right Twix factories, just think of the competing shoe factories on either side of the river in Herzogenaurach. There really are such real-world rivalries.
Adi used three leather strips to provide support for each of his shoes. Later on they were painted white and became the three iconic white stripes of the Adidas brand. Rudy countered with a fearsome puma leaping through the letter D.
The brothers began a cutthroat competition for celebrity endorsements. Puma signed Joe Namath and ultimately swept the NFL. Adidas grabbed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and took the lead in the NBA. Adi and Rudy’s sons extended the bitterness through the next generation. When the representatives of one company traveled to a foreign country seeking new business, agents of the other company might spitefully call and cancel their hotel reservations at the last minute. Once, during the Olympic Games, each side vied to have their competitors’ sales teams arrested by local police on phony charges.
Did the brothers ever make peace? They tried a few times. But the negotiations always blew up.
When Rudy lay dying in 1974, his brother refused to cross the river to see him. When Adi died four years later, he was buried at the opposite end of the town cemetery. Even in death, the relational abyss remained unbridged.
Amazingly, the family feud still simmers in Herzogenaurach. Most of its citizens work for either Puma or Adidas. It’s called “the town of bent necks” because local residents, when meeting newcomers, almost always look down to see what kind of shoes you are wearing.
If you’re wearing Pumas, you might not be served at a butcher’s shop that favors Adidas, and vice-versa. The same is true for virtually every imaginable product and service. Some people accomplish their errands only by changing in and out of different pairs of shoes.
Although the deep-seated mistrust is finally beginning to fade, the kids of Adidas families typically don’t play with the kids of Puma families. And only a few brave young men and women have crossed brand name boundaries in order to date and marry each other.
Isn’t there something that can be done to put an end to such intergenerational pettiness?
We can do plenty, especially if we align ourselves with verses like Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God, and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” For one reason or another, deep bitterness took root in the Dassler family. And it has defiled more people than anyone could imagine.
The tough part about choosing grace over bitterness – especially if we ourselves have been impacted in some way by years of posturing, bickering, and excluding – is that we tend to think Hebrews 12:15 is a verse that other people need to apply. Objections tend to rush into our minds.
This stand-off is at least 90% their fault. But they no doubt see things differently. As hard as it is for you to imagine, they’re probably convinced the problem is at least 90% your fault.
They should make the first move to fix things. Actually, no. You go first. The New Testament’s ethics are unlike anything else on the planet. If you have hurt someone, you go first to make things right. If someone else has hurt you, you go first to make things right. Jesus always puts the ball in your court.
But that seems patently unfair. You may be right. But until God sets the record straight in the next world and restores everything that is broken, he calls each of us to take the lead in offering forgiveness. We may end up trying every other solution, but forgiveness will always be at the center of God’s healing strategy.
I don’t think I can do that. In your own power, you’ll probably fall flat on your face. But with the help of the God who knows all about you – and still loves and forgives you – you can offer the same gift of grace to others.
That’s when we’ll begin to experience a miracle:
Even the most painful wounds can begin to heal.
God, after all, yearns for all of us to become residents of a different kind of community – the “town of uplifted eyes and welcoming hearts.”
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