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Chris Smith doesn't play in the hockey league on the New Jersey shore anymore. But he used to, and so the league can claim partial credit for an intriguing device Smith has developed. ProStretch is a semicircular stretching tool that Smith invented after his right knee was dislocated in a game against the Rumson/Fair Haven Bombers in the spring of 1988.
After being injured, Smith, 35, spent five months in physical therapy trying to regain his range of motion. He performed thousands of foot circles, thousands of leg lifts. "But nothing was working," he says. "My leg was tight, I had no confidence in it. And it hurt." One afternoon Smith, an auto mechanic by trade, was rummaging in the spare-parts heap at his service station in Long Branch, N.J. Suddenly, in a burst of inspiration, he recognized the healing qualities of brake shoes—six-to-eight-inch curved hunks of stamped steel that, when an automobile's brakes are applied, rub against the wheel drums and slow the car.
"I needed to stretch on something where I could control my range of motion," says Smith. "I figured two brake shoes welded side by side might do the trick." The shoes formed a half-moon that was about 190 degrees around and four inches wide. Smith attached metal plates to the inside of the semicircle so he could properly angle the heel and ball of his foot.
By leaning against a wall and rocking back on the welded shoes, Smith was able to stretch his calf muscles, Achilles tendons and plantar fascia (the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot). After four weeks of daily rocking, Smith, his right leg flexible once more, was back on the ice.
Smith admits he was no expert in exercise physiology. "All I knew about stretching was the wrong stuff I learned in high school," he says. Nevertheless, he figured his rocker might benefit others. He and a friend, Randy Fodero, a computer salesman in New York City, started testing the market possibilities of Smith's invention. "Before we dumped our life savings into this, we tried it out on people," says Fodero. "Customers would come into the station, get on the prototype and say, 'That's great, Chris. Is my car done?' So we took it to strangers, to doctors, to local athletes, and said, 'Would you buy this?' "
With a hundred affirmatives ringing in their ears, Smith and Fodero invested in research and development, and hired a secretary and a shipper. The $29.95, 16-ounce, molded-plastic ProStretch, which accommodates feet size 5 to 15, made its debut last summer in selected sporting goods stores and via a toll-free number (1-800-535-3629). Smith and Fodero have sold more than 8,000 of them since hanging out their shingle.
Leg-injury experts have heralded ProStretch as a step beyond incline boards, streetside curbing and, well, steps. "Curbs and steps don't allow you to maximize your stretch," says Dr. Robert Dennis, an orthopedic surgeon in Neptune, N.J. "By supporting your foot, ProStretch lets you relax in the stretch." Dennis has found that ProStretch, used under supervision, can shorten ankle-injury recovery periods by two weeks. "That is a dramatic improvement," he says. "It's not penicillin, but in orthopedics, shortening that recovery period is what it's all about."
According to Fodero, 27 NBA, 10 NFL and five NHL teams now use the product. For big leaguers with really big feet, there is a wooden ProStretch that is about 25% larger than the plastic model. Pepper Burruss, assistant trainer for the New York Jets, keeps one on the sidelines during games, where it is used to relieve muscle cramping. Before ProStretch, Burruss had to rub out a player's leg cramps while hugging the afflicted limb to his bosom. "Having seven cleats digging into your chest is no fun," says Burruss. "We were pretty excited about ProStretch."
Some who were less than excited about the product have been converted. Marty Liquori, the middle-distance runner who suffered several ill-timed injuries, including a bone spur that kept him out of the 1972 Olympics and a pulled hamstring that foiled his medal hopes in '76, officially endorses ProStretch. "I was skeptical," says Liquori, a longtime curb-hanger. "I thought, why not just use a curb? But ProStretch hits a spot that no other contortion can get to."