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Column - Lots of small shoes to fill

Do you realize how shoes actually impact your daily life or do you, like me, just take them for granted?

Shoes never really enter my mind for very long, unless, of course, my dog has snatched the very one I need at that moment and stuffed it away in one of her hidey-holes, leaving me scurrying around lop-sided until I find the missing footwear.

But shoes are a daily necessity, especially here in Minnesota, where winter temperatures plummet to sub-zero digits.

So when I heard a story on ESPN about American coaches going barefoot at a game in January to raise awareness about a charity that collects shoes for children around the world who would otherwise go without, I checked into it.

In this day, when nearly every sports story focuses on the negatives of college and professional sports (insert A-Rod, Michael Vick or Roger Clemens here), a positive story grabs your attention.

The charity, Samaritan's Feet, was the brain child of Emmanuel Ohnme of Nigeria. As a 9-year-old boy who had never owned a pair of shoes, Ohnme was befriended by someone from Wisconsin who gave him his first pair of shoes.

The young Nigerian was able to cultivate a talent for basketball, earning a scholarship offer to play at the University of North Dakota-Lake Region in Grand Forks. He went on to become an executive in a leading technology company, but never forgot what it was like to be shoeless.

What does that have to do with barefoot coaches?

In January 2008, Samaritan's Feet requested that Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana (with the unfortunate moniker IUPUI) head basketball coach Ron Hunter coach one game in his bare feet.

The goal was to help raise awareness of shoeless children, with the hope of raising 40,000 pairs of sneakers for African children to help commemorate the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's death.

That small tribute had an unexpected effect. By word of mouth and media coverage, more than three times the hoped-for number of shoes were donated.

The impact of that act grew considerably, as this January, more than 300 coaches nationwide coached barefoot.

And although the project may be nationwide, it has some Midwestern ties.

Along with Ohnme's college career in North Dakota, South Dakota State University men's coach Scott Nagy also found himself shoeless along the sidelines.

Nagy's adopted daughter is from Haiti, and when he and his wife traveled there to complete the adoption process, they saw the poverty that encompassed his child's native country. He was one of the very first to sign up, coaching barefoot on January 23 in a home game against North Dakota State during a Summit League contest.

The SDSU coach has collected more than 2,000 pairs of shoes for his simple effort.

NDSU Bison coach Saul Phillips also bared his soles during a game at Missouri-Kansas City, becoming the third of six Summit League coaches to do so.

As of mid-January, more than 900,000 pairs of shoes had been donated, with a surprise donation coming in early February when Kmart donated more than 1 million pairs of shoes.

That is the single largest donation in the history of Samaritan's Feet, and accounts for a full year's donation needs.

All those shoes - amazing. And all beginning with just one coach doing his job in bare feet.