Puma, Under Armour made custom shoes for Eric Kilburn's size 23 feet
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Puma, Under Armour made custom shoes for Eric Kilburn's size 23 feet

Jun 06, 2023

GOODRICH, Mich. − Rebecca Kilburn felt guilt and a sense of shame as she watched her 14-year-old son playing football last year in shoes that were too small.

Eric Kilburn Jr. squeezed his feet into size 22 shoes − by far the largest on the field − but they still weren't big enough for the 6-foot-10 defensive tackle who would soon sprain his ankle, missing the rest of the season.

Less than a year later − after a mother's desperate search, the kindness of strangers and a series of whirlwind events − Eric finally has shoes that fit.

At the Martians’ first JV football scrimmage this season at Goodrich High School, about 15 miles southeast of Flint, Rebecca Kilburn sat watching her sure-footed son in cleats that weren’t painful.

Alone in the stands, in the pouring rain, she cried.

“Just seeing him perform to the best of his ability was a gift,” she said . “It was full circle emotion and just happiness to see him have the same advantages as other kids on the field do.”

It was a day Rebecca Kilburn was desperate to see. Finding shoes to accommodate Eric’s growing feet was increasingly challenging as he surpassed the largest sizes commonly produced by shoe manufacturers. In March, after a year of trying to find size 23 shoes for Eric that included direct pleas to shoe companies, she resigned herself to ordering Eric custom-made orthopedic shoes.

With specially made shoes costing $1,500 per pair, a friend, Kara Pattison, started an online fundraiser with a goal of $3,500 to assist Rebecca and Eric Kilburn Sr. in buying two pairs of shoes for their son.

Two days later, the Kilburns' dilemma went viral because of a story published by Hometown Life, part of the USA TODAY Network. Emails, texts and phone calls began pouring in. Amidst the suggestions on stores to try, instructions on how to cobble shoes and a basketball star to call (Shaquille O’Neal), there were offers of help from shoe manufacturers Under Armour and PUMA.

Both companies sent representatives to Michigan to measure Eric’s feet so they could craft shoes for him that fit.

After a fairly lengthy process, Under Armour donated four pairs of custom-made cleats and two pairs of SlipSpeed training shoes to Goodrich High School, which in turn gave them to Eric. (The donation follows MHSAA guidelines and ensures Eric Jr. can maintain amateur athlete status.)

“I got my cleats before conditioning practice and it was an immediate difference,” Eric said. “It’s insane how much more traction I got. It’s mind-boggling.”

The shoes are like “walking on clouds,” he said.

Both Under Armour and Puma, which is putting its final tweaks on Eric’s basketball footwear, declined to assign a number to a shoe size that had never before been created and which is also wider than the average.

“UA and PUMA both say these shoes are ‘Eric Kilburn-sized,’” Rebecca Kilburn said. “They don’t want to be numerical. Technically, they would qualify as size 23, but since there is no 23, it’s Eric-size.”

Meanwhile, it appears Eric may be a couple millimeters short of capturing the world record for a teenager with the largest feet. He stands a good chance of eventually setting the record, considering he's only 15. He may already have the largest hands, although Guinness has not yet made an official confirmation.

Eric is beginning to embrace his height, with a goal of reaching 7-1 so he can look eye to eye with “Uncle Shaq,” the basketball icon who called the Kilburns after their story went viral.

Shaquille O'Neal sent Eric a stockpile of Shaq shoes − although they are technically too small − and several large boxes of new clothes for the whole family, including younger brother Graesyn. Shaq sent his personal tailor to measure Eric and create two new suits for him − a blue one with purple paisley lining for homecoming and a black one with red paisley lining for prom.

He also provided the family with new MacBooks so they can keep in touch with Shaq via FaceTime. Rebecca Kilburn is also putting hers to good use in her work with the Big Shoe Network she started to help others with large feet find shoes that fit.

The network, which has gained more than 3,500 followers on Facebook, has a website under construction, thebigshoenetwork.org, and was recently granted nonprofit tax-exempt status.

Rebecca Kilburn is determined to pay forward the blessings her family has received, including working with Laces of Love, a Florida nonprofit, to provide shoes to a boy with feet similar in size to Eric.

The blessings have been abundant and are still coming with basketball shoes, dress shoes and hunting boots all being custom-made in Eric-size.

“I’m so grateful for everything,” said the sophomore, who has always stood out but now finds himself even more easily recognized as a local celebrity of sorts.

That has come with a few drawbacks, including internet trolls and even some envy and less-than-kind comments closer to home.

But the Kilburns are just trying to take it in stride.

As Rebecca Kilburn sat in the football stands during a recent practice, she reflected on the experience of the last several months.

“It’s been interesting, but overall I wouldn’t change it,” she said. “The relief I feel just knowing I don’t have to worry ever again about him having shoes … I am so thankful.”

She gazed out at her son as he ran drills, a head taller than everyone else. Eric is still growing and will likely always be the largest person in any crowd.

But for his mom, “No matter how big he is, he’s still my little boy.”

A little boy in big, big shoes.

Reporter Susan Bromley thanks the many readers who shared the Kilburn family's story and sent kind, supportive messages. You are the power of community. Contact Susan at [email protected]. Follow her on X @SusanBromley10.