The famous foam finger: Only the roots are humble.
The foam finger may be the only product famous not as an object of obsession but as a symbol of obsession. At the Super Bowl or a Pop Warner game, waving and thrusting in the stands, it amplifies devotion and evokes the deep connection between fan and team. The finger is defiant and triumphant and a little bit rude. We're No. 1! We're No. 1!
The dynamic digit was born in Texas, at a high school football pep rally. On a Friday afternoon in 1977, the Cy-Fair Bobcats were girding for a game with a conference rival. Observing the raucous, riled-up crowd, industrial arts teacher Geral Fauss retreated to his office and took out a sheet of poster board. He drew an outsize hand with the index finger raised, then sketched in knuckles, a picture of a bobcat, and "#1." He then sliced it out with an X-acto knife. In shop class, students saw the hand and made their own versions, which they waved at the game. The Bobcats lost. The hands were consigned to the trash.
A year later, No. 1-ranked University of Texas challenged Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, and team spirit was joined with entrepreneurial impulse. Over three weeks in his garage, Fauss used a jigsaw to cut 400 hands from Masonite: 200 in the "#1" raised-finger configuration and 200 that mimicked UT's famous Hook 'em Horns gesture (index finger and pinky up; thumb crossed over the second and third fingers). After spending the night in a Volkswagen van outside the stadium, Fauss set up shop on a street corner. A guard hustled him along but then suggested he talk to the guy in charge of selling novelties. The novelties guy agreed to let Fauss hawk fingers inside the stadium in exchange for 35 percent of sales. He also advised Fauss to raise the price from $4 to $5 to avoid the need to make change. The fingers sold out in half an hour. Some Notre Dame fans bought Hook 'em Horns and held them upside down. (It may have worked. The Fighting Irish trounced the Longhorns, 38 to 10.)
Fauss experimented with materials. Masonite was heavy enough to do serious damage in the event of a brawl. So was Homasote, a kind of fiberboard. Styrofoam worked better, and polyurethane best. It was light, didn't break, and could be compressed to make shipping cheaper. You could also slit the bottoms so fans could insert their hands, making the enlarged fingers--like their beloved teams--extensions of themselves.
In 1979, Fauss brought 5,000 hands to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (Crimson Tide 14, Nittany Lions 7) and once again sold out. So long, teaching career. He launched Spirit Industries and obtained copyrights on designs for the "#1" hand, Hook 'em Horns, and Texas A&M's "Gig 'em" hand (fist out; thumb raised). Nine U.S. companies now make foam fingers under license to Spirit.
Spirit employs 40 to 75 people, depending on the season. Fauss remains at the helm; his son, Deryl, runs day-to-day operations. Today, the company produces a variety of promotional items. But in terms of sales, the foam finger is still No. 1.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan