Ex-ACC coach’s battle with Parkinson’s inspires apparel breakthrough

Once you get past the X’s and O’s, the job of a college football coach is to inspire those around him, encouraging them to do more than they ever thought possible.

Even though coach Don Horton has been away from the sidelines for 14 months, leaving his position as tight ends coach at North Carolina State in May 2012, he is inspiring more people than ever before, including those in his own family.

In 2006, when Horton was coaching for Boston College, he sat with his wife, Maura, in a doctor’s office and heard words that changed their lives. At age 48, Don was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, joining a million other Americans who suffer from the long-term effects of the debilitating neurological disorder.

For years, Horton did not tell his players at BC or North Carolina State. Then in 2009, an incident in the locker room changed everything. After a game, Horton was changing his clothes but couldn’t button his shirt. Russell Wilson, N.C. State’s star quarterback at the time (before transferring to Wisconsin in 2011), saw Horton struggling and offered to help.

Embarrassed to be losing control of such simple tasks, Horton told Maura what happened that afternoon.

Heartbroken, Maura Horton knew that while she could not cure her husband’s disease, she could solve one problem. A former children’s clothing designer, she went to the drafting board and began creating a shirt that Don could fasten on his own.

After tearing a few of Don’s shirts apart at the seams, Maura created a prototype dress shirt with faux buttons that clasped using magnets, which lined up behind the buttons with the top one using a slightly less powerful magnet, so it can be worn open or closed.

Her home-based company, MagnaReady, has exploded since word got out.

“The response has been overwhelming, really,” Maura said during a phone interview from her Raleigh home. “We have a lot of arthritis patients who have made purchases, a lot of stroke patients as well as people with tremors that aren’t Parkinson’s related. We have people who have broken shoulders or broken arms and amputees. Whether the disability is short term or long term, we see the full spectrum.”

MagnaReady does very little advertising. Most of the marketing comes from word of mouth or news reports.

One user who heard about the product from a friend was Hall of Fame baseball catcher Johnny Bench, who has been wearing MagnaReady shirts for some time.

“My husband is from Cincinnati, so I’m sure there was an Ohio connection,” Maura said when asked how Bench got involved with the product. “He’s not a paid spokesperson or anything. He just found out about us and contacted us. But he’s definitely in our corner, now.”

MagnaReady has the U.S. patent on magnet-attached shirts with two more patents pending. They will also have women’s shirts in production. And while Maura hasn’t reached out to the Parkinson’s Foundation or the Arthritis Foundation, there is one organization where she has made great inroads.

“We have reached out to the Wounded Warrior Project,” she said. “That is something that is near and dear to me. My father was in the service, and while he wasn’t wounded, it is something that is very important, and we are doing what we can to help.”

Soft spoken and polite, Maura’s voice grew stronger when she spoke of her husband. Don Horton underwent brain-stem stimulation surgery in January. Now, she says the 52-year-old coach is ready to return to the game he loves.

“He absolutely wants to coach,” she said. “My husband can contribute in so many ways. He has built up a lot of wisdom in all those years (he spent coaching) and he is an every-day example of persevering, which is one of the most important attributes in every locker room I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. Perseverance, strength: he embodies all those qualities.”

The same could be said for Coach Horton’s wife. And with a business that is thriving and helping others every day, Maura Horton is a perfect example of strength and perseverance paying off in the end.