Nike has an edge in athletic and sports-culture merchandise because its product designers are always focused on the needs of athletes, said David Heath ’76, Nike’s vice president of U.S. sales and customer service.

The sales chief for the world’s biggest athletic-shoe maker spent Oct. 2 with marketing graduate and undergraduate students at the invitation of Mays’ Center for Retailing Studies. But Nike is about much more than footwear—Heath told students that marketing and product creation teams work together to craft new and better equipment for athletes.

Fans at Aggie football games might notice one of those innovations: rolling maroon coolers on the sidelines. They don’t hold iced drinks, but they do ice down linebackers, thanks to Nike. Before each game, linemen don a vest under their uniforms, and when they take breaks on the bench in the heat, athletic trainers pump the vest full of icy fluids through a spigot near their shoulder pads.

The result? A rested-up, cooled-down player ready to get back in the game. And, Heath says, a competitive advantage for any Nike-sponsored team.

“That came from athletic insights,” Heath explained. And he would know. The A&M graduate earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in physical education and was the first full-time assistant athletic trainer for all Aggie athletics—handling what is today accomplished by a staff of 18.

Heath spent eight years with Adidas before joining Nike as a regional apparel sales manager in Dallas in 1990. He directed U.S. territory sales, managed the U.S. equipment division and directed commerce in the Americas region before he became vice president for U.S. sales in 2004. Heath is responsible for the wholesale business of Nike branded footwear, apparel and equipment sales in the U.S.

The distinction between Nike and other brands in the market also comes from the company’s focus on sports performance. “If you don’t stay grounded in performance, then you’re at the whim of fashion,” he said. “Consumer insights tell us where we want to play, and grounding all of our products in sports keeps us true to our name.”