LAND O'LAKES — Ben Hedblom's tattered black sneakers flap when he walks, turning his white socks a little grayer with every step.
The toes of his size 11 feet stick out of the dilapidated cross trainers. Plastic bags offer the only puddle protection on stormy days.
Yet Hedblom still sports the shredded, treadless Nike Shox he first tied on as a Land O'Lakes High School freshman. A bet, after all, is a bet.
Four years ago, Hedblom made a wager with Spanish teacher Adrian Antonini that he would wear the same shoes through to graduation day. The loser would shave his hair and eyebrows.
Antonini, who picked the terms of the bet at random, left the school after that year. But Hedblom, now 17, kept his end of the bargain.
Now, as he prepares to graduate, he has found that the shoes have come to define him even more than his status as the popular captain of the 9-2 football team. And the lessons he has learned from wearing them propelled him to a perfect score on his senior class project, while also providing the realization that there are some caring people in the world willing to help a teen who looks down on his luck.
"It made me think less of what other people think of me. And it made me approach them and talk to them. And they got to know me as a person. That goes way past the physical experience," he said. "I've learned a lot about self image. You are what you believe you are."
His story is practically legend in the halls of Land O'Lakes High. There's hardly anyone who hasn't heard about the shoes.
Sophomore Arielle Le-Tran said she felt sorry for him when she first saw the shoe remnants laced to his feet.
"I just thought maybe he didn't have any money," added sophomore Sierra Harlan.
She, like so many others, asked what Hedblom was up to. He launched into his tale of his wager, his effort to stay true to his word and his experiences with strangers who approached him at McDonald's offering to buy him new shoes.
His dedication amazed some.
"I don't know how he kept shoes that long," said senior Chris Martin. "I can't even keep a pair of shoes two months."
Best friend Michael Moran was not surprised at all.
"If anything, this just proves who he really is," Moran said. "He's not going to lie. He's going to go through with this."
Hedblom's teachers at first thought he was joking about the shoes. But as the time passed they became believers.
So when Hedblom proposed focusing his senior class project on the psychology behind his effort, the teachers were all for it.
"This is the most original one I have ever seen," said Nancy Browning, his psychology teacher and project mentor. "It's amazing how creative you can be about taking care of your needs."
He focused his project on the initial perceptions that people had when seeing his ratty old shoes, and how he would persuade them to understand that it's not all about the shoes.
"I was just like every other high school kid. Every couple of months I would like to go buy new shoes. I like to look good," Hedblom said. "But something happened. It changed."
Of course, not everyone was thrilled.
His mom, Chris, for instance, said she begged her son to buy new shoes. He refused, she recalled, and said staying true to his word "really meant something to him."
"He reminds me of his father, who would wear the same shirt for 30 years," said Chris Hed- blom, who reluctantly warmed to his bet.
She's fine enough with the whole deal that she supports her son's next proposal, to wear the shoes to his June 5 graduation. They don't exactly meet the graduation dress code, but Browning said she will try to persuade the principal to allow them.
Then there's just the matter of collecting on the bet.
"I would love — love — to see him shave his head and eyebrows," said Ben Hedblom, who didn't know where Antonini is. "He's probably wimping out."
After several calls, the Times found Antonini on his way to Texas, where he's interviewing for a baseball coaching job.
"I'm shocked," said Antonini, who may end up shaving his head via webcam. "I don't even remember the bet. But I'm sure I made it, because that's the kind of thing I would do."
After graduation, Hedblom plans to retire his Shox. He hopes to get them into the school trophy case. He's still not sure what shoes he'll wear when he starts at Hillsborough Community College. He has had several offers, though, to buy him something new.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614.