Swinging for the fence

Former Diamond Dawg leads Bulldog 100 with sports protection gear

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(from left) Neifer’s dog Ollie, Stan Kanavage, Justin Niefer, Stan Payne, and David Hudson. Photo by Angelina Bellebuono

 Justin Niefer (BS ’05) wasn’t sure where his future lay. Having completed his eligibility with the UGA baseball team, he spent the summer of 2005 in Illinois with the minor league Windy City Thunderbolts but realized that professional baseball lacked the camaraderie he found most appealing about sports.

After returning to Athens for his final semester of classes in consumer economics, Niefer began a part-time job that evolved into a full-time dream.

The part-time job was with All Sports Training, owned by fellow Bulldog Stan Kanavage (M ’78). The full-time dream came a few months later when Kanavage announced that he was starting a new business, one focused on developing sports-protection gear made of a new lightweight and malleable substance that hardens to fit the wearer’s body and disperses impact. Kanavage invited Niefer and Stan Payne (M ’97), another All Sports employee, to join David Hudson and himself in establishing this new company.

For Niefer, the product, originally dubbed All Sports Armour, offered the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a commercial phenomenon that could someday be as well known as Gatorade. By the end of 2006, chest and back protectors were in production and in 2007 Niefer proposed a new name for the company—Evoshield.

“The ‘Evo’ stands for how the material evolves from a soft material into a hard shell, but it also stands for our vision of evolving the world of sports and the way athletes are protected during competition,” he says.

Niefer spent his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y., but moved to Cumming with his family during his senior year of high school. After graduation he went to the University of Cincinnati on a baseball scholarship. There he became captain and was named to the All-Conference USA Team.

After three years he transferred to UGA and quickly established himself with the Diamond Dogs, moving into the top 10 hitters in the country. But a freak accident in Louisville, Ky., virtually ended his college-baseball career.

“We were warming up, in the snow, at the old Louisville fairgrounds,” he recalls. “A coach hit me a deep fly ball. I put out my hand to stop myself and caught it on the old metal lettering they still had on the fence. It ripped a hole in my hand that resulted in nerve damage.”

“I consider it a blessing,” he says now. “If that hadn’t happened, I might be playing in the minor leagues and this [he motions around his Evoshield office] might not have happened.”

In 2007, Niefer traveled to spring training in Florida to introduce the gear. The first seven major league baseball teams he met with placed orders. Back home, the Georgia baseball team began wearing Evoshield products and word soon filtered to UGA quarterback Matthew Stafford (M ’10) and his football teammates.

“What we heard was that the players felt faster and more protected in Evoshield gear,” Niefer says. Independent testing has in fact shown that Evoshield disperses energy rather than absorbing it, which is what occurs with traditional foam and plastic gear.

The company now includes 12 different products and 80 college and professional teams as customers.

Kanavage speaks with pride about the accomplishments of Niefer and Payne in growing Evoshield from an idea into a business that was listed last year as the second-fastest-growing business in the Bulldog 100, a program sponsored by the UGA Alumni Association that rates companies by their compounded annual revenue-growth rates during the past three years.

“They’ve worked diligently, developing ideas, selling and showing. They’ve done everything that needed to be done,” Kanavage says. “Whatever Justin does, he does with passion, and he’s been very passionate about what we do and how we do it. He’s matured into someone who could today start and run his own company.”

About the Author

—Denise Horton is the director of communications for the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.