RALEIGH, N.C. — A small gesture by a big-time quarterback inspired Maura Horton to start her own business — and to help her husband in the process.
Horton’s husband, Don, a former N.C. State University assistant football coach, has Parkinson’s disease. After one 2009 road game, the coach was having trouble buttoning his shirt. He was tired from the stress of the game, and his fine motor skills were failing him.
The team, however, was in a hurry. Only about 10 minutes separated them from the locker room and their bus. And Horton usually needed 30 to 40 minutes to dress himself.
Russell Wilson, whose own father was suffering from diabetes at the time, noticed the coach. The former Wolfpack quarterback, who now plays for the Seahawks, buttoned the coach’s shirt for him.
In that moment, a business was born.
“Don came home and said he was embarrassed,” Maura said. “It was the first time we had addressed his challenges because we just really didn’t talk about it.”
So she set out to create an easier way for her husband to get dressed. Ultimately, she developed MagnaReady, a line of men’s buttonless dress shirts with magnetic closures aimed to help those with limited mobility.
It’s not just a business idea for Horton, 43. Above all else, she hopes the company will raise awareness about Parkinson’s. Katie Couric’s father died from the disease in 2011, and the television personality posed this question to her readers online: “How has it affected your life?”
“Parkinson’s disease makes me laugh, cry, experience humility and strength,” Horton responded. “Watching my husband’s path with Parkinson’s changes daily. … I can only hope someday that Parkinson’s outward symptoms will be as accepted as a beautiful bald-headed cancer survivor!”
Although Horton set out to develop a product that would help her husband, she found through research that her shirts could also help stroke patients and those with ailments such as arthritis.
She also is in the process of creating coats for children that feature the magnet closures. That line is scheduled to launch in time for the Christmas season.
“I think it’s going to help a lot of people, not just myself,” said Don Horton, 55. “It’s a great idea, and it’s going to affect a lot of people out there.”
Parkinson’s disease is a chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects motor skills. It is caused by a dopamine deficiency in the brain. There is no cure.
“There are four cardinal features,” said Dr. Patrick Hickey, a neurologist and Parkinson’s expert at Duke University Medical Center. “Resting tremors, slowed movement, stiffness or rigidity, and balance problems.”
According to Hickey, only 10 percent of patients are diagnosed before the age of 45. There is typically a lag time between when symptoms begin and when a diagnosis is made.
Horton was diagnosed at 48.
“I just noticed him being tired,” his wife said. “And one time we were getting off of a bus at a bowl game and I thought, ‘Something’s not right.’”
After the diagnosis, the coach was faced with how to handle his career and his family. For 35 years, his life had consisted mostly of football, from his playing days at Wittenberg University in Ohio through his coaching career at nine different colleges. Horton ended up confiding in former Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien.
“He didn’t want anyone else to know, and that was fine with me,” O’Brien said. “We’d go year-to-year and we’d see what he can handle and the rigors and requirements of the job, and we’d address it at the end of each year.”
Horton left N.C. State in 2012 after O’Brien was dismissed. Since then, he has been helping his wife with the business and serving as her sounding board.
“I come at it from a girl’s perspective, but I am selling a man’s product,” Maura said. “And he’ll say, ‘That sounds a little feminine.’”
Maura has sold more than 1,000 MagnaReady shirts, and she hopes to eventually get them into retail stores such as Belk and Macy’s.
Before the company launched, she was able to get preorders from two distributors: Buck & Buck, a clothing line that targets home health care and nursing home residents, and Daily Grommet, an online store that promotes and sells products that have unique stories behind them.
Turning the idea into a finished product took some trial and error. She experimented by adjusting the construction of other button-down shirts. She sewed magnets into the back of French-placket shirts and eventually used shirts with traditional plackets to keep the magnets from being visible.
She worked with different magnets of different strengths before finding the right one. Anything too strong and it would be too hard to get undressed. Anything too weak and the shirt would open too easily. She was also careful in the direction the magnets were installed so that jewelry didn’t stick and open the shirt. The finished product, which sells online for $54.99, uses nonfunctioning buttons to keep the look of a button-down shirt.
After completing her prototype, Horton realized the magnets rusted when the shirts were washed. And dry cleaning wasn’t an option for places such as assisted living facilities, where many of her targeted customers would be residing.
Those rusty shirts led her to China, where she found a place that would produce and seal the magnets. Through a colleague, she was introduced to Georgia-based Overton Apparel, which produces the clothes in Honduras.
“Sourcing is not a fun part of the fashion world, for sure,” she said. “It’s hard. Pricing, language barriers, quality issues.”
Horton began having magnets shipped from China to Honduras, where the shirts are being produced and up-fitted. From there, the shirts are sent to a warehouse in Cincinnati, where they are then shipped to customers. The process takes about four weeks, Horton said. The shirts are patent pending in the U.S.
After creating her first shirts, Horton needed funding. So she made a video and auditioned for the ABC TV show “Shark Tank,” in which inventors get capital for their products. That’s when a friend gave her audition tape to an investor who agreed to fund her idea, bypassing the show.
In January, Don had his first of three deep-brain stimulation surgeries, a procedure in which fine wires are passed through two targets in the brain. It’s helpful for those whose medications no longer alleviate symptoms throughout the day, Hickey said.
“The wires go to this area and are connected to a battery pack like a pacemaker,” Hickey said. “Through different manipulations of settings, these wires can be manipulated to improve the features of Parkinson’s.”
Because Don now wears the device, he can no longer wear the magnetic shirts, which bear a pacemaker warning.
It’s possible for strong magnets to turn the pacemaker’s battery pack on and off, Hickey said.
So Maura is faced with another challenge and another opportunity to help her husband.
“I could fall on my face,” she said. “But at least I’ll bring some awareness to the disease.”
—MagnaReady donates a portion of its proceeds to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
—Shirts cost $54.99 each and are available online at magnaready.com.