Eric Sillies is a dreamer, an idea guy. He believes, in his words, that if you want to make things better, you have to make better things.
As an industrial design student at the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning just a few years ago and now a professional at the global design agency LPK downtown, he -- and others, including his young family -- knew he had the chops to live that creed. Belief and realism, of course, sometimes coexist uneasily.
But now he has $500,000 in prize money to make things better because he made a better thing.
Sillies won "Driver vs. Driver," a reality show run by venerable sporting goods giant Wilson on the Golf Channel. The finale aired Nov. 22.
Sillies designed the Triton, an adjustable driver with interchangeable sole plates held in place by three screws of varying weights that sells for $450.
He can send you on a technically dizzying journey about what the driver can do for your average or not-so-average golfer, and he's definitely the former.
Sillies, 26, said he plays golf, but he's "not a good golfer."
"I know everyone says their game is not good, but that's true of me," Sillies said. "I'm not an avid golfer in the sense that I'm good, at all.
"I got into this because I'm primarily a designer. My day job is as a product designer, which is right in the vein of what this show was. And I have a serious interest and passion in sporting goods and have some interest, some expertise (there), but very little dabbling in golf club design in the past."
Wilson describes the driver as a club "designed to make hitting the sweet spot intuitive and consistent. Two interchangeable sole plates and adjustable weights allow customization to get the best results for each player. The 1:1 alignment aid helps players set up correctly every time and create a solid repeatable swing."
Sillies worked as an intern for Dick's Sporting Goods, but that went only as far as internships go.
"Part of what draws me to being a designer and being an innovator is that I have a lot of ideas," Sillies said. "Some of them are bad, some of them are good. This obviously was one of my better ones, I think.
"It's pretty common for me to have some new wild idea that I want to chase, and I'm trying to figure out how to temper that. But that's what I love about what I get to do every day."
The journey on "Driver vs. Driver" began with an email. A friend and co-worker sent him a link. He pitched the idea, discovering later that it was among more than 300 entries. Wilson got it down to 11 proposals. That's when it all got real.
His wife, Jill, was eight months pregnant with daughter Riley, now 1, when he was informed he would compete on the show. His first child, Abbie, is now 2½.
So, over the last 15 months or so, Sillies has been either filming, designing, tweaking, flying, working, winning or promoting, sometimes several of those at once. And loving his girls. And keeping it all, in true reality-show fashion, a secret from everyone as the wide gap between shooting and airing was in place.
In the finale, you can see Jill mouth the words "Oh my gosh!" as Eric is announced as the winner.
"When I saw my reaction play out, I could see this huge sigh of relief," he said, "because I didn't remember how I felt, to be honest. It was absolute relief, because it had been months and months and months of buildup to this moment and I finally could relax and breathe for the first time in a long time."
Sillies' competition was stiff. There were engineers, a consultant for NASA, a Ph.D. Some competitors were teams; others, like Sillies, were single contestants. All had access to the crack technical staff at Wilson Labs, which helped hone their ideas into tour-worthy products. The judges were former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, longtime golf technology expert Frank Thomas and Wilson Golf president Tim Clarke.
Sillies had a telegenic presence that couldn't have hurt his chances overall, but Michael Vrska, Wilson's global innovation director of golf, says it was about the club.
"The show was about crowd-sourcing and innovation," Vrska said. "While Eric had a great personality and, I think, did very well on camera, that had nothing to do with him or his design winning. Triton won as it was the best-performing and most innovative driver idea."
As for the prize money, there'll be a little dreaming, some thank yous and a lot left over with an eye to the future.
"We see this as a huge blessing to our family and so we want to extend that as much as possible," Sillies said. "We want to find organizations who we think are doing great things in the city or in this country and help support them.
"Everyone's been amazing. We're all kind of in shock that it happened. There's a couple jokes like, 'I hope I'm going to get a better Christmas present.' People from every phase of life have reached out with support, just saying, 'Man, we're so proud of you,' ‘This is incredible,' ‘You deserve it,' ‘Couldn't have gone to a better person.'
"That is so meaningful. It's good to have people to affirm you in that way."