Every morning that Daniel Lister wakes up in his Georgia home and is able to put on a his sneakers, he’s reminded of how lucky he is to be alive. As he reaches down and struggles to pull his Air Jordans onto his prosthetic left leg in his, he’s helping himself heal on the inside, far away from the battlefield in Afghanistan that claimed his limb, his marriage, and a chunk of his sanity.
Lister has gained notoriety on Instagram, amassing over 68,000 followers, through his daily photos of him wearing his sneakers with his prosthetic decorated with Marvel Comics superheroes, but he had to go through a living hell—a life riddled with physical and emotional pain and addiction—to get where he is today.
His legs have always affected his shoe choices. As an overweight child, Lister had to wear corrective footwear, a la Forrest Gump, before he could purchase his first real sneakers. “I was a big-ass baby. I was super fat. I had bow legs because my bones were too soft and couldn’t hold my fat ass up. I had to wear corrective shoes with a bar between my legs,” he says. “The first pair of actual sneakers that I got was the “White/Cement” Air Jordan III in ‘88. I remember getting those and being so excited about it. They changed everything.” He also fell in love with “Aqua” Air Jordan VIII after Michael Jordan wore them in 1993 All-Star Game, and it fostered an appreciation for shoes that wouldn’t fade over the years.
Lister’s passion for shoes has also driven him to start a YouTube channel, where he routinely gives a view of his life from his sneaker room. He posts unboxing videos, shows off his collection, and expresses his views on topics within the footwear industry. The latter is also found on a podcast called The Monday Midsole, which he co-hosts Buckeye City Sole, Polos n Jays, and Unboxed Mike, where they This group of friends has become a support system for Lister, and he’d learn to build a similar brotherhood with them like he had with his fellow soldiers.
The now-36-year-old Lister says he never had much of a decision in life to do anything other than join the military, which he did in 2002. He grew up in various places across the country as a military kid and didn’t know where else to turn when it came time to figure out what he was going to do with his life.
“The reality of it is that I got married super young, cause I’m fucking dumb,” Lister says. “I had to figure out a way to pay bills. I needed medical insurance, because I started having babies. The only way I could do that is through the military. I knew that was how I could pay my bills.”
The Sept. 11 terror attacks didn’t completely inform Lister’s decision to join the military, but they made it easier for him to meet the requirements to join the U.S. Army, as branches lowered requirements for new recruits after 9/11. “I have a GED. I didn’t do so good at high school. When 9/11 happened, it made it easier for me to join, because they started accepting people with GEDs again,” Lister says. “They knew we were going to war, and I joined in February .”
Lister ended up doing four tours in the Middle East (three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan), and it made him feel alive in a way that he couldn’t capture back home in Georgia. The prospect of being in a war—or a fight for that matter—is supposed to chill someone to their core. Violence, and the threat of being killed, is never supposed to be exciting, but it gave Lister a calmness and camaraderie with his fellow troops. “I got to Iraq in September 2003, and that was the only time I was ever truly afraid,” he says. “After you get shot at the for the first time, that shit changes very quick. You’re no longer afraid. There’s anger and power that goes along with that. I was more comfortable there than I ever was back home.”
His job was to clear the way for other troops to make their way across the battlefield, He would blow up bridges, build them, and make sure fields were safe of mines. “If there was something in our way, I’d blow that shit up,” he says.
During his final deployment to Afghanistan, Lister went from safely leading fellow soldiers through war zones On June 2, 2010, he took the wrong step. Lister’s foot landed on an improvised explosive device, and it went off. “I got lit up,” he remembers. “I had 17 soldiers on the ground. I was doing my job. After a bad step, it blew me up. I never lost consciousness during the event. I remember every detail of it. My foot was gone immediately after the explosion. My right leg was ripped from my ankle to my hip.”
It took about 45 minutes for the medics to get to him, Lister recalls. He was then put on a Blackhawk and flown to the closest aid station where he received 20 blood transfusions to help keep him alive. “Once I got to the aid station in Afghanistan, I don’t remember anything else,” he says. “I think they had me in a medically induced coma. They had to perform a ridiculous amount of surgeries just to stabilize me. With my injuries, by all accounts, I should be dead. It’s a miracle that I’m up and walking. I got blown up on June 2 and I hit Stateside on June 3. Mail doesn’t move that fast. It takes longer for Nike to send me a pair of sneakers than it did for the U.S. military to get me out of Afghanistan.”
Lister says that the medics weren’t able to stabilize him and he kept dying. He was then taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he received serious treatment for his injuries and started an 18-month program to help his life get back to as normal as it was ever going to be ever again. This included revisions on his stump to make it better fit his prosthetic limb. It wasn’t just his right leg that was affected, but doctors also had to fix the tib-fib in his right leg, both of his femurs, and his right hip. His left hand, right arm, and both of his knees had to be reconstructed, too, on top of six skin grafts.
“I was miserable,” he says. “I spent four to five months in a hospital. I wanted to stay in the Army. The Army is how I define myself. Throughout my adult life, that’s what I was. This explosion took that from me, and I had to become something different. If it was just the amputation, I would have been fine. But three out of four of my limbs are trash. I wanted to stay in, because I had grown up in combat since I was 21 years old. I became a man in combat. I was more comfortable there than I was being a father or a husband.”
That’s when it began to set in for Lister that he was going to have to leave the military and do something else with his life. “I went through the tests to see if I could stay in, and I failed them miserably,” he says. “I had to start over. Who was I going to be now?”
Back home in Georgia, riddled with the pain and stress leftover from his nearly life-ending injury, Lister relied on drugs and alcohol to get through his days. After nearly dying, he chose to get sober.
“I had gotten to the point where I was hiding in my room and drinking and popping pills,” he says. “The doctors said, ‘Look, if you want to die at 35, keep doing what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Bombs can’t kill me, booze isn’t going to kill me.’’
At the height of his addiction, Lister was consuming a half an ounce of weed, an eightball of coke, and a handle of Crown Royal every two to three days. He took the money that he was spending on drugs and alcohol and put them into sneakers, which he didn’t own many of at the time due to the divorce he was going through.
“There was a time when I had a whole lot of shoes, but I also had a really pissed off ex-wife,” he says. “My shoes didn’t survive the divorce. You’ve seen pictures of when people have their cut-up sneakers? I had maybe 10 pairs that made it through that extravaganza.”
It wasn’t just the pursuit of sneakers that inspired Lister to get sober, but rather the effect it would have on his children. “I’m a single father. Unfortunately, my kids got to experience what it’s like to live with an alcoholic and a drug addict. I had to get sober for them,” he says. “I didn’t want to die and have my kids in the foster system.”
Once he became sober, the sneakers started to pile up. “If you go from buying an eightball of coke every other day to not doing that, you’ve got some income,” he says. “So I went and got all these sneakers that I missed out on back in the day.”
The sneakers started to roll in, and Lister started posting them on his Instagram account, One Legged Lister, and he noticed that people were engaging with his content because they rarely saw sneakerheads with a prosthetic limb. “I started posting sneakers that I was wearing everyday on my Instagram, then it started to take off. A lot of people feel shame about [having a prosthetic]. They think it’s ugly. I think it’s the shit. That’s my leg,” he says. “What really hits me is when these kids reach out to me who have cancer or have gone through a tragic accident. They say, ‘You make it OK for me to be this way.’ Those messages are the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. That was never my intent, it was just about, ‘Here are the kicks I’m wearing today, what do y’all think?’”
There have been negative remarks made on his Instagram page, too, but Lister doesn’t have to police the comments -- his followers do it for him. “You’re bound to get people who are like, ‘Ewww gross. Put your leg away,’” he says. “I don’t have to say anything. They get the sort of attention where they have to delete their own comments. Their negativity doesn't define who or what I am.”
He’ll never get his leg back, but Lister has found some sort of peace within his life, and it’s partly thanks to sneakers. His collection has boomed to over 200 pairs and he’s a regular at sneaker conventions, where kids come up to him to say hi and take pictures. But he still feels the pain every day—that won’t go away. He says his day-to-day pain is consistently a four or five on a scale of ten, but the psychological torment is something that won’t go away. “People can relate to pain, but they can’t relate to PTSD, because they can’t see it. It will be one of the hardest things I have to go through. It’s brutal.”
Lister is piecing his life back together, one sneaker at a time, but it’s not the shoes themselves that make him happy: It’s the relationships he’s forged through collecting. “This sneakerhead community has given me my life back, to some extent,” he says. “It’s made me feel whole again. My friendships that I have now are worth more than my entire sneaker collection to me.”