The Birdman Drops In
“I don’t even think of Tony as an adult,” said Phil Jennings, a 12-year-old I met at the HuckJam. “He doesn’t act like the big man. He’s one of us.”
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
THE GROMS PRESS FORWARD, inching eagerly toward the arena entrance. Mullet-haired rampheads, bescabbed halfpipe urchins, scuffling along in their clompy skate shoes, their laces tied with a precise looseness. Eight thousand zitty faces lit with incipient testosterone, waiting to be shown revolutionary ways in which Newtonian physics can be warped, postponed, and dicked with.
They’ve come to the Mandalay Bay Arena in Las Vegas for a new kind of entertainment, a show that pumps the raw crude of male adolescence, a hormonic convergence of phatness and sweetness and straight-out sickness. These young acolytes have come for amplitude, for stunts and biffs, for grinds and grabs and serious air, for loud music and fumy motorcycle farts.
They’ve come for the Boom Boom HuckJam.
Once through the doors, the grommets come face to face with the thing itself. Behind a scrim of netting lies a baroque installation of giant stages, jumps, and ramps glinting in a swirl of strobe lights. Soon the chanting begins toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE the whole arena surging with raw skate-kid wattage.
Tony Hawk is the mind and wallet behind this unprecedented show. It’s his private experiment, designed as a two-hour adrenaline extravaganza, a busy amalgam of motocross, BMX, and live music, with vertical skateboarding taking center stage. Tonight is the live debut of the HuckJam. It represents a huge financial gamble for the 34-year-old skateboarding venture capitalist; nearly $1 million of his own money is invested in this modern vaudeville act, which he will take on the road this fall.
To my immediate left, sitting with his dad in the VIP section, is Jonathan Lipnicki, the bespectacled 12-year-old child star of such movies as Stuart Little and Jerry Maguire. Lipnicki has been a Hawk fan for as long as he can remember. “Oh yeah, Tony’s, like, the greatest!” he says.
Now the circus-barking announcer starts whipping up the crowd: Las Vegas! We need a little thunder!
A few aisles over sit Hawk’s mom, Nancy, his wife, Erin, and his sister Pat, who manages the business that is Tony Hawk Inc. Near them is Sarah Hall, Hawk’s publicist, who used to work as a tour assistant for the singer Michael Bolton back when he had long, curly hair and lived at the top of the charts. “Tony’s bigger now than Michael ever was,” she confided to me earlier at the rehearsal. “Even at his peak, even with ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ He’s that huge.”
C’mon, Vegas we’re not with you yet!
In front of me sits an executive from Hansen’s, the beverage company. They’re poised to inflict a new energy drink on American youth called Monster. The exec says she’s been negotiating with Hawk’s people to strike up a sponsorship deal. “Tony’s hard to walk away from,” she says over the roar.
Energy drink? Like ginseng, ginkgo that sort of thing?
“Caffeine, mostly,” she shouts. “And sugar. We use lots of sugar.”
Las Vegas, let’s hear some more noise!
Now the house lights go out and a bevy of fembots jiggy young models in silver lamé body stockings, white Lone Ranger masks, and platinum-blond wigs come out holding signs that signal the start of the HuckJam. From the far stage, swaddled in a dry-ice haze, the punk band Social Distortion cranks up.
C’mon, people, let’s DO this!
Here come the skateboarders zipping down, one by one, from a 30-foot-high perch in the scaffolding. Like buzzy, looping electrons, Bob Burnquist, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda, Bucky Lasek, and Shaun White five of the preeminent vert skaters in the world power through the massive bronze bowl of the halfpipe and launch high over the lip in a dervish of spins and kickflips, ollies and McTwists. And then
Ladies and gentulmennnnnnnnn . . .
The man we’ve all been waiting for dives down the ramp, lanky and tough-sinewed and true to his name curiously avian, with a beaky nose and flailing arms and big, alert eyes. He soars through the air and lands effortlessly on the platform with the other skaters, Quetzalcoatl among mere mortals: The Birdman.
Calmly drinking in the adulation, Hawk hoists his board over his helmeted head and tips it toward the roaring crowd in a ritual gesture of beneficence, as if to say, “Welcome, children of the pipe, your sins are forgiven!”
Now let’s hear some Las Vegas thunder for TOE-KNEEEEEEE HAWWWWWWWWWWK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
A FEW DAYS BEFORE I FIRST MET Tony Hawk, I was skiing down a chute on California’s Mammoth Mountain when I hit a patch of ice. The next instant I was pinwheeling, out of control, for 300 terrifying yards. I ended up in the hospital with a broken humerus and a messed-up shoulder socket. Alex, the ski-patrol guy who sledded me down to the clinic, kept asking me questions. “Who is the president? What do you do for a living?”
I’m a writer, I said. I’m working on a story about a skateboarder named Tony Hawk.
“The Birdman?” Alex’s expression changed completely: No longer was I just another boring casualty. I’d seen the same look of reverence on the face of my nine-year-old son, whose room is pretty much wallpapered with Hawk posters. “Growing up, I worshiped him,” Alex told me. “I still do. He’s like a god.”
Three days later, I’m at the Four Seasons Resort in Carlsbad, California, my arm in a sling, trying to interview the god himself through a fog of Vicodin. The Four Seasons seems like a weird lunch spot for a skateboarder, a very staid, adult establishment with Haydn pomp-and-circumstancing in the background and, in one corner, a bridge game in full swing. But Hawk suggested the place and raved about its buffet. As we settle into lunch, I have a hard time cutting my prime rib with my slinged arm, and there comes an awkward moment when Hawk is clearly thinking, Should I help the poor wretch? He decides against it.
Maybe he doesn’t want to seem patronizing. Just as likely, he’s unimpressed by my puny injury. Here’s a guy, a professional human projectile, basically, who is intimately acquainted with words like meniscus and arthroscopic. A guy who’s knocked himself out a half-dozen times, fractured his ribs, broken his elbow, sustained several concussions, had his front teeth bashed in twice, all while collecting stitches too numerous to count. You broke your arm so what?
But as we sit there, Hawk’s initial reserve wears off, and he projects an endearing, youthful innocence. Though he’s the father of three boys, though he has three stockbrokers and two agents and rakes in eight digits a year, he still somehow carries himself like a kid, a man-teen in the promised land.
Hawk seems bright in the same way a bright 16-year-old does sharp, watchful, with quick reflexes but little use for introspection. His dirty-blond hair is neat and clipped short, almost to the point of spikiness. His voice still has an adolescent crack to it, and he speaks in Ridgemont High dialect, the stoner-surfer vernacular of Southern California, in which declaratives are haphazardly turned into interrogatives with a little last-second inflection. (“I don’t know why, but I’ve always had, like, a fetish for watches?“) His taste in movies is refreshingly juvenile. (Favorites: Caddyshack and Aliens.) He has a young person’s radar for musical infractions by artists he views as “lame” and a hypervigilance for the cool currency of brand names (just now he’s down on Swatch, a former sponsor).
After lunch, Hawk tips the valet and we hop into his Lexus sports car. As we glide onto Interstate 5, he steers with one hand and recalibrates his driving environment with the other, his long, bony fingers floating over the dials and buttons in the wooden inlay of his $70,000 ride. He adjusts his Arnette sunglasses, checks his Nixon sports watch, plugs in his Apple iPod, and scrolls through tunes until he finds one he likes, by The White Stripes.
“I can fit 1,800 songs on a single disk,” he says, with a geek’s pure faith in the righteousness of electronics. As we head north, the console’s navigational screen charts our blipping progress, as if we’re trapped in our own private GameBoy.
The Lexus an SC430 in a metallic plum color that the sales brochure calls “amethyst pearl” is a recent acquisition, a product of the phenomenal success Hawk has enjoyed since rising to the status of Zeus (or is it Seuss?) in the pantheon of kids’ idols. Nowadays, Hawk regularly commands up to $25,000 per skating appearance and has reportedly earned $10 million in personal income in each of the last two years. Hawk owns Tony Hawk Inc. a San Juan Capistrano, California-based company that employs 15 people and co-owns Birdhouse Skateboards, 900 Films, Blitz Distribution, and SLAM, an action-sports management firm. Through these he markets clothes, shoes, films, skateboards, gear, events, and even a slightly scary-looking remote-control action figure. Hawk’s got a foothold in retail, too, with new Hawk Skate stores in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Paramus, New Jersey. Combined with the licensing deals he’s made lending his name to “signature products” his mini-empire pulled in $314 million last year.
Looming over it all is the astonishing success of Activision’s three-game series Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, to which Hawk licenses his name, likeness, and expertise. Since hitting the shelves in 1999, Pro Skater has become one of the most popular video games of all time, generating $473 million, with more than 12 million copies sold. The game’s impact has helped make Hawk a fixture on every cable channel aimed at kids. Recent TV triumphs have included stints doing color commentary for skateboarding competitions; an ESPN2 reality-based show, Tony Hawk’s Gigantic Skatepark Tour; and a guest appearance on Nickelodeon’s hit cartoon Rocket Power. His autobiography, HAWK Occupation: Skateboarder, which came out in 2000, was a bestseller and has been optioned, perhaps inevitably, by Disney.
Thus the toys have increased in quantity and quality. Cartier watches, plasma screens, Armani suits. Over the summer, Hawk surprised Erin with a new BMW sport-utility vehicle. And then there’s the house, practically a zip code unto itself. A few years ago the Hawks bought a home on a lagoon in Carlsbad for more than $1 million. The bodacious 5,000-square-foot gated mansion has been duly featured on MTV’s Cribs. Things have actually reached the point where Hawk has started buying cars for his friends, like Elvis used to do. Because he’s a nice guy. Because he can.
HAWK AND I SPEED PAST SIGNS for Legoland, past the cancerous climb of pink mission-style apartment complexes, past a billboard for a house of worship that says GOT CHURCH? This is Hawk’s native turf, a place of beautiful weather, beautiful ocean, and not-so- beautiful suburban sprawl webbed by traffic-snarled highways. Though he travels constantly, Hawk feels at home only here, along this ribbon of coastal enclaves stretching north from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano the land where he was born and raised.
“Australia’s pretty cool,” he says, citing a favorite foreign locale. “But I can’t imagine living anywhere else but here.”
Hawk’s Nokia chirps for the third time in five minutes, but the liquid crystal display on the phone reads CALLER UNKNOWN, so he elects not to answer it. “Always suspect,” he says, the mild scowl on his face implying that too many strangers have gotten hold of his private cell number.
Hawk, a neatnik, keeps his Lexus immaculate. The only bit of clutter is a stash of DVD games and a PlayStation, which Riley, his nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, uses to occupy himself on long trips. “Those games are awesome,” Hawk says. “He never gets bored. He flew with me to South Africa recently, and he was engrossed the whole way. That’s like a 20-hour flight.”
One of Riley’s favorite games, naturally, is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. At the outset, players can scroll down a roster of real-life professional skaters and choose to “be” any one of them Rodney Mullen, or Chad Muska, or whoever. Each one looks strikingly like the real person and has a special arsenal of skating tricks. Riley likes to be his dad.
Riley, as it happens, is our next errand. It’s nearly three o’clock, and Hawk has to pick him up at elementary school. But not in this tiny roadster. So we dash by the house and exchange the SC430 for the Pickin’-Up-the-Kids Lexus, this one a roomy sedan. In a few minutes we’re idling in the train of waiting moms, some of whom turn away from their cell phones to throw Hawk a smile of recognition. Oh yeah, there’s the millionaire skateboard dad.
Soon the bell rings, and the building exhales a stream of laughing kids carrying backpacks. The traffic is bad “Cars come through here way too fast,” Hawk says but once there’s a gap, Riley crosses over and hops in, a good-looking third grader with blond hair.
“Hey, buddy,” Hawk says, smiling in the rearview mirror.
“Hey, Dad,” Riley replies. Then, under his breath: “Who’s this?”
Once Hawk introduces me, Riley seems satisfied, if thoroughly bored. He’s understandably suspicious of the stream of people vying for his father’s time. I make matters worse by telling him that I have a nine-year-old boy who’s into skateboarding, too.
“Oh,” he says, trying to be polite.
There can be little doubt that Riley Hawk will grow up with one of the most discerning bullshit detectors on the planet. As Hawk informs me later: “Riley’s gotten good at telling who really wants to be his friend, and who just wants to come over and skate with his dad. He can weed ’em out real fast.”
WAY BACK IN THE MISTS of Southern California history, back when the surfboard first sprouted wheels and rolled onto the kelp-strewn shores, in the dark time of teen endeavor that’s come to be known as B.E. (Before Extreme), the youth dwelled in a world that was, we now realize, pitifully dull. Gravity was a despot, feared and respected. During these primordial years the late sixties and early seventies the skateboard was a pale derivative of its aquatic parent. Skaters, by and large, were surfers who wanted something to do when the waves were flat and junky. They skated like surfers, too, with a hang-five style that was sinuous and cool but fundamentally uneventful.
Then one summer, during an even darker period known as the Late Jimmy Carter Administration, the swimming pools of Southern California went dry. A historic drought was on, and cement ponds were deemed a frivolous waste. In one of those crucial moments of Darwinian advance, packs of kids started sneaking into empty backyard pools to experiment with their skateboards. They discovered that, in a pool with a nicely curved bowl, they could go up and down and up again, almost endlessly, like human pendulums. If they gathered enough momentum, they could soar over the pool’s lip, do a little flippety trick in the air, and safely land to do it all over again in one continuous splooge of adrenaline. And so the board, having shed its fins for wheels, developed wings and broke gravity’s tyranny. It could fly.
Tony Hawk was growing up in San Diego when all this was taking shape. At the time, his father, Frank, was the president of the local Little League, and naturally he wanted his son to play baseball. But Tony hated America’s pastime, hated it to the core. He hated the rules, the funny pants, the yelling parents, the peer pressure. And the truth was, he wasn’t very good. As his older brother, Steve Hawk, 47, fondly recalls: “Tony wasn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. He kind of throws like a girl.”
One afternoon, after striking out in a game, seven-year-old Tony leaped into a nearby ravine and hid. Frank peered over the edge and implored him to come out. Tony wouldn’t budge, so Frank had to go down and drag him back up. Shortly thereafter, Tony worked up the nerve to tell his dad he was quitting baseball forever. At which point, Frank did a curious thing. Instead of getting angry, he quit baseball, too. And then he devoted much of the rest of his life to facilitating Tony’s growing love affair with skateboards.
Team Hawk eventually became an unbeatable combination, but Tony’s rise to prominence was far from preordained. To begin with, there was the fact that Frank and Nancy Hawk were not trying to have a fourth child when Tony came along. Frank, a champion swing dancer in Montana in his younger days, had flown torpedo bombers in the Pacific during World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he and Nancy settled down in California and started a family two girls (Lenore and Patricia) and then Steve. Twelve long years passed before Tony was born. Nancy, who was 43 when she had him, says he was “a complete surprise.”
Tony was a vexatious kid, full of what his mother calls a “ferocious determination” that was primarily directed at driving his parents crazy. “We said, ‘Wow, how can he fight two grown adults like this?'”
That all changed when Tony turned nine. Steve, an accomplished surfer who would later become editor of Surfer magazine, gave his little brother an old Bahne fiberglass skateboard. Tony took to it fast, and his mood became sunnier. He’d practice for hours at a time, never tiring of the endless repetition, until he nailed a trick that had taken root in his mind.
Frank aided the cause by building Tony a series of increasingly elaborate ramps. He was a salesman by profession, but his real love was carpentry; when a Home Depot opened in Oceanside, it became his tabernacle. When Frank learned, to his dismay, that skateboarding had no formal sanctioning body to oversee competition, he created one the National Skateboard Association and became its first president and guiding force. Many kids are drawn to skateboarding as a means of rebelling against their parents and authority in general. In Tony’s case, his father was the sport’s ultimate authority figure, the original skateboard dad.
In the early days, Tony was considerably handicapped by his pipe-stem physique. “People didn’t take him seriously at first, because he looked like a puppet,” recalls Stacy Peralta, 45, a famous skateboarder and promoter who in the 1980s tapped Hawk to join the Bones Brigade, a handpicked troupe of young skaters who traveled all over the world and appeared in Peralta-produced skater documentaries like Future Primitive and The Search for Animal Chin. “He was so fine-boned and brittle-looking, we thought, If he ever falls he’s going to break apart like porcelain.”
“The guy was just a stick man,” agrees Grant Brittain, the photo editor of Trans-world Skateboarding magazine. Brittain, 47, ran the Del Mar Skate Ranch when Tony first started skating there in 1981. “People called him ‘Bony Cock’ and made fun of him because his skating wasn’t very cool,” says Brittain. “It wasn’t surfer’s style, and getting that fluid style was all that mattered back then.”
Tony compensated for his gangly style by concentrating almost exclusively on tricks, perfecting a kind of human origami on the skateboard, torquing and compressing his body while launching himself in the air. These were viewed by the surfer-influenced skating establishment as technically impressive but seriously dweeby. “He became a very brainy skater,” Brittain says. “He was always a bit of a geek, anyway. He took that love for technicality and applied it to his sport.”
Gradually, however, Tony’s twisty-spinny contrivances were accepted as the norm in halfpipe competitions, and as that happened, his career took off. He turned pro at 14. By 17, he had moved out of the house and bought his own place. Three years later, he acquired a four-and-a-half-acre property out in the desert hills of Fallbrook, California, where his dad built him a “monster skate ramp.”
Rodney Mullen, a fellow conscript in the Bones Brigade who, at 36, is generally regarded as one of the most accomplished street skaters around, recalls how he watched Hawk with admiration and awe back then. “He was never satisfied with himself,” Mullen says. “He’s got this nagging for perfection. It has nothing to do with money or external praise or even the push of his father. It’s something inside of himself a duty he feels to his gifts.”
That sense of duty sustained Hawk through the ups and downs of his early career, and even now helps him deal with the maelstrom of fame. His father, however, never got to see that part of the story; he died of cancer in 1995. After he passed away, Tony and Steve decided to honor him in quintessentially Hawkian style: They swam out to a little cove and dumped their father’s ashes into the Pacific. But something about the ceremony seemed . . . off. Fortunately, Tony had saved a reserve baggie of his father’s cremains. So a few days later, he and Steve did it right. They went to Home Depot, snuck down Frank’s favorite aisles, and when no one was looking, sprinkled him around.
SKATEDOM IS A POLYGLOT subculture in which tribes and alliances are constantly metamorphosing according to genre (street versus vert), modes of protection (helmet and pads versus none at all), and music (punk versus hip-hop), among other things. Hawk’s rise through this world was not meteoric, but it was relentless. Bob Burnquist, a 26-year-old vert champion and friend of Hawk’s, has a phrase for what he brought to the party: tricks on command. “The dude invented half the moves everyone else uses,” Burnquist says.
Indeed, over the years, Hawk has created 85 new tricks (and counting), strange contortionist maneuvers with names like the Stalefish, the Kickflip McTwist, the Nosegrind, and the Gay Twist Heelflip Body Varial loose variations of which have also infiltrated snowboarding and surfing.
Hawk has been something else, too: a leading economic indicator of skateboarding’s broader national appeal. By the time he hit 20, he had won 27 pro competitions and was without question the greatest vert skater in creation. But all the tricks in the world couldn’t help him when skateboarding experienced a precipitous drop in popularity in the late eighties and early nineties, owing largely to a sketchy economy and a suddenly fickle teen market. Hawk, who had gotten used to owning a Lexus and constantly upgrading his computers and gadgets, was forced to sell the house, get rid of the car, and put himself on a five-dollar-a-day “Taco Bell allowance.” Things got so bad that he briefly contemplated taking a job as a computer programmer.
What turned things around was the arrival in 1995 of a curious spectacle: ESPN’s Extreme Games. Looking for a way to capitalize on kids’ growing fascination with edgy sports fare, the X Games introduced a halfpipe skateboard competition. It quickly became the marquee event, the perfect distillation of what the producers were driving at totally senseless danger in a controlled environment. And there was Hawk, the leading man in the main act, the pied halfpiper primed for prime time.
It was at the 1999 X Games in San Francisco that Hawk reached the height of his skateboarding career thus far. After 11 grueling tries, he landed a trick called the 900. The maneuver, which involves launching off the lip of a halfpipe, executing two and a half aerial rotations, and landing on the downslope without biffing, was a kind of Holy Grail of skating, a trick that many of the best practitioners had tried to master but given up on. Hawk had obsessed over the 900 for six years, working on it during his financial doldrums and through his ascendancy to household fame. He endlessly analyzed the physics of the thing, and practiced until he knocked himself silly. When he finally nailed it that night in San Francisco, he told the media, “This is the best day of my life, I swear to God!”
Since landing the 900 and officially retiring from competition in 2000, Hawk has transcended his sport to become a pop-culture superstar, crossing a threshold of celebrity from which there is no turning back. Whatever “extreme” really is flash, speed, exhilaration, freedom, the high likelihood of spinal-cord injury, all tied up in an aggressively marketable box the name Tony Hawk is shorthand for it. He’s the voice and look of a niche that’s grown so big that nobody calls it a niche anymore.
Stacy Peralta sees Hawk as “the walking icon of all action sports. He has this bit of magic inside of him, and everybody wants a piece of it.” Part of that magic is Hawk’s very name. “Mattel couldn’t have invented a better one,” Peralta says. “It’s like a toy name, a name for a cartoon hero. It sounds cool. And this is important it gives you the idea of soaring.”
Hawk despises the term “extreme” and much of what it implies, and he’s ambivalent about the role he has assumed as its leading oracle. “The term’s a little condescending to us skateboarders who’ve been doing our thing for more than 20 years,” he says. “Really, I’m doing the same thing I was doing when I was 12.”
It seems to make sense that a master of suspended animation would have a quality of arrested development, as if he freeze-framed the person he was when he perfected the thing that made him famous. People who know Hawk well talk about this strange quality he has. Peralta likens him to Peter Pan: “He’s shown kids they can be kids the rest of their lives.”
During an after-party at the Boom Boom HuckJam, I met a 12-year-old named Phil Jennings who had just wangled a free Birdhouse skateboard with Hawk’s signature on it. Grinning fiendishly as he clutched his new swag, Phil put it this way: “I don’t even think of Tony as an adult. He doesn’t act like the big man. He’s one of us.”
HAWK IS SITTING at his computer, talking to himself while he reads his e-mail. “They can really do that?” he murmurs. “Cool.”
His wife, Erin, a former competitive ice skater, is about to turn 30, and Hawk wants to surprise her with an ice-skating party so she can do some triple lutzes, just like old times. “It’s amazing what this company can do,” he says. “I looked into renting out a public ice rink, but it turns out that for 12 grand they can just come over here with Zambonis and stuff and turn our tennis court into a rink for a day.”
“The sanctuary,” as Hawk calls his office, is a big, bright room off the back of his house, pin-neat and stuffed with a carefully arranged assemblage of computer equipment. This is where he edits his skate videos for 900 Films, test-drives the newer versions of Pro Skater, and responds to e-mails from fans. He gets about 3,000 a month, and he’s diligent about responding, no matter how mundane the message:
Hey Tony. What’s your favorite pizza topping?
Artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes.
Favorite interstate highway?
The 5 leads me to most necessary destinations.
Hi I am looking for information on Tony Hawk. My nephew loves him! However, as I am trying to research this name on the Web, I am gathering that he is not, in fact, an actual skater but the name of a character in a video game. Is this correct? Is there a real Tony Hawk? Thanks.
Standing in one corner is a Marvin the Martian gumball machine. Along the wall there’s a framed Snoopy poster signed by Charles Schulz, and a photograph of Hawk straddling a motorcycle with his boyhood hero, Evel Knievel. Above his computer there’s a signed basketball jersey under glass: Chicago Bulls No. 23. I ask him how he came by this little gem.
“One night I was ahead at the blackjack table at Mandalay Bay, so I went over to this sports memorabilia place,” he says. “The jersey cost almost exactly the same as my take, so what the hell I bought it.”
Over the years, media people have compared Hawk to Michael Jordan with such frequency that his handlers have taken to reversing the analogy: Jordan, they like to say, is the Tony Hawk of basketball. Yet the comparison falls short. Hawk will be the first to tell you that skateboarding is vastly different from basketball or any other team sport. It’s unrealistic to expect any one person to represent all of skatedom let alone dominate it. “Who’s the best skateboarder in the world?” Hawk asks. “That’s all a matter of personal opinion.”
Certainly Hawk’s skating M.O. isn’t for everyone. Some old-school skaters tend to view him as a sellout, a circus act, or worse. Hardcore street skaters renegades in extra-baggy pants who aggressively trail-blaze urban obstacles and tend to flirt with the illicit thrill of getting arrested could care less about the Tony Hawks of the world. If they think about him at all, they’re inclined to blame him for commodifying, and therefore dorkifying, their pure underground pursuit.
Hawk has been hearing such gripes since he was 16, and dismisses them. “Pro skaters have always had ties to the skate companies, since the beginning,” he says. “So what? You could call me a sellout only in this sense: My stuff actually sells out.”
Not that many skaters seem to begrudge his success. “Even the most hardcore noncommercial skater says, ‘Tony Hawk deserves what he gets,'” notes Grant Brittain. “We all remember the guy when he was destitute and eating at Taco Bell.”
Rodney Mullen concurs. “You can say that skateboarding has been sold out to some extent, and Tony’s been part of that, but at the same time he’s got so much integrity. Skating’s the only thing he knows. It’s his expression. It’s the pen with which he writes his verse.”
Hawk gives me a tour of the house, which is a fair workout. The place looks like a sumptuous cross between Pier 1 and Circuit City. There are walls of speakers and big-screen TVs, with remotes and joysticks neatly stashed everywhere. He leads me to the great room, where the oversize couches are piled high with throw pillows. “You can’t really sit in here,” he says. “Erin has a bit of a pillow obsession.”
He shows me the command center for all his electronics. Discreetly lodged in a massive piece of distressed furniture, it connects every imaginable system VHS, DVD, a 100-disc CD changer, laserdisc, Dreamcast, and a few generations of PlayStation, all wired to high-end pre-amps and equalizers and sliding control switches for each room in the house.
At one point, Erin comes dashing in with their one-year-old son, Keegan, and their three-year-old son, Spencer. Keegan’s smelling pretty ripe, so Erin tells Hawk to go change him. As he dashes down the hall, the baby tucked under one arm, Erin says, “Honey, you’re not going to belieeeeve what happened today.” She has a prom queen’s effervescence, but she’s clearly had a tough day in the child-rearing trenches. Spencer apparently bit one of his playmates. Erin says she spanked him, which she’d never done before.
Meanwhile, all afternoon, Riley’s been out by the garage, feverishly skateboarding. I’d seen his room earlier; it’s a gilt forest of skating trophies. “I really don’t pressure him,” Hawk says. “It’s just that he’s been at it since he was three.” Riley’s practicing up for a little stunt that will involve jumping over the Lexus SC430 in an upcoming advertisement for Hawk Shoes, Tony’s own line of Adio skate footwear.
“You’re not going to be mad at me if I scratch up your car, are you, Dad?” Riley asks later.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hawk deadpans. “If anything happens, we’ll just take it out of your college fund.”
LATE ONE AFTERNOON, Hawk exits the highway on the outskirts of Oceanside and noses into the drive of a modest ranch house shaded by eucalyptus trees. There’s a cluster of cars wedged into the yard, and next to the house a high fence guards what appears to be a large vacant lot. “Only a few of us have the key to this place,” Hawk says with a grin as he cuts the engine. “We’ve tried to keep the location a secret.” Then he gives me a look that says, Whatever you do, don’t disclose it.
Today he’s wearing baggy skater’s shorts that come down almost to his knees and a T-shirt touting a sponsor, Quiksilver. His shoes are white-white, with a red “H” on them. A pair of Hawks, fresh from the box.
We get out, and Hawk opens the trunk and grabs an assortment of skating paraphernalia, along with a brand-new board made by his own gear company, Birdhouse. On the board’s underside there’s a skeletal hawk, its skull and beak sharply etched, its long talons stretching hideously as if to pluck its prey. “Rad graphics, huh?” he says, semi-facetiously. Hawk has to change boards every few weeks, he says, because the old ones quickly grow spongy and lose their pop. He tightens the trucks with an Allen wrench and lays a fresh sheet of grip tape on top of the deck.
He unfastens the gate and we file down a sandy path to behold a neighbor’s worst nightmare: a stark new edifice risen from the brambles, a mountain of plywood. Call it the Hawk’s Nest, his own private skate ramp, the test laboratory where he invents and perfects his latest tricks.
Last year, Hawk’s celebrity grew to such a degree that he could no longer skate at his local ramp at the Encinitas YMCA without being interrupted by strangers pestering him for autographs. So he designed this leviathan of lumber and had it built for about $100,000. Even bigger than his old ramp in Fallbrook untold truckloads of two-by-fours, metal pipes and rails, and Skatelite, a smooth, bronze, polymerized plywood, went into the construction it would have made his father’s eyes water.
As I watch, Hawk’s movements take on a crisp new deliberateness, a tight gathering of energy that I haven’t seen before. It reminds me of something Bob Burnquist said: “One minute Tony can be all teenagerlike, and the next he’s all business. He can flip the switch just like that.”
He’s all business now, and the clock is ticking. He’s aware that everything the companies, the sponsorships, his house and cars is built around what he cooks up here. Like Houdini, like Knievel, Hawk acutely realizes that as far as the demanding public is concerned, he’s only as good as his latest trick.
And so, in “retirement,” he’s had to concoct increasingly bold and sometimes cheesy stunts to catch the public’s eye. Over the past few years, he has, among other things: vaulted between two six-story buildings in downtown Los Angeles; ollied over recumbent Today show host Ann Curry; and launched himself across the “Murrietta Fat Gap,” a huge set of ramps separated by a hair-raising gap that grew from 12 to 18 to 24 feet wide as Tony ratcheted up the pucker factor. This he built just so the feat could be documented by the drooling photographers of Transworld Skateboarding. And now there’s the Boom Boom HuckJam, which he’s taking on a 24-city tour this fall.
Hawk has fun coming up with these projects, but he’s under an enormous amount of pressure. Kids pepper his Web site (clubtonyhawk.com) with e-mails beseeching him to try the next obvious permutation of the 900: a 1,080, three full rotations in the air. “1,080 OR BUST!” they write. Hawk’s usual response: “I’m gonna have to go with ‘bust’ at this point.”
Walking beneath the halfpipe’s ribbed underbelly, we hear the scratch and smack of urethane wheels on the upper lip. “Sounds like a good session,” Hawk says. He hasn’t had a chance to skate in days, and he’s itchy and restless. A small group of his buddies are already on the ramp. Chris and Jesse are here, and there’s Matt and Andy. A few hangers-on click pictures and hoot praise ooooooooohyeah, sick whenever someone lands a nice one. Hawk and his crew greet one another with a series of inscrutable salutations various yodeling noises, Hawaiian-style bruddah handshakes, catcalls of sweeeeeeeit, dooood the preverbal patois of the skating fraternity. To his friends, Hawk is known simply as T, as though more than one syllable would break the linguistic bank.
Hawk grew up with many of these guys, and partied with them when his ramp in Fallbrook was the place to skate and hang. Now he employs many of them. They travel with him, promote him, shield him. And, of course, they skate with him. Hawk would no more want to skate alone than an improv saxophonist would want to jam by himself in a phone booth. A good skate session is a social event, with each athlete bringing something to the party and feeding off the spontaneity of the group.
Hawk is visibly impatient to skate, but first things first the tunes could stand some improvement. He patches his iPod into the boom box that’s set up beside the massive floor of the halfpipe. A minute later the place is throbbing to “Terrible Lie,” by Nine Inch Nails. Satisfied with the mood music, Hawk ascends the stairs to the ramp’s 15-foot summit and, in a flurry of scritching Velcro, dons his exoskeleton of elbow guards and knee pads. I take a seat on the platform behind him and watch as he girds himself. It’s then, for the first time, that I notice his shins. They look like they’re covered in barnacles, 20 unforgiving years of scars and stitches and scabs layered in endless combinations: a palimpsest of injury, a wound that never heals.
“You’re overrotating, dude,” he says, dispensing advice to a younger skater who’s having trouble landing an aerial. Then he stands back, surveying the scene below with a magisterial aloofness.
Hawk straps on his helmet and brings his board to the metal coping that defines the brink, nudging the nose over the precipice. He’s looking across the halfpipe now, at a rail set high over the lip. For the past week he’s been obsessing on a new trick that involves hitting this rail in a certain glancing way he’s never done before.
“You could call it a Frontside Overturn Grind, or you could call it Frontside to Switch Crooks,” he explains, opaquely.
This is the way he skates, even among friends. This is the “nagging for perfection” that Mullen speaks of, the delicious little problem that’s turned like a worm in his imagination. Now he gets to solve it.
Hawk glances west, where the sun is lowering into the Pacific, whence all boards sprang. He composes his lanky frame, tenses his stringy arms. His bulging blue eyes intensify. He looks suddenly serious, sober-minded, fiercely adult.
The bronze swell is clear for takeoff. Someone yells out, “T!” And then, with all eyes watching in fresh admiration, the Birdman drops in.