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Phat, Dude! Huge Air!

John M. Glionna is a Times staff writer

Tony Hawks roller-coaster flight of speed and grace begins here, atop a yawning rickety-looking pile of plywood and bolts at an Encinitas skate park.

* His board balanced by feet more nimble than many people’s hands, he contemplates a takeoff from the precipice of the 11-foot-high, U-shaped track called a half-pipe. Then Hawk soars. Silently, with a slight kick of the board, he floats for one breathless moment, airborne for a freeze-framed nanosecond, before descending into the depths of lacquered track. * Barnstorming up the other side, Hawk launches his body 10 feet into the air above the lip--twisting, turning, seemingly reckless as he reaches between his legs to take hold of the board. Then, without so much as a flinch, it’s back down across the concave half-pipe, soaring past the brim for another of the patented 100 trick moves he has invented or improved since he began skateboarding as a 9-year-old in San Diego, 20 years ago.

* At 6-foot-three and 170 pounds, the flying Hawk is all elbows and armpits, his spine arching at angles extreme enough to make your back ache just watching him, his frame resembling some modern-day Ichabod Crane, a gangly Big Bird in mid-flight.

* Immediately come the awe-struck reviews: “Ohhhhhhh,” gasp two dozen or so gawking onlookers.

* “That was phat, man,” says a freckled 12-year-old. “Huge air!”

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* “Damn, the guy just doesn’t fall.”

* “Oh my God, what was that?”

* “An ollie-tailgrab-to-fakie, stupid. Don’t you know?”

* To the hard-core believers--these 10-year-old boys with kneepads and helmets and bare-chested teens with bandannas and schoolyard smirks--Tony Hawk is the undisputed skateboard heavyweight of the world, the master-blaster of this strangely subversive sport--a hybrid of street surfing, gymnastics and balls-out vertical skating. Hawk is the King: Michael Jordan on a 32-by-9-inch hunk of hardwood. Air Tony.

Kids hyperventilate when they meet him. Because, dude, the Hawk man rarely, if ever, falls. And not just that. He started skating when he was a rug rat, just like them, a kid who Just Said No to organized sports such as baseball, forsaking those bossy coaches and pansy uniforms for the individual freedoms of his rebel skateboard.

But here’s the really weird part: Parents like Tony Hawk, too. People over 30, who’ve never been on a skateboard their entire lives, have watched his aerial antics on ESPN’s X Games.

What they see is a performer who, at age 29, is closer to their age than that of their children, not some slouching teenage slacker with a “Go to Hell” attitude carving up curbs and benches with a board. Hawk is just like them, a husband and father and a real-life businessman--a partner in Birdhouse Projects, a leading manufacturer of skateboards and accessories.

Hawk endures his sport’s juvenile-delinquent fringe element. At skating events, he remains a loner who punches his clock on the half-pipe, staying clear of skateboarding’s unleashed partying atmosphere. Away from the skate park, he remains a regular guy who never turns down a request for an autograph, a skater who’s maintained the innocent demeanor of some Got Milk? ad amid the antics of those teenage suburban anarchists boasting stomach tattoos and pierced lower lips.

He’s a soft-spoken professional, driven by the standards set by his late father, who was among organized skateboarding’s earliest promoters. Hawk keeps skating because he still sees room for improvement. There are moves he hasn’t mastered, tricks that, quite frankly, still scare him. It’s a grown man’s work ethic that draws him back to this world dominated by the young and the restless.

Still, something about watching Hawk transcends sports: You don’t have to be a skater to marvel at his command of his board, just as you don’t have to understand basketball to appreciate a soaring Jordan.

But it’s the young skaters--the skinny kids in their formative, pre-confidence years--who are most drawn to Hawk. They know that his wimpy arms and stickman frame drove Hawk to devise a smarter way to fly, one that uses his entire body to propel the board. They know that he has worked on tricks for weeks at a time, taking fall after bloody fall, finally able to do things with a board that older skaters at first mocked but that, years later, admitted are, well, just cerebral.

At 14, Hawk became the youngest professional skateboarder ever, and he has gone on to win scores of vertical events, more than anyone in the sport’s history. At 17, he bought his first home. Meanwhile, Hawk has endured countless bangs and bruises that might have sidelined lesser competitors: knee surgery, broken teeth and ribs, concussions and dozens of sprained wrists and blue-black ankles.

Kids love that stuff.

Tony attributes much of his high flight to the other supportive Hawks, a poster family for the Southern California lifestyle. There’s sister Pat, a former backup singer for Michael Bolton and the Righteous Brothers; brother Steve, an accomplished surfer and editor of Surfer magazine; sister Lenore, a bilingual education coordinator for the Solana Beach school system, and mother Nancy, a stay-at-home mom who earned a bachelor’s degree in her 50s and has since added two master’s degrees and a doctorate.

Most important, there was Frank, his sometimes-overbearing father, who created two different leagues so his son could have an arena to compete in, allowing Tony to skate nearly unscathed through several dips in his sport’s popularity. In the span of a decade, Tony Hawk careened from a $200,000 annual salary in the 1980s to having to borrow money from his wife for his favorite Taco Bell fast-food fix in the drought years of the early 1990s.

Now, resisting impulses to quit in order to spend more time with his 4-year-old son, Riley, Hawk remains poised to ride the crest of what could be skateboarding’s biggest surge, ready to assume his role as this counterculture sport’s bridge to the mainstream.

Already he’s performed in 25 skating videos and has had bit parts in several films. He’s done commercials for Campbell’s soup, Levi’s, Gatorade, Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Gillette razors and AT&T;, and he once skated as Tony the Tiger in a Frosted Flakes commercial.

Hawk recently finished a 30-stop national tour before jetting off for exhibitions throughout Japan and Switzerland, competing for first-place money that can reach $10,000. In between, he’s posing for magazine shoots, meeting with directors for a possible HBO movie and helping design his company’s new computer Web site.

But Hawk is also the old man of skateboarding, an aging gunslinger all the upstarts are aching to call into the street. Slowly, in whispers at tour events, professionals 10 years his junior are questioning Hawk’s courage to risk something new.

Not these kids at the Encinitas skate park, though. They watch spellbound as Hawk sails high for another daredevil aerial.

Then it happens: Hawk loses his balance. Collapsing, he uses his kneepads to slide to an abrupt halt on the half-pipe floor. The crowd gasps. For a lingering moment, Hawk-the-Hero stays crouched in a huddled ball, his helmet resting on his knees.

For one lingering moment, Tony Hawk is human.

*

To big Frank Hawk, that lovable lug of a father with the bad heart, the news that day in 1979 came like an angina attack. His youngest son, Tony, was quitting Little League baseball to pursue a sport that didn’t have teams or coaches or that all-out-hustle attitude. The 11-year-old wanted to pursue skateboarding.

Years earlier, Steve Hawk had given his younger brother his first board, a Bahne fiberglass model, and showed him a few tricks. After that first ride outside his house in Tierrasanta, a San Diego suburb, when he yelled to Steve, “Hey, how do I turn this thing?” Tony was hooked.

“Every time I went to the skate park, I would leave thinking I was better than when I came,” he reflects. “I never felt that way with baseball. And skateboarding was such an individual thing. If you messed up, you didn’t let the team down.”

But Frank was to become the local Little League president the next year. For many fathers, this would have been a declaration of war, a perfect time to trot out the old “not as long as you’re living in my house” speech.

Not Frank. The decorated Navy pilot, who flew during World War II and in Korea, didn’t play that game. In his life, he worked halfheartedly at various sales jobs--from musical equipment to used cars--taking every opportunity to rush home to his kids.

Pat Hawk recalls her dad as a rough-edged individualist: “He was just this side of Archie Bunker--thank God he was a Democrat. He didn’t have a lot of friends. I just imagine people thinking, ‘Oh, God, here comes Frank Hawk again.’ With my Dad, his kids were his friends.”

Whatever the kids wanted was OK with Frank. When Pat wanted to become a rock singer, he drove her to lessons and gigs, even built her a P.A. system. When Steve took to surfing, Frank chauffeured him to the beach.

It was no different with Tony. Soon, Frank, too, quit baseball and began driving Tony and his friends to local skate parks. In 1980, Frank organized the California Amateur Skateboard League (CASL). For other skateboarders, though, competing in a league just wasn’t cool--especially one started by somebody’s father.

Tony bore the brunt of the tension. With every contest he won came the unspoken hint among other skaters that this was Frank Hawk’s show, so his son just had to win. “It was hard for me to do my own thing, with the way my dad got so involved,” Tony recalls. “But now I see he was the guy who stepped in and got organized skateboarding started when no one else would. Looking back, I don’t understand how he could have been working. He must not have been, with all the hours he spent at the skate park.”

Frank relished his role as family cabdriver, taking Tony and his friends to meets and practice, always stopping for a wholesome meal, Frank-style: Bob’s Big Boy, baked potatoes with the works, In-N-Out specials.

Still, while Tony’s parents welcomed visiting skaters to Hotel Hawk for some nurturing atmosphere, there remained an unspoken rift between father and son.

When Frank was just being Frank, barking at kids in his roughhewn Montana accent for cutting in front of his son’s practice runs at local parks, Tony slipped away in frustration. At competitions, he wouldn’t even make eye contact with his father."I always tried to distance myself from him, but he knew what was going on,” Tony says. “Maybe he was hurt, I don’t know. Once he told me, ‘If you don’t want me so involved, you can get your own ride to the skate park.’ ” The strain intensified after Frank, in 1983, created the professional National Skateboard Assn., working like an unpaid beast of burden to organize national events that his son usually won.

Detente finally came the following year, the afternoon Frank thought he was having his third heart attack. He and Tony were home alone, and as they waited for the ambulance, Tony told his father how much he loved him, how he was the greatest dad, how much he appreciated everything he had done. Those sentiments fueled Frank like nothing before. As Tony grew older, when he bought his own homes, Frank was there, barging through the front door with his toolbox, building porches and skate ramps in the backyard.

Until March 1995.

That’s when Frank found out he wasn’t going to die of a bad heart after all. The diagnosis was inoperable lung cancer. By July, Frank’s health had plummeted. Tony was preparing for an out-of-town event and his father insisted he not stick around to baby-sit the old man.

From the road, Tony called to say “I love you, Dad,” but Frank wouldn’t be drawn into a maudlin scene. “I know you do,” Frank whispered into the telephone. “But you still can’t have my Bud Light.”

More than 250 people attended Frank Hawk’s funeral. There were eulogies published in skateboard magazines and one written by son Steve in Surfer magazine.

The family spread most of Frank’s ashes in the ocean off San Diego, but Tony has one last plan to memorialize his father. In a drawer at home, he has kept a Baggie with some of the ashes. One day soon, he will go to the Home Depot in Oceanside, Frank’s second home. There he will spread the remaining ashes on the scuffed-up floor.

Explains Tony: “I think my Dad would get a kick out of that.”

*

This is what becomes of a young boy’s dream to become the best skateboarder on the planet:

On a blazing-hot, late-summer afternoon, Tony Hawk stands in the back parking lot of an Ontario outlet mall, being interviewed by a miniskirted radio personality who probably wouldn’t know an ollie (the basic move of popping the board into the air with your feet) from a Wilson (slipping on a board like a banana peel, named after Mr. Wilson of the Dennis the Menace cartoon series.)

He answers her questions with a few shy, mostly monosyllabic responses that show how much more graceful Hawk is riding a skateboard than he is talking about it. Later, he’ll skate-crash through a banner to open a new virtual-reality video arcade inside the mall.

The stunt preceded a six-week tour during which Hawk and several other professional skaters, sponsored by his Birdhouse Projects company, traveled by Winnebago to cities from Overland Park, Kan., and Kalamazoo, Mich., to Beltsville, Md.

At the Ontario mall, Hawk looks uncomfortable with the attention, just as he did during this year’s X Games in San Diego when ESPN announcers fawned over his every move. Hawk had asked them to give more air time to other skaters, but they assured him more viewers would be attracted to the relatively unknown sport if they concentrated on its star.

“People say I’m the Michael Jordan of skateboarding, but to me, that’s all just X Games hype,” Tony says. “I’m no Michael Jordan. I’ve just always had the desire to keep getting better, no matter what standard I’ve reached. Maybe people read that intensity as greatness. For me, it’s just finding something new to do with a skateboard.”

When he turned professional in the early ‘80s, skaters dismissed Hawk’s gawky style as mere circus moves. Those were pro skateboarding’s infancy days, before the modern-day half-pipe, when skaters blasted about the bowls and over the concrete lips of empty swimming pools. Skateboarding magazines wouldn’t interview him. Riders laughed behind his back.

“But what Hawk was showing them all was the future of skateboarding,” says Stacy Peralta, Hawk’s former sponsor. “Tony had achieved a way to launch a board out of the pool with the sheer force of his body, to achieve incredible heights.”

Then came the 1986 movie that would forever change skateboarding. And Tony Hawk’s life. “The Search for Animal Chin” was one of a series of documentary-style skateboarding films directed by Peralta and featuring kids such as Tony doing incredible new tricks with their boards in a new $55,000 phenomenon known as the double half-pipe, which Peralta had built in Oceanside.

It was the “Hard Day’s Night” of skate films, and young Tony was its mop-headed star. After taking their boards to the streets when pool skating died years before, kids around the country started building their own ramps. The films launched the popularity of the Bones Brigade, the team of skaters, including Hawk, assembled by sponsor Powell Peralta, at the time a leading manufacturer of skateboard equipment and apparel.

Vertical riding was back. And throughout the rest of the 1980s, the Bones Brigade became the Chicago Bulls of skateboarding, hogging the top spots at nearly every contest.

Those were heady days for Hawk. A new Tony Hawk signature skateboard marketed by Powell Peralta sold 20,000 in one month, and Tony got $1 for every board sold. In 1986, at age 17, he paid $124,000 for a house in Carlsbad and later added one in rural Fallbrook.

Still, the doubters remained.

As Steve Hawk recalls: “In 1986, after Sports Illustrated did a story on Tony, there were letters to the magazine for weeks from people saying, ‘How could you devote six pages to a skateboarder? That’s not a sport!’ ”

Through it all, Tony stayed close to his roots. When he wasn’t touring as part of the Bones Brigade, he was at home playing computer games with friends, driving his venerable, beat-up old Honda Civic.

There were pressures, though. Judges began to grade him more critically; every run had to be perfect. By the late 1980s, Hawk considered quitting competitive skateboarding. “I had done it so long and had reached the level I had wanted to reach,” he says. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”

And in the fickle, topsy-turvy world of vertical skateboarding, the popularity of which rises and falls like a skater on a half-pipe, strange things were happening: A meaner, harder edge to advertising and promotion was introduced by a cadre of smaller skateboard-accessory companies aiming for a piece of the financial pie.

The image of skateboarder as street punk intensified--antisocial little mall rats riding boards pasted with skulls and crossbones. During that same time, first Stacy Peralta and then Hawk left Powell Peralta, and the number of sponsored contests plummeted.

For the first time in Hawk’s life, money became an issue. His then-wife, Cindy, a manicurist, gave him a few dollars every week for food and gas--money his friends starting calling the Taco Bell allowance.

It was in the belly of those days that Hawk hooked up with Per Welinder, a Swedish skater with business sense, who had an idea that the two could start their own skateboard company. They could market their products using the strength of their assembled team of skaters, not through shock advertising (such as an ad one company ran in a skateboard magazine, showing 40 ways to kill yourself).

So Tony sold the Fallbrook house and took a second mortgage on the one in Carlsbad--all to raise his half of the $100,000 needed for a start-up investment. “It was a roll of the dice,” he says. “Here was everything I’d worked for all my life, and I was willing to drop it all into one last stab at things.”

They started the Huntington Beach-based Birdhouse Projects in 1992, and the company has become a leading skateboard and accessory manufacturer--due partly to a line of Tony Hawk signature skateboards, shirts and stickers. Last year, Birdhouse grossed more than $14 million, up from $800,000 just two years before.

And thanks to exposure from events such as the X Games, vertical skateboarding is back on top once again, this time with a newer, younger generation of skaters, all anxious to take a swipe at Hawk. Most readily admit he is still the best. But at some events, there are rumblings: Hawk is getting too old to keep pace with the new skating styles. Just maybe, they say, the Hawk should retire.

“Most guys are doing new stuff, but Tony sticks to the tricks he did years ago,” says 21-year-old Australian skater Tas Pappas, who has bested Hawk at several events. “Most people think Tony Hawk is some kind of god, but not everyone. Know what I mean?”

*

Standing in the garage of his new home in Carlsbad, Tony Hawk-the-dad points to the miniature quarter-pipe he built, Frank-like, for his son, Riley. “He could do an ollie at, like, 3 years old,” Tony says proudly.

Nowadays, Hawk also has a new lease on his personal life. Too much time on the road helped end his first marriage, he says. He has joint custody of Riley, and Tony and his second wife, Erin--a former professional in-line skater--have talked about a child or two of their own.

Meanwhile, father and son are inseparable. When Hawk is not touring, he drives Riley to swim class to watch him paddle around. Most afternoons, there’s Tony, sitting poolside, using his cellular phone while Riley chugs back and forth in the public pool.

Tony would love to see Riley pick up the skateboard but doesn’t push him. Encouragement is the key. Let the boy take his own direction.

Just like Frank.

Friends and family say Tony has rarely sought the skateboarding spotlight, so it will be no shock when he finally drops his board for golf clubs. His gift to the sport will always be his fierce longevity, and there are a million other ways Hawk can contribute.

Like working to change skateboarding’s bad-boy image, the stigma existing even in his hometown of Carlsbad, where it is banned in many public places. Hawk could be the perfect diplomat to drive home the point that, as the bumper stickers say, “Skateboarding Is Not a Crime.”

“People see surfers as rebels,” he says, “but in a positive way--and skateboarders as the bad rebels.” “What they don’t realize is that the kids wouldn’t be in their face so much--out there on the street, carving up curbs and park benches--if they’d just provide them some place to skate.”

These days, Hawk divides his time equally between skateboarding events and his duties at Birdhouse, which include organizing promotions and supervising the company’s dozen sponsored skaters. That’s not about to change any time soon.

“I’ve already been through one surge of popularity in the sport, and I know it doesn’t last forever,” he says, his voice understated, almost shy. “It’s tough, having a family and all, but I’ve got to skate while the skating is good.

“I have a feeling that I’ll know when it’s time to hang it up. It’ll just come to me.”

Still, he is torn. While his greatest fear is fading out, becoming the athlete who stuck around a season too long, something drives him toward the road at the mention of another tour or competitive event.

Leaving for the most recent U.S. tour, he hugged a weeping Erin and said that he wouldn’t be doing it much longer, that this might well be his last long trip.

“But,” as she noted later, “there’s always that qualifier in there.”


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