Tony Hawk was nine years old when his brother changed his life by giving him a blue fiberglass banana board.
Before skateboarding Hawk was a self-described nightmare. "Instead of the terrible twos, I was the terrible youth," he said. "I was a hyper, rail-thin geek on a sugar buzz. I think my mom summed it up best when she said, 'challenging.'"
He was also pathologically determined. When Tony was six his mom took him to an Olympic size pool. "He decided that he had to swim the length of it without a breath. And then he was so frustrated when he didn't do it," his mom, Nancy, remembers. "He was so hard on himself and expected himself to do so many things." Another time Tony struck out in baseball and was so distraught that he hid in a ravine and had to be "physically coaxed out" by his father.
His frustration with himself was so harsh that his parents had him psychologically evaluated at school. The results were that Tony was "gifted," and school advisors recommended placing him in advanced classes. The root of his frustrations was uncovered as well: "The psychologist said he had a 12-year old mind in an 8-year old body," his Mom recalls. "And his mind tells him he can do things his body can't do."
Luckily, for those around, Tony's brother, Steve, supplied the answer to his sibling's brain/body problem-he gave him a skateboard. Tony started goofing around on the thin Bahne board, and his body finally caught up with his brain. "When he started getting good at skating it changed his personality. Finally he was doing something that he was satisfied with," Steve said. "He became a different guy; he was calm, he started thinking about other people and became more generous. He wasn't so worried about losing at other things-he wasn't as competitive at Pac Man as he had been."
His mother agrees with a laugh, "I was just glad he was taking all his energy out on skateboarding and not on me."
But Tony was still beating himself up. If he didn't skate his best in a contest-even if he won-he would be silent, and when he arrived home he'd take his trusty cat Zorro up to his room to be by himself. "If I don't do my best it kills me," he lamented.
It's not entirely clear where all of this determination came from. At least some of it, no doubt, came from his father, Frank, who flew torpedo bombers off of aircraft carriers in World War II. More than providing the genes, however, Frank Hawk also played a major nurturing role as Tony progressed as a skater -- not by teaching or training, but by throwing his full support behind his son's athletic passion. Frank drove Tony up and down the coast of California for skate contests, built innumerable skate ramps over the years, and when he grew dissatisfied with the competitive organizations, founded both the California Amateur Skateboard League and the National Skateboard Association. The NSA's high-profile contests have been credited with helping the sport surge in popularity during the 1980s. Frank died in 1995.
By twelve, Tony was sponsored by Dogtown skateboards, by fourteen he was pro, and by age sixteen Tony Hawk was the best skateboarder in the world. In the ensuing 17 years, Hawk has entered an estimated 103 pro contests. He won 73 of them, and placed second in 19. By far the best record in skateboarding's history. (He even won a contest after a redeye flight and only three hours of sleep.)
Unfortunately, being the world champion of skateboarding doesn't necessarily translate into financial security. Skateboarding is notorious for its peaks and valleys in popularity. As a senior at Torrey Pines High School in Del Mar, Calif., he was able to buy his own house at age 17. Two years later he bought another house: a four-and-a-half-acre spread in nearby Fallbrook, where he built a monster skate ramp at the top of a hill. A smaller ramp was wedged between his house and his pool. Hawk was constantly traveling worldwide for demos and contests. He was making enough money to buy his friends trips to Hawaii so everyone could vacation together. He married Cindy Dunbar in April 1990 and they lived in Fallbrook. Always an electronics nut, Hawk constantly updated his computers, stereo systems, video cameras and cars (he has a Lexus fetish). But, one day in 1991 this all came to an end. Tony felt the bump on his helmet and when he looked up, it was too late; the sky was already falling.
Skating died. Not a slow death where you could see it coming and plan ahead, this was a blood-hose-out-the-nose aneurysm at the breakfast table. Tony's income shrank drastically, and suddenly his wife, a manicurist, was the family breadwinner. The times were so lean that Tony was allotted a daily Taco Bell allowance of five bucks.
The next few years ripped by in a blur of financial uncertainty and personal eruptions. He sold the Fallbrook house and the Lexus and in 1992 Cindy gave birth to their son, Riley. Tony refinanced his first house and started a skateboard company, Birdhouse Projects, with former Powell pro, Per Welinder. Two years later, he and Cindy divorced. Birdhouse wasn't making money and Tony's future was sketchy. If he couldn't make a living skating he figured he could either edit video for other companies or get a job "sitting behind a computer doing some sort of programming or web design. I thought skating was over for me." (Hawk is a proud computer geek.)
But skateboarding went through its cycle and was deemed cool again. The Hawk became the Phoenix. In 1996 he married his current wife, Erin, and bought a new house with a new pool with a new waterfall. Birdhouse is now one of the largest skateboard companies in the world and he's signing six-figure endorsement deals with companies like Adio shoes. In 1998 he and his family started a kid's skate clothing company called, of course, Hawk Clothing, which was acquired by Quiksilver in early 2000. In 1999 Activision and Tony created Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game for PlayStation. They expected decent sales, but the copies blew off the shelves and it quickly became a bestseller. The next year, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 was released and jumped to the number one position for over a month. Since then, the THPS series has become one of the best-selling video-game franchises of all time. A fifth version is due out this fall.
Tony's success overflows into the non-electronic world as well. His autobiography, HAWK -- Occupation: skateboarder was a New York Times bestseller and is currently available in paperback. He created Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour for ESPN, which is second only to the X-Games in viewership.
Today, Tony's days adhere to an outlandish dichotomy. Recently, after slicing his shins open while shooting a TV commercial (probably needed stitches but didn't go to the doctor) he had to rush back to pick Riley up from school. On March 26, 1999 Erin and Tony had another baby boy, Spencer, who already has a weird attraction to skateboards--he rides a mini-board around the kitchen. Tony's third son, Keegan, was born July 18, 2001, and he has proven to be even more of a lunatic daredevil than his father. Shortly after Keegan learned how to walk -- and climb -- Tony walked into the kitchen to find his youngest son standing on a chair with an ice pick in one hand, a knife in the other and a small lightbulb in his mouth.
"It makes me proud that I can switch from being a skater to a responsible parent," he said. "But," he's quick to add, "I don't feel as old as other parents."
He may not feel as old as other parents, but he's old enough to have retired at age 31. It should be made clear, though, that in skateboarding the word "retire" doesn't mean you stop skating. It simply means he's stopped competitive skating. He still skates almost every day, still learns new tricks, and still does several public demos a year. He was recently voted the best vert skater by readers of Transworld Skateboarding magazine. One of the reasons Tony decided to stop competing at the end of 1999 was that he landed the first-ever 900 (two and a half mid-air spins) at the X Games. The 900 was the last on a wish list of tricks he'd written a decade earlier. The list included ollie 540, kickflip 540, varial 720 and the 900.
In 2002, Tony launched the Boom Boom HuckJam, a 24-city arena tour featuring the world's best skateboarders, BMX bike riders and Motocross lunatics performing choreographed routines on a million-dollar ramp system, while a big-name band (such as The Offspring, Good Charlotte and Social Distortion) plays live on an adjacent stage. The hugely successful (and massively publicized) HuckJam tour sold out arenas across the country, and Tony has officially confirmed that it will return again in fall 2003.
With the creation of the Tony Hawk Foundation, Hawk also has made an effort to give something back to the sport that has given him so much. Designed to promote and help finance public skateparks in low-income areas, the foundation distributes more than $400,000 a year to non-profit groups building skateparks throughout the U.S.: from Homer, Alaska, to Needles, California, to Greencastle, Indiana, to Glenwood, Arkansas, to Livermore Falls, Maine.
"I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out," Tony says. "I mean, I never thought that I could make a career out of skateboarding."