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[Interview] Tony Hawk Discusses ‘Bones Brigade,’ Concussions, Longevity & More

Written by on November 8, 2012 

There are few people that are truly bigger than their sport, but Tony Hawk is certainly one — an icon known to many that have never watched skateboarding, let alone been on one. At one point, however, skateboarding was nearly a flash in the cultural pan, but Hawk and the fellow members of the nobodys-to-all-stars group known as the Bones Brigade stuck together through the ups and downs of the ’80s.

Stacy Peralta was the coach of that team and the director of the documentary Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, which explores the history of the group and what made the initial core tick. So, it was a pleasure to speak to speak to both of them this week. First up is my interview with Mr. Hawk, who was gracious with his time. I queried him about concussion testing in the sport, how the flatland ollie went from a game changer to being many kids’ first trick on a board they must master, if he walks around fine today despite being a trailblazer in the sport, and much more. Check out the interview below.

The Film Stage: When you were doing the Bones Brigade thing, I was young. And when I grew up, I wasn’t really into skating that much but I knew the first thing you had to learn was an ollie. The flatland ollie. Yet, you were doing verts and halfpipes way before the ollie even came about. You were blown away by it and now it’s like the first thing someone has to learn on a skateboard. How is it to see some of these tricks that you were inventing become step one?

Tony Hawk: Everything was very experimental. So it wasn’t like we were coming into some established regimen of tricks. We were trying to figure out what else was possible and to create whatever we can. So the flatground ollie was a natural extension of what we had been doing in the pools. It made sense to us but at the same time we didn’t really see the potential of it on a bigger scale because, back then, street skating was not something that was really established. So we didn’t realize the potential of jumping down stairs or over things. It just seemed like a novelty that you could do it on the ground. That being said, it is much easier when you get into something and there are all these established tricks already. Some of the stuff we were doing, we didn’t know if it was possible. Nowadays you see kids get into skating and they have these whole encyclopedia of moves that have already been done and they know they can strive for it and probably achieve. We were just making it up as we went. We didn’t know if a 540 was going to be possible. Nowadays kids grow up and someone has done a 1080. [Laughs]. That’s literally twice as many spins. I think because that is established for kids these days, it’s easier to get there.

I’m watching the X-Games this year and seeing all these people make a big deal about these teenagers doing the Big Air and stuff. But when you were coming up, you were winning competitions at that age. Is it odd seeing these kids get that much attention for that?

We don’t think about it that much. For us, when we were young, it was all so underground that it wasn’t like there was any press there to care about it anyways. So for the younger guys to be competing like us, it was that absurd. But I think nowadays it is a big deal because in the past, the only people who were skating these giants ramps were the veteran vert skaters. And now you see these kids that are literally 12 and 14 that are doing all of the same types of moves and I think that’s only because there are facilities available to them to practice on. Before, the only big ramp around was one that someone built in the desert for a video shoot that was only for a week. Now, some of the facilities are at skate camps. You can sign up your child to go to a skate camp for a week and they can try that very ramp. Maybe just do it into a foam pit if they want to. The fact that these ramps are available is a big factor.

One thing I find fascinating about these kind of documentaries is that a lot of times people have handheld footage of them as kids showcasing their talent. I noticed a lot of the footage shows you and the other skaters when you were really young. Was that just something where you setup a tripod and filmed yourself or had friends or family film you just goofing around?

If we had access to it, sure. Video cameras were brand new then. If someone was lucky enough to have one, we were happy to use it. We realized, very quickly, that was our chance to film our best stuff — document it. Not that we thought it was going to be a career move; we were just excited to be able to watch it later.

Something you touched on a little bit was this nasty crash where you hit your head and you busted out a bunch of your front teeth. You basically woke up in the hospital. Right now, concussions are a hot topic in a lot of sports. But I haven’t heard much made about it in terms of the extreme sports. Is there a lot of concussions in skateboarding or BMX or other extreme sports? Is there something the sport does to look at that?

Yeah, I think there’s just as many as any other sport. But to be honest, it’s not on the radar of mainstream media because our sports are considered fringe or whatever. But if you go to X-Games with a possible concussion, they will not let you compete. They are very well aware of all the data and studies being done on multiple head injuries. So, yeah, it’s not like we are flying under the radar of those studies.

I’m also curious about the longterm health in general. You were talking about how when you were growing up, you didn’t know what was possible — you were doing a lot of cutting edge stuff. I can see a lot of injuries cropping up. Do you walk around fine today or are kind of hobbled?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t say I’m hobbled, but I definitely have my moments. I get a stiff neck every once in awhile and if I do get hurt skating, it takes a little bit longer to get back in there. But for the most part I’m doing pretty well. I’m still in form. I’m still actively skating. I’m literally still trying new tricks. I guess we sort of learned how to keep our longevity, physically.

Was it all kind of a blur or was it really easy to sit down and talk about the Bones Brigade era? Did you need a refresher and was the gang being around helpful?

It was helpful to have each other around, definitely. For me, I kind of lived through another generation of popularity, I’d guess you’d say. Or another career in skating. So, to go back to the 80’s when things seemed like the biggest, ever. It was hard to remember all of the specifics but it was definitely easier to have everyone around to bring up those stories and the hardships we went through. Like when I stopped competing for a while and had to do some soul searching… that all seemed insignificant to me now. But it definitely meant the world to me then.

I’m glad you brought that up because there is a heavy moment in the film. But was that moment the only time where you really had to do some soul searching? Perhaps the hardest time?

That was probably the biggest moment of that era. I think the other big moment was a point where I considered leaving Powell to pursue my own thing much sooner than I actually did. There was just a mutual frustration with Powell and I think that I viewed the end result bigger than it possibly would have been. It was almost like I thought I was being held back by Powell at one point, and that I should go on and do my own thing — see how big I could really be. That’s the moment when maybe I was getting a little too cocky. [Laughs]. I reeled it back and I ended up staying with Powell for a long time.

There’s a moment where you are talking about how the bottom fell out from skateboarding in the early 80’s. You touch on it, but you also seem to dance around it. Was it just that these skateparks were being torn down and vert was the only real showcase for skateboarding?

Yeah, but there are a lot of factors that contributed to it. Basically, in the 80’s, insurance premiums were ridiculous. Trying to get coverage for a skatepark was insane. Skateparks just weren’t doing enough business to be able to pay them. So they started closing up. Skating was starting to decline in popularity already, but that was a big catalyst for it. So a lot of people started hitting the streets. We were relatively older and perhaps not as nimble to take to the streets, but we definitely did enough to be recognized for it. If there’s not a hobby in sports, you can’t really make a living at it.

You lived through this era when you saw the bottom fall out and then rise back up. When it started becoming a legitimate sport, was it only when you started making money or were people really catching on before?

We didn’t really think about that longterm when we were young. We were only 18, 19 and making ridiculous money. To us, it seemed like we were invincible. We could do it forever. But we found out relatively quickly that that wasn’t the case. I think it was more when things took a downturn that we realized if we wanted to do that, we’d really have to work at it. We’d have to figure out another way to be in this sport and this industry.

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is now in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

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