Jeff Grosso: The life and death of skateboarding’s soul

Jeff Grosso’s first skateboard wasn’t a lot.

It was a hand-me-down miniature-sized banana board he bought from his mother’s boss when he was 8 years outdated. Even for 1977, it was antiquated, with rickety outdated clay wheels and worn-out bearings. Grosso barely knew the right way to stand on the factor, struggling to maintain his steadiness with out toppling to the bottom.

However for a curious boy whose childhood dwelling was subsequent to a steep hill, there was an on the spot connection. He would sit on his again or lie flat on his abdomen and let gravity take over. Each time he bombed down the road, he fell extra in love with the sensation.

“Initially, it was the push of happening a hill, and the wind in your hair,” Grosso as soon as mentioned. “Poetic nonsense.”

The skateboarding world appears a lot totally different now than it did then. Its ever-increasing reputation is pulling the basically subversive sport into the mainstream. Previously relegated to again alleys and sparse concrete parks, it’s now set to debut on the Olympic stage throughout this summer time’s Tokyo Video games.

However someplace at its core, the lust for that poetic nonsense stays.

Nobody understood it fairly like Grosso.

“He was the gatekeeper to why skateboarding was cool,” mentioned skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.

Grosso seemed an unlikely determine for such a task. He didn’t have an extended professional profession, flaming out on the finish of the Nineteen Eighties, hardly spanning the last decade. He battled drug habit and suicidal despair. By his late 20s, it appeared like his life had bottomed out.

However then he rebounded, embodying the resiliency that has outlined all the historical past of his sport.

Grosso grew to become an envoy, talking for skateboarding’s soul via his beloved “Loveletters to Skateboarding” YouTube present. He was a guardian and a serving to hand to skateboarding’s latest technology.

Jeff Grosso skates at Joe Lopes' backyard ramp in San Leandro, Calif., in 1984.

Jeff Grosso skates at Joe Lopes’ yard ramp in San Leandro, Calif., in 1984.

(J Grant Brittain )

In some ways, he was like a north star, his effervescent character and endearing pertinacity emitting a guiding mild via the game’s most transitional instances.

And when he died unexpectedly final March of an unintentional drug overdose, it left a void the skateboarding world continues to be attempting to fill.

To greatest perceive skateboarding — its counter-culture roots, its rise to the Olympics, its helter-skelter story of competing kinds, clashing customs and self-sabotaging plot twists — it’s greatest to grasp somebody like Jeff Grosso.

Sophisticated. Flawed. However an genuine supply of pleasure to the tip.


“It’s a complete rush. It’s the sensation that once you go on the market along with your board, it’s a no-hero kind of factor. And also you both accomplish one thing otherwise you don’t.” — Jeff Grosso, to the St. Louis Dispatch in 1986.

The rarest sight in skateboarding could be a frown.

Even after a failed trick or nasty wipeout, most skaters are wired to smile, snicker, shake off the mud, and climb again on their boards.

That carefree disposition is what initially captured Grosso’s curiosity. A cussed and expressive freckle-faced child born in Glendale in 1968, he felt like an outcast from a younger age. He favored to attract, learn “Lord of the Rings” and take heed to punk rock. He picked contrarian arguments throughout conversations merely to spark a debate. And he moved round loads as a child: from the hillside home in Eagle Rock, to Las Vegas for a 12 months along with his mother, after which to Arcadia for the beginning of fifth grade.

Although he was naturally athletic, he discovered the structured stress of group sports activities arbitrary and suffocating.

Solely when he was on a skateboard did Grosso really be at liberty.

“You’ve gotten this tradition of children that want that,” mentioned his mom, Rae Williams. “They should go and do that and be artistic and give you new methods and take a look at various things.”

Jeff Grosso does a frontside smith grind at Vans skatepark in Huntington Beach on March 20, 2014.

Jeff Grosso does a frontside smith grind at Vans skatepark in Huntington Seaside on March 20, 2014.

(Vans / Anthony Acosta)

Like Grosso, skateboarding’s subversive identification was nearly baked in from the beginning.

Initially popularized within the early Sixties by Southern California browsing firms innovating dryland options, the game was rapidly tagged with a harmful repute. In 1965, the California Medical Assn. referred to as it “a brand new medical menace.” Cities throughout the nation banned the exercise on public sidewalks and streets.

It has teetered on the fringes of mainstream society ever since.

Its reputation spiked within the early ‘70s. Enhancements to the board and wheels gave beginning to extra formidable vertical skating, a method outlined by gravity-defying aerial methods off half-pipes and vertical ramps. A string of Southern California droughts turned empty swimming swimming pools into skating bowls. Speedy development of skate parks nationwide quickly adopted, bringing tens of millions of children to the game.

It wouldn’t final.

The newly opened parks quickly faltered beneath legal responsibility points and monetary misery, and the younger demographic of riders as soon as fueling the increase grew up and moved on. By the point Grosso found the game on the finish of the ‘70s, solely a small group of self-willed skaters remained.

“Skate boarders have been very uncommon at the moment,” mentioned Grosso’s childhood buddy Eric Nash, the one different child at their Camino Grove Elementary Faculty who matched Grosso’s ardour for the game. “Jeff loved that insurgent spirit. I believe that’s who he was.”

Grosso and Nash spent nearly each weekend at one of many few Southland skate parks that have been left. Grosso was a perfectionist — at dwelling he was consistently rearranging the furnishings in his bed room — and practiced for hours to good a trick. Skate Metropolis in Whittier grew to become their dwelling base, although generally they snuck away to extra secluded spots — a cement ditch behind a church in Glendale, an empty washway nicknamed the “V bowl” in Irwindale.

Certainly one of their pals, future professional skater Lance Mountain, had a ramp within the yard of his Alhambra dwelling the place the group would spend hours collectively honing their approach and embracing a recalcitrant tradition few others may comprehend.

“We have been a bunch of nerds, we have been weirdos, we have been social outcasts,” Grosso mentioned in a 2015 episode of his “Loveletters” collection. “We have been the folks that no person needed to be, doing issues that no person needed to, and that no person understood. … We have been the freaks. That’s the way you rolled. That’s the way it was. That’s what drew us to skateboarding.”


“The little wood toy is a kiss and a curse. It’s all the pieces. It’s the perfect factor that ever occurred to me and the worst factor that ever occurred to me, all rolled up into one.” — Jeff Grosso, to Juice Journal in 2006.

Like all good guardian, Williams tried to get her son to consider his future as he went via grade college. Skateboarding, she advised him, “is enjoyable and could be a pastime, however you may’t make a profession out of it.”

Reliving the reminiscence throughout an interview, Williams stopped herself and laughed.

“Boy, have been we flawed.”

As a substitute, as Grosso went via his teenage years within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, the game grew to become cool once more.

Jeff Grosso signing autographs in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Dec. 14, 2010.

Jeff Grosso signing autographs in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Dec. 14, 2010.

(Vans / Anthony Acosta)

Vertical skateboarding benefitted from the formation of the favored Nationwide Skateboarding Assn. contest circuit. Skateboarding scenes in hit movies similar to “Again to the Future,” “Police Academy 4” and “Thrashin’” reintroduced the game to a broader viewers.

Now prime skate boarders had the chance to make six-figure incomes via sponsorships and aggressive earnings. The timing was good for Grosso, who blossomed right into a prime novice earlier than dropping out of highschool to show professional in 1986. He was 17.

“Jeff and I had an analogous trajectory, in that we each fell in love with skating when it was completely at its least fashionable cycle,” mentioned Hawk, one of many defining skate boarders of the late Nineteen Eighties. “We beloved it as a result of we beloved the crew, the misfit facet, the rebellious facet. Our entire factor was, we don’t wish to slot in, we wish to do our personal factor. Then all of the sudden, we discovered ourselves with some success and fame.”

Competitively, Grosso didn’t match the likes of Hawk, Christian Hosoi and different preeminent skaters of that period. However culturally, his stature was practically unmatched.

He had lots of the bestselling board designs and starred in a number of the interval’s most distinguished skateboarding movies that performed an outsized position in selling skate boarders and their sponsors to followers nationwide.

Grosso’s relatable skating fashion made him fashionable, mastering elementary methods any novice skater may mimic on their very own.

It was his playfully devious character, although, that gave him a cult following. In a single significantly memorable video, Grosso shaved off his eyebrows earlier than describing the lifetime of knowledgeable skateboarder: “Lounge round all day, do completely nothing, till it’s time to experience your wood toy.”

Later in life, Grosso admitted there have been indicators of bother brewing behind that facade. The child who used to get “tripped out” by seeing older skaters smoke Marlboro Reds was now “smoking pot and ingesting and dwelling the rock star life-style that I’d come to covet,” he later mentioned. “I began down that path.”

To the skateboarding public, nonetheless, his persona was well-received.

“Grosso was the man you would really aspire to be like,” mentioned Coan “Buddy” Nichols, a childhood fan of Grosso’s who was later a producer of the “Loveletters” collection. “He was loud and loopy, as a result of he was partying, having time. That’s a basic factor in skating, to combine the athleticism with actual life.”

However like a flickering candle on the finish of its wick, these golden days started to fade.

Though Grosso’s technology revived skateboarding’s reputation, skate parks and vert ramps have been nonetheless uncommon in most components of the nation. The brand new skaters they’d impressed gravitated towards a unique fashion, driving off city obstacles similar to staircases, park benches and handrails.

The brand new self-discipline grew to become often known as avenue skating, and by the early Nineties it started to eat the game. Immediately, it was not cool to be a vert star similar to Grosso or Hawk. Contests that when drew 1000’s started to fold and the game’s media consideration was redirected towards its latest pattern.

Worse than that, many skaters felt as if their entire life-style had been discarded. Scenes in skating movies that includes their outdated aerial methods have been omitted so typically that fast-forwarding grew to become often known as the “vert button” on the distant. Half-pipes and vertical ramps grew to become so uncommon that all the self-discipline was at risk of extinction.

“We have been nearly akin to boyband fame,” Hawk mentioned. “And it was all washed away inside a 12 months.”


“I didn’t suppose it was ever going to finish. I had no idea of what was actually happening. I wasn’t planning for the longer term. I’m a highschool dropout. It was like, ‘I’m a professional skateboarder, and the social gathering is rarely going to finish. I’m indestructible’ … I used to be flawed.” — Jeff Grosso, to Juice Journal in 2006.

Grosso awakened one morning within the mid ‘90s and walked to a mirror. He noticed that he was nonetheless alive. A part of him wished that he wasn’t.

Staring into the reflection, he not acknowledged himself. Just a few years faraway from the peak of his professional profession, his life was spiraling into an abyss.

VIDEO | 01:35

Who’s Jeff Grosso?

Even after vert skating’s demise, Grosso had tried to remain related within the sport. He bought boards for an upstart skating firm referred to as Black Label run by John Lucero, one other childhood buddy and former professional. He traveled to the few slimmed-down competitions that remained. He clung to no matter notoriety he had left.

However because the ‘90s progressed, and the ever-more fragmented skateboarding group floundered throughout an financial recession, he struggled to reckon along with his new actuality. He tried to seek out methods to flee it.

He had a heavy ingesting downside, then started utilizing methamphetamine and heroin. His revenue couldn’t at all times totally fund his behavior, so he generally stole VCRs and TVs from pals to promote at pawn retailers.

He tried rationalizing his decisions, convincing himself that so long as he may preserve skateboarding — even when it not served as his main occupation — he was advantageous.

“I simply form of floated round,” he mentioned. “Whenever you’re hanging round with the type of individuals I used to be, it’s fairly simple. … In a single city you’re on pace, after which the subsequent city it’s booze, and the subsequent one it’s heroin. You simply preserve shuffling the issues round.”

His addictions, nonetheless, ultimately wore him down.

One evening, as he later advised Thrasher journal in 2007, he deliberately tried to overdose at a buddy’s home, solely to get up the subsequent day and look into that mirror, realizing it hadn’t labored.

Jeff Grosso performs a Texas plant while at the Del Mar Skate Ranch in 1985.

Jeff Grosso performs a Texas plant whereas on the Del Mar Skate Ranch in 1985.

( J Grant Brittain)

Three different instances, he was rushed to the hospital with no important indicators after overdosing, later telling Transworld Skateboarding journal that one of many incidents had been one other intentional try.

“Whenever you’re misplaced in heroin, and also you haven’t reached any form of backside, you simply can’t see out of it,” Grosso mentioned in 2003. “You need to get an excessive quantity of ache earlier than you may settle for anyone else’s assist … It’s an actual tough street, man. Making an attempt to get your life again from being an actual scumf— is a very exhausting factor to do.”

His short-lived professional profession wasn’t the one trigger for his struggles — “It’s not anybody factor, it’s the habit that’s the issue” his mom mentioned — but it surely robbed him of essentially the most central component to his identification.

His story wasn’t distinctive at a time when many notable skaters from his period went to jail or battled substance abuse.

“These guys, they have been celebrated whereas they’re nonetheless growing as youngsters, everybody telling them they’re God’s present to skateboarding,” mentioned Mackenzie Eisenhour, a longtime author for Transworld Skateboarding. “After which the trade fully shifted. Swiftly, you’re disposable.”

It will be just like the basketball world renouncing Michael Jordan, deciding to not purchase his sneakers, and declaring dunking a factor of the previous. The painful irony: Vert skating’s demise was attributable to the exact same rebellious, subversive dynamics that drew Grosso and his friends to the game within the first place.

“Skateboarding is an anti-hero tradition,” Eisenhour mentioned. “So as soon as the tradition deems you the hero, it’s simply ready to insurgent in opposition to you.”


“You already know what I actually remorse? I don’t remorse partying. I don’t remorse changing into an addict and s—ing my life away. I remorse taking my skateboard as a right. I wasted years and years working round doing bulls— once I may’ve been driving.” — Jeff Grosso, to King Skateboard Journal in 2016.

For greater than twenty years, Nichols and Rick Charnoski, his accomplice at Six Stair Studio, have traveled the world documenting skateboarding and producing movies about its tradition.

One factor they’ve realized: “Skateboarding has these two instructions,” Nichols mentioned. “The game that some individuals need it to be — largely to earn a living off of it, actually — after which the life-style, all the pieces else round it.”

VIDEO | 00:41

The Downturn within the late 80s, early 90s

Skateboarding’s historical past has been entangled by that existential net.

Can the game be commercially profitable and culturally genuine? Can it enter the mainstream with out being co-opted? Can it preserve an edge with out excluding all the pieces and everybody that got here earlier than it?

There’s a motive that totally different kinds have competed for its route, its customs, its icons. It was no shock that when skateboarding was added in 2015 to the Tokyo Video games — certainly one of a number of motion sports activities the Olympics has launched in hopes of attracting youthful audiences — there was a revolt in opposition to it. Skate boarders began an internet petition, which drew 7,500 signatures, asking the Worldwide Olympic Committee to reverse its resolution and take away the game from its lineup.

“Skating is form of a martial artwork,” Nichols mentioned, “within the sense that fashion issues nearly as a lot as anything.”

Admittedly, Nichols and Charnoski weren’t attempting to unravel such profound dilemmas after they first teamed up with Grosso for the “Loveletters” present in 2011.

Grosso was simply reemerging as a visual determine within the skateboarding group after saying he’d lastly achieved sobriety six years earlier.

It wasn’t a simple course of. He mentioned it started in 1997 after he was arrested — as soon as of his a number of run-ins with the regulation throughout the depths of his habit — and threatened with a jail sentence if he didn’t go to rehab. He tried, staying clear for durations of time earlier than relapsing and beginning over once more.

“I love to do issues the exhausting approach,” Grosso mentioned in 2016 of his restoration. “It’s one of many causes I used to be interested in skateboarding within the first place.”

However little by little, he put his life again collectively. He discovered regular work laying hardwood flooring. He bought married in October 2005 in a beachside marriage ceremony in Laguna. (He and his spouse divorced after having a son however remained pleasant as mother and father, Williams mentioned.) And he started to speak brazenly about his struggles in a approach that resonated with skaters batting the identical points he had.

“Most individuals that know me know this bulls— about me anyhow,” he mentioned. “So it’s like, properly, why not try to at the very least make it rely for one thing?”

The extra Grosso shared about his private life, the extra he opined on the state of skateboarding too. Vans, which had sponsored Grosso since he was an novice in 1982, noticed a possibility and linked him with Nichols and Charnoski to create the present for its digital platform.

At first, the three self-described skating nerds targeted their episodes — which have been formatted like mini-documentaries meant to function literal on-camera love letters to particular skating topics — on area of interest subjects they thought “no person nearly would care about,” Nichols mentioned.

Jeff Grosso performs a straight-legged invert during the Vans Propeller Vert Session in Malibu on Oct. 12, 2014.

Jeff Grosso performs a straight-legged invert throughout the Vans Propeller Vert Session in Malibu on Oct. 12, 2014.

(Vans / Anthony Acosta)

Just a few examples: Who ought to get credit score for inventing the bottom grind (a Florida-based skater Monty Nolder); the misplaced artwork of the correct handplant (“certainly one of two methods I [still] know the right way to do,” Grosso joked); the historical past of “Thrasher” skating journal (the “bible” of skateboarding tradition).

The identical defiance that endeared Grosso to skating followers a long time in the past was nonetheless there, however now there was a degree of knowledge and wistfulness in his phrases as properly — a maturation that was materializing throughout all the sport.

“Skateboarding now, it’s sufficiently old; it’s been via all these issues,” Charnoski mentioned. “If you wish to evaluate it to the timeline of an individual’s life, it’s matured. It’s gotten via its revolt and it’s rising up.”

The founding of X Video games in 1995 helped revive skateboarding’s mainstream reputation, particularly after Tony Hawk landed a well-known 900-degree-spin in 1999 that reignited curiosity in vert methods. A brand new fashion often known as “park” started to achieve prominence — a hybrid self-discipline mixing vert and avenue components carried out in specialised concrete bowls. And a sport that when banished its previous appeared able to embrace it ultimately.

With Grosso starring within the “Loveletters” collection, the present rapidly grew to become an sudden cult hit that garnered a whole lot of 1000’s of views on YouTube.

“You discover out,” Nichols mentioned, “{that a} ton of individuals care.”

Over 11 seasons, Grosso and the producers didn’t cease exploring obscure topics, but they peeled again deeper layers of skateboarding as properly. In recent times, they did episodes on the “underlying philosophy” of the game; the rise of feminine stars; skateboarding’s worldwide development; and, in a set of movies that aired after Grosso’s loss of life, a love letter to the game’s LGBTQ+ group.

Mentioned Steve Van Doren, Vans’ vice chairman of occasions and promotions: “He’s the individual that got here into it as a youngster, went via the exhausting knocks, realized and skated with a number of the greatest who’re legends as we speak — together with himself — after which retains it going, retains pushing it ahead.”


On the finish of the day, it’s a toy. It’s a toy for youngsters, and youngsters are at all times the equalizing issue. … It may well’t be corrupted. You’ll be able to’t f— with that. You’ll be able to f— with all the pieces else, however you may’t f— with the youngsters simply having time within the nook.” — Jeff Grosso, in a 2018 “Loveletters to Skateboarding” episode.

Leonard Cohen’s “All people Is aware of” bellowed within the background as Grosso and his son, Oliver, entered the body. Within the Instagram video posted to Grosso’s account on March 30 of final 12 months, the daddy and his then 8-year-old son danced to the gradual, raspy tunes — Oliver swinging his arms and shaking his hips, Grosso laughing as he twisted to the rhythm behind him.

One skateboard hung from the lounge wall. One other leaned in opposition to a kitchen fridge coated in photographs. It was a snapshot of Grosso’s two occupations, skateboarding and fatherhood — a window within the life he’d constructed.

Lower than 12 hours later, Grosso was rushed to Hoag Hospital close to his Costa Mesa dwelling in cardiac arrest.

Medical doctors tried to save lots of his life, placing a respiratory tube in his mouth, a fluid line in his shin and defibrillation paddles to his chest. However at 10:15 a.m. on March 31, Grosso was pronounced useless on the age of 51.

The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner’s workplace later decided his reason behind loss of life as acute polydrug intoxication because of the mixed results of fentanyl and phenobarbital. An post-mortem listed extreme cardiomegaly (enlargement of the center) with dilatation, a scientific historical past of hypertension and anxiousness, and weight problems as different circumstances. His loss of life was dominated an accident.

It stays unclear how the phenobarbital, a barbiturate typically used to deal with seizures and anxiousness, or fentanyl, a robust artificial opioid much like morphine however 50 to 100 instances stronger, bought in Grosso’s system. Fentanyl, which is commonly current in counterfeit drugs, has grow to be one of many main culprits in drug-caused deaths during the last 5 years within the Los Angeles space and different components of the nation. Williams declined to touch upon the findings of her son’s post-mortem.

However these round him are adamant: Regardless of the style of his loss of life, they don’t imagine Grosso had reverted again to the harmful habits that when derailed his life.

He was within the midst of creating a brand new “Loveletters” season with Nichols and Charnoski. He was serving to Vans make half-pipes and vertical skate ramps extra accessible to younger skaters. He was touring the world to totally different competitions, his infectious character current in every single place he went.

And he cherished his tasks as a dad. He by no means missed a soccer recreation. He took Oliver trick-or-treating one Halloween despite the fact that he had a 2 a.m. flight for China early the subsequent morning. He talked nonstop about his son each time he caught up with outdated pals.

“He discovered the factor in life on the finish that actually drove him,” mentioned Vans’ world digital advertising and marketing supervisor Chris Nieratko, who accompanied Grosso to many occasions in recent times. “He didn’t shut up about skateboarding. However man, when it got here to Oliver, you would not get him to cease speaking about that boy.”


“We’re outdated, and it’s not our world anymore. It’s not my world. It’s your world. Don’t let these f—ing individuals take it from you. Don’t let these individuals dictate how your world goes to be. Stand up and say, ‘No, I don’t wish to be that approach.’” — Jeff Grosso, in a 2015 “Loveletters to Skateboarding” episode.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the largest public remembrance of Grosso occurred in a video name that was organized by Vans between a number of the sport’s main voices on Grosso’s birthday final April.

“I simply actually look ahead to doing it in particular person with our pals,” mentioned Nieratko, who moderated the digital name. “We simply must hug it out and cry it out.”

The ache was so sharp as a result of skateboarding’s want for Grosso remained so massive. He had grow to be the game’s cool uncle, wiser from his errors and unapologetic in his beliefs. He was the protector of its historical past and traditions. He reminded so many skaters of why they took up the game.

Jeff Grosso poses for a photo while on set for the filming of a Vans shoe commercial on July 11, 2015.

Jeff Grosso poses for a photograph whereas on set for the filming of a Vans shoe business on July 11, 2015.

(Vans / Anthony Acosta)

Skateboarding is way totally different now than it was throughout Grosso’s profession. It’s extra organized, extra aggressive, extra profitable. The civil wars that when raged inside its partitions — over the best kinds, the fitting customs, the route it ought to go — have been changed by a fierce protection of its tradition because it expands right into a commercialized world.

“The Olympics are coming,” Nieratko mentioned. “Lots of people are going to attempt to sink their claws into skateboarding. He would at all times educate the youngsters, ‘Know your value, ensure you do proper by skateboarding. But additionally ensure you do proper by your self.’”

Lizzie Armanto, one of many main feminine skate boarders on the planet, was a type of younger athletes Grosso took beneath his wing. At first, she was intimidated by his booming voice and larger-than-life presence, however over time, he grew to become certainly one of her closest mentors.

“Skateboarding is type of like dance,” she mentioned. “You need to really feel it. It’s not nearly going via the motions. When somebody is dancing and so they actually have mastered it, everybody else who sees it’s moved. And Jeff understood that. … When he talked to you he believed in you. He may say no matter, and you realize he meant it.”

In an Instagram put up after Grosso died, Hawk took Grosso’s impression one step additional: “I imagine Jeff is a giant motive that anybody really cares.”

Williams discovered solace in each heartfelt message, each little reminder of how a lot skateboarding had given her son — and the way a lot he had given proper again.

“I didn’t know the way beloved he was and revered,” she mentioned, sitting within the entrance yard of her Costa Mesa dwelling one current afternoon. “And I believe sadly, I don’t know that Jeff knew how beloved and revered he was both.”

Then Williams’ teary eyes rolled up and seemed towards the sky.

“I hope you realize now.”

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