Rodney Mullen: Chairman of the Board

Rodney Mullen makes skateboarding look effortless. For this world champion, however, nothing could be further from the truth. 

By Alisson Clark (BSJ ’98)

At 2 a.m. in a rough neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, Rodney Mullen was skateboarding alone, as he does nearly every night, when some gang members approached, not at all happy to find a stranger on their turf.

Night skating is a ritual that centers the 45-year-old world-champion skater, bringing him back to the uncomplicated joy he felt as a kid skating in the suburbs of Gainesville. That joy didn’t remain uncomplicated for long: His father’s objection to skateboarding, plus the pressures of going pro at age 14, brought complications aplenty. But when Mullen, who attended UF in the mid-’80s, steps onto his board, he can feel the old thrill full force.

The thrill turned to adrenaline, however, when the tattooed gang members approached.

“They were really big, scary guys, and they were giving me the sense I wasn’t going anywhere. All I could think of was to not act completely weak,” he says.

As Mullen began to stammer out an appeal for his life, the gang leader froze.

“Wait,” he said. “You’re the guy from the Tony Hawk game!”

Recognizing him from the best-selling video game, “this big, tough guy turned into a little kid,” Mullen recalls. “They started asking me to do their favorite tricks.”

It wasn’t the first time skateboarding saved Mullen’s life. It has broken his ankle, all but destroyed his hip joint, knocked out teeth and strained his connection to anyone who didn’t grasp his all-consuming dedication. But it’s also, as he says in his 2004 autobiography, what pulled him through times of deep depression.

The book is subtitled “How to Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself,” which sounds like a tutorial for kids trying to avoid skinned knees and broken elbows. The real meaning is far more literal.

“Skating gets me back into balance,” he says.

Growing Up Gator
UF alumnus and skateboarder Rodney Mullen

Young Rodney Mullen practiced on the tennis courts at P.K. Yonge and the now-defunct skate park Sensation Basin off US. 441 in Gainesville before enrolling in UF in 1984 to study engineering. He won his first professional contest at age 14. Photo by Phil Chiocchio

Mullen got his first board at age 10 at a Gainesville surf shop in 1977. Two weeks later — when most kids are still learning how to stay on the board — he could do a handstand on a rolling board.

Phil Chiocchio, now a videographer for UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, owned a skatepark in Gainesville that Mullen frequented. He could see Mullen’s talent right away.

“He had an incredible dexterity with his feet,” he says.

That dexterity was all the more impressive considering that Mullen had to sleep in special boots to correct feet that turned in, causing him to trip when he walked. His pigeon-toed gait persisted, but on a skateboard, his movements were preternaturally fluid, and his ascent to the top of the sport was rapid. At 14, he entered his first pro-level contest and won. Even as he began to rack up championships, Mullen lived with the constant threat that his skateboarding days were numbered. His father considered skating a waste of his straight-A son’s time, often threatening to make him quit. Looking back, however, Mullen doesn’t regret how hard he had to fight to stay in the sport.

“Fighting to maintain what I love gave me a sense of mission,” he says.

You might think being a professional skateboarder would be a ticket to popularity as a teen, but freestyle — Mullen’s area of skating — didn’t garner the same attention as vert skating, with its high-flying jumps and flips. Mullen’s highly technical sub-genre involved manipulating the board in eye-popping-but-subtle ways: standing on the nose or side rails, whirling the board like a propeller beneath his feet, or spinning in high-speed circles, arms crossed like a figure skater. But the skating style popular today — grinding curbs and jumping off obstacles — evolved from tricks Mullen invented. Without Mullen, Tony Hawk wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “street skating wouldn’t exist.”

As Mullen entered high school, fan letters from around the world filled his mailbox, but his schoolmates weren’t too impressed by having a world champion in their midst, says 1987 P.K. Yonge alumnus Roland VanHorn (’86-87).

“We completely took him for granted,” he recalls.

VanHorn, a skater himself, remembers watching Mullen skate on P.K. Yonge’s tennis courts. “It was almost like he could telepathically control it,” he says. “It was magical.”

Mullen remembers questioning the hours he devoted to his passion at the expense of a normal social life.

“I have a vivid memory of seeing the vans go by with the football team while I was skating alone, and realizing how much I was missing out on.

“I didn’t feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I just felt sorry.”

Despite his social struggles, Mullen recalls P.K. Yonge as a place that fostered his love of learning. He felt the same way about UF, where he started classes in 1984 with the goal of becoming a biomedical engineer.

“I wanted to be the guy who got between an athlete and the despair that comes to them when they get injured,” he says. “I liked the idea of saving their bodies with know-how from an engineering background.”

UF alumnus and skateboarder Rodney Mullen

Rodney Mullen prefers to skate alone, often in gritty neighborhoods around Los Angeles. Drama sometimes ensues. Photo courtesy of Almost Skateboards

California Bound

Increasingly, Mullen felt pulled to California and his friends in the skating world. After four years at UF — but before graduating — he left for the west coast to start a skateboard company. As the business grew, Mullen’s duties ranged from recruiting a pro team to overseeing manufacturing and designing new products: He holds a patent for a design improvement on the trucks that hold on a skateboard’s wheels. His engineering background came into play in more than just the technical side of business, he says.

“Those classes beat into you a sense that you’ve got to get the work done — and you’ve got to get it done on deadline,” he says. “It also gives you the confidence that you can understand anything if you just go after it. I’m always grateful for that.”

Mullen and his partners sold the company, World Industries, in 1999, making him an instant millionaire. Although he doesn’t have to show up to work now, he does keep a hand in the company. He hangs out with his wife, Traci, and their dog; he reads, writes and, of course, skates. He will appear in skater Stacy Peralta’s documentary about the Bones Brigade, the elite team Mullen first idolized, then joined, at the tender age of 14, along with Tony Hawk. But while Hawk’s name is known even to non-skaters, Mullen enjoys near-anonymity.

“You can roll up to a demo and have a couple thousand people shouting your name, and then drive five minutes to a 7-Eleven and no one gives a rat’s ass who you are,” Mullen laughed. Getting recognized does have its benefits, though, as the incident with the gang illustrates. Another night, skating in a not-so-nice neighborhood, Mullen wound up in police custody in a case of mistaken identity. This time, it wasn’t the Tony Hawk game that the police officer recalled him from, but an article on the most influential people in L.A.

When the officer realized he had a millionaire in handcuffs, he asked Mullen for business advice. Mullen was happy to oblige, but after about 10 minutes, he asked, “Are the handcuffs still necessary?”

UF alumnus and skateboard pioneer Rodney Mullen

Rodney Mullen rose to the top of freestyle skateboarding, winning championships while juggling his UF courseload. The P.K. Yonge alum recalls his rocky road to the top of the sport that centers him. Photo courtesy of Almost Skateboards

Coming Home

While Mullen typically avoids the spotlight, he made an exception for P.K. Yonge’s 75th anniversary gala in 2009, where he was given a Distinguished Alumnus Award. That night, he learned that he hadn’t been as invisible as he thought. VanHorn, the aspiring skater who used to watch Mullen skate, heard that Mullen hadn’t kept any of his first boards. VanHorn had. At the ceremony, he presented Mullen with a skateboard he’d had for nearly 25 years.

It was somewhat the worse for wear, with one of the trucks missing, but Mullen’s face lit up when he held the board.

“He had this big grin,” says VanHorn. “If it’d had wheels on it, I think he would have skated right then. That whole night, he seemed so at ease and happy and comfortable. Knowing everything he had been through, it was great to see him happy.”

Mullen’s devotion to the sport kept him skating despite opposition at home, through injuries and debilitating stress, through depression, anxiety and asthma attacks that became so severe, he nearly sustained brain damage from lack of oxygen. While Mullen’s grace on a board makes skating look effortless, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“I had to fight for my skating, and when you have to fight for something you know what it costs you,” he says. “Because I paid for it, I understood its value.”

This is an excerpt from a longer story in UF Today, the magazine of the UF Alumni Association.

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