Before Paul Rodriguez became a superstar, he needed to impress Heath Brinkley. Rodriguez was 14 and had been skateboarding for about two years when a friend who had been filming Rodriguez presented Brinkley, then the editor of a skateboard video magazine, with some footage of the young skater. Brinkley was not moved. Not at first. He saw potential in Rodriguez, immense talent in someone so young. Rodriguez was doing tricks most 14-year-olds couldn't. But what Brinkley saw left him wanting more.
In Rodriguez’s account of the exchange, Brinkley quietly watched the footage, betraying no excitement, and said, “You need to pop your tricks higher.” Brinkley’s directive didn’t seem reasonable. Rodriguez still had plenty of learning, and growing, to do. There was room for improvement, sure, but at that point, was Rodriguez already so good that Brinkley would not allow himself a moment to appreciate Rodriguez’s skills before demanding more of him? What unfolded over the next 15 years validated Brinkley’s initial reaction. This kid’s good, but he could become so much better.
This week, Rodriguez will take on the world’s top street skaters at X Games Austin. At 29, he has won four X Games gold medals and is renowned for his ability to perform difficult tricks switch. In 2011, Rodriguez was named one of the 30 most influential skaters of all time by Transworld Skateboarding. Rodriguez’s skating prowess has earned him an endorsement deal with Nike, a signature shoe line, two skateparks named in his honor and his own skating brand, Primitive Skateboarding. He finished in third place last month at the Street League Skateboarding Pro Open, the first of several Street League events this summer. And if it wasn’t obvious, Rodriguez has, indeed, learned how to pop his tricks higher.
It is not unusual for Rodriguez to be confronted with a challenge in skateboarding. First he needed to break into the sport. When he was 10, Rodriguez saw the March 1995 edition of Thrasher Magazine – which spotlighted Mike Carroll, Thrasher’s 1994 Skater of the Year – while at a grocery store with his mother. Rodriguez remembers flipping through the magazine’s pages and thinking it looked “so rad.” But he didn’t begin skating until Christmas of 1996. Rodriguez’ family pitched in enough money for him to go pick out a board at a local skate shop.
It wasn’t long before Rodriguez’s future came into focus. With scant experience, he set out to become a professional skater. “I was young and naïve enough to, like, truly believe from the very beginning that I’m going to do this,” Rodriguez told Edge. He had interest in other sports, including baseball and karate, but skating was different because Rodriguez could practice wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, by himself and with only one piece of equipment.
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Rodriguez had his concrete patio, a skateboard and a meticulous approach that led him to try tricks not just until he landed them, but to the point at which he felt confident he could execute them every time. He spent countless hours working with his ollie log, a piece of firewood repurposed as a skating prop, and rejoiced when he landed his first switch kickflip. “That’s big. That means I can skate both ways,” Rodriguez remembers thinking. He would watch a group of kids skate in the parking lot of his junior high school, fascinated by the way they exerted such control over their boards, and try to learn from them.
He frequented the Valley Skate & Surf Shop, asking questions about boards and watching videos, and gleaned what he could from skaters who gathered there. When Rodriguez was not skating in his driveway, he would push down the street to the loading dock of an Albertsons grocery store. Nearby was a curb in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant and stairs at a pizza place that also doubled as trick-friendly terrain. “When you’re that young, almost anything can be a skate spot,” Rodriguez says.
The first company to sponsor Rodriguez was DNA skateboards, in 1999, and he was named Transworld’s Rookie of the Year after turning pro in 2002. Rodriguez then had to persuade his mother (he grew up living with his mom) to let him drop out of school in pursuit of a professional skating career. “Mom, I love you, but I’m just done with school,” he remembers saying. “I’m so concentrated on this. I’m so dead serious about this that there’s no fallback plan, there’s nothing. This is what I’m doing.” His father, a famous stand-up comedian, began to take Rodriguez’s skating seriously only after he became a professional.
Rodriguez was featured in a magazine advertisement for éS footwear, and began to notice other skaters bringing up his name and a buzz forming around him. As Rodriguez’s profile grew, representatives and skaters from various brands began making overtures. He started off with City Stars and moved to Girl, then to Plan B. Rodriguez won his first X Games Gold when he was 19, in 2004, and soon landed a contract with Nike. After éS came close to launching a Rodriguez-branded shoe, the Swoosh unveiled P-Rod footwear, and the eighth version, the Nike SB P-Rod 8, is set to be released later this month.
Last year, Rodriguez decided to leave Plan B because he wanted to create his own brand. Primitive Skateboarding, an offshoot of Primitive apparel, features a three-man team: Rodriguez, Nick Tucker and Carlos Ribeiro. Tucker described Rodriguez to Edge as the “Michael Jordan of skating” and remarked, “He’s the truth.”
While Rodriguez is involved in board design – a popular Primitive board design, the Gold Bar, was inspired by Rodriguez – and has interests outside of skating – he has appeared in multiple films – he spends most of his time doing what led him to this point. He typically skates at least three hours a day, whether at his own personal park near his home in the San Fernando Valley, or a few other locations, but you may see him popping tricks on a curb, ledge or set of stairs in front of a building. In that sense, Rodriguez has not changed much from the kid flying off the loading dock at Albertsons.
With some creativity and daring, Rodriguez can easily identify skate stops on the street. And according to Brinkley, the diligence that drove Rodriguez’s early success has not faded. “He has very high standards and he’s very disciplined and he just has this attention to detail about his skating, too, that a lot of people don’t have,” Brinkley says. “Really a self-driven thing about him. No one has to tell him to go skateboard or no one has to tell him to do this, this way, or whatever. He just has it all worked out. And he truly has a passion for skateboarding. He loves skateboarding as much today as he did when he was 12, 13, 14.”
Perhaps the main difference, then, is that Rodriguez has a lot more people watching him now.