After the fall, Jake Brown hits new heights
Jake Brown's story begins where it easily could have ended.
At the base of a 27-foot ramp and the end of a horrifying 47-foot free fall that was captured on live television and replayed millions of times on computer screens around the world.
Brown didn't want to be remembered for his 2007 crash in Skateboard Big Air at X Games Los Angeles.
Whether he likes it or not, one of the most gifted, revolutionary skaters alive is known worldwide today mainly because, well, he's not dead. That's the funny thing about legacies; no matter what we do, we don't get to pick what we'll be known for.
It's a reality Brown has come to grips with since his near tragic fall six years ago. But it's a storyline he has tried to rewrite since then by attempting to do something historic each time he rides the MegaRamp.
There's a no-smoking sign hanging from the outside door of Room 203 in The Lodge at Woodward West, a hotel adjacent to the famous skate park nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains two hours north of Los Angeles. But as Brown opens the door he is holding a pack of cigarettes and an empty beer bottle filled with old cigarette butts.
It's a week before X Games Los Angeles and Brown is staying in a quaint room with Nolan Munroe, a 20-year-old MegaRamp specialist whom Brown has taken under his wing. They will both be competing in Thursday's Skateboard Big Air competition at the Irwindale Events Center.
As Brown, who moonlights as a DJ when he's not skating, fiddles with tracks on his laptop, Munroe is lying in his bed, laughing at his roommate's old stories. Brown, who turns 39 in September, is nearly twice Munroe's age, but it's impossible to notice the generational gap when they're both on the MegaRamp. If anything, the soft-spoken, 5-foot-6, 145-pound Brown looks more like the kid from afar when they're practicing their runs.
"He's nuts," Munroe said. "You see what he does and you say, 'Oh, wow, that's possible.' Hopefully someday I can do what he does and progress it from there."
Like many, Munroe's first vivid memory of his roommate came on Aug. 2, 2007. Munroe was just 14 years old at the time.
"I watched it on TV," Munroe said before pausing. "It was crazy. I try not to think about it."
Brown paces around the balcony of his hotel room overlooking the Tehachapis while smoking a cigarette and tries to retell a story he has told countless times.
"I've done this type of interview 200 times before," Brown said. "This is the toughest part actually, going through this [stuff] again."
He has watched the video of his fall almost as many times as he has talked about it and amazingly laughs when he watches it now: his body flailing during the fall as if he's falling from a burning building and his shoes flying off his feet in opposite directions upon contact as if they were shot out of a cannon.
"It's pretty funny to watch actually," Brown said. "I just like how psyched I am before I'm jumping into the run. I'm like, 'Let's do this!' It's funny."
What often gets lost in the aftermath of Brown's "Slam heard 'round the world" is that he actually won a silver medal after a stellar third run where he completed a 360-degree spin across the 70-foot gap and a 540 above the quarterpipe wall. Moments before his fall on his final run he landed the first-ever 720 in Big Air competition over the gap. But he landed too far left and tried to veer toward the center as he approached the quarterpipe. He began to wobble as he went up the quarterpipe and lost it in the air. Brown fell from high above the coping, missing the entire transition and crashing down to the unforgiving wooden flat bottom below.
"The 720 was big at the time," Brown said, remembering the first part of the run. "It hadn't been done before in a MegaRamp contest. It was a big move but obviously the fall was a bigger move I guess."
Before the run, Brown looked at Bill Weiss, a former skater and the team manager of Blind, which Brown was a member of for eight years before they parted ways in 2012. To Weiss's surprise, Brown smiled and spun his fingers around, which meant he was going to try a 720.
"I don't think many people, maybe even himself, expected him to land the 720," Weiss said. "He landed it and it caught everyone off guard. It was a huge adrenaline moment but before I knew it I could see his balance was tilted backward and when I saw him go up and out, I just immediately started to make my way down. I didn't even see him hit the ground. I heard it and jumped over the railing and got to him as quickly as I could."
Brown's memory of the run is somewhat spotty, mostly filled in after watching it several times online. But he does remember the actual fall. He remembers thinking of his friend and fellow skater Pat Duffy, who had recently broken his legs during a fall when he took the brunt of the blow on his feet and shattered his tibial plateau. After flailing in midair when he lost his board, Brown went limp and shifted his body sideways and was able to absorb much of the blow on his backside.
"It's not looking good," Brown said, recalling what he thought to himself during the fall. "There's not much ramp to catch me and I'm going straight for the flat. It was a wild, wild ride."
Brown was pale and knocked out for about eight minutes before he regained consciousness and was helped off the ramp while raising his hands in the air. One of the first things he said as he sat down in a cart off to the side of the ramp was, "Do I get another run?"
"I still thought I had another run," Brown said. "I wasn't sure if I made the 720 so I said, 'Do I get another run or what? Did I make it?' They told me I made it. I was stiff as hell. I wanted to go straight to the bar but they directed me to the hospital."
Bob Burnquist, who has won a record 25 X Games medals in his career, including 12 gold, was slated to go after Brown but waited 15 minutes before he decided to make the final run of the competition and what he called one of the most difficult runs of his career.
"I was right after him and he had the gold medal at the time," Burnquist said. "I was the last guy to go but I wasn't going to go again if he was dead or paralyzed. When he got up and people started looking at me wondering what I would do, I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to take my run.' I remember having this roller coaster of emotions. I wanted to end it on a good note; I didn't want people to think we die on these ramps. So I put this run together and all of a sudden I won the gold. So not only was he in the ambulance but I took a gold medal from around his neck."
Brown suffered a broken right wrist, broken vertebra, whiplash, a concussion and contusions to his lung and liver. He spent three days in the hospital and didn't skate for more than three months.
"I was just milking it," Brown said. "I think it made me lazy actually. I was kind of bummed about it. I didn't really feel I had to do too much more at the time so I milked it out a little too much at the time. I'm happy now to be skating and pushing myself but I would have liked to have just made that 720 right into another trick and just pushing and progressing without the fall. It would have been a better career path for myself but it is what it is. I can't help what happened."
Brown became a household name after the fall. He made appearances on "Larry King Live," "The Today Show" and MTV. He was in such high demand that two security guards were posted in front of his hospital room door after fans tried to sneak in to see him.
"The fall brought a lot of attention to the event. It put Jake on a greater mainstream scale as far as people knowing who he is. But at the end of the day, Jake is one of the more talented guys out there," said Danny Way, who invented the MegaRamp and was one of the first people to talk to Brown after his fall. "It's not about how hard he can fall; he's one of the guys out there that's innovating. He's progressing the sport. He's on the cutting edge in that small group of guys that moves the meter. He gets pigeonholed in this Jake Brown slam thing but there's so much more to him."
The fall might have helped put Brown on the mainstream map but there's more to his legacy. He recovered from his crash and returned to win gold in Big Air just two years later at X Games L.A. in 2009, then defended his title in 2010. He has medaled in the event every year from 2006 to 2010, but is still best known for the one run he didn't finish.
"It gets brought up a lot but you can't get mad at people for bringing it up," Brown said. "It's the way they recognize me. It's the first thing that comes to their minds I guess. It is what it is; I'm just trying to outshine that with some skateboarding now."
"Big Air" isn't just a competition. It's also a collection of seemingly fearless skaters bonded by their pursuit of pushing the limits of speed and gravity. They cheer each other on during the event and pray that every one completes his planned run because they know the consequences if they don't.
It's a camaraderie that has been built by the fact that there are only two permanent MegaRamps available in the world to practice on. Burnquist has one in his backyard in Vista, Calif., and there's one at Woodward West. Way is working on a new version of the MegaRamp in Hawaii. Big Air skaters, out of sheer necessity, are almost always around each other, pushing each other and testing out new tricks.
If you worry about everything, you end up living in a bubble and I’m not going to do that. I’m a skateboarder. I’m going to keep skateboarding until my body starts shutting down.Jake Brown
The MegaRamp was the brainchild of Way more than a decade ago; a 70-foot-tall and 330-foot-long shrine to going bigger and faster.
"I felt caged," Way said of those pre-MegaRamp days. "There wasn't enough air time to do some of the things I wanted to do. There wasn't enough speed. There was no way to push things beyond what they were."
Way's MegaRamp dream, which began as sketches and conversations throughout the 1990s, became a reality in the summer of 2001 at the now defunct Point X Camp near Temecula, Calif. Way was the first one to ride it, but Brown and Burnquist weren't far behind.
"At the beginning Jake and Bob were the only guys that would have the courage to come out and skate with me," Way said. "I couldn't get anyone else out there to skate with me. Jake was the first guy and then Bob figured it out and Bob was instantly addicted to it and I couldn't stop these guys from going up there. Those were the only two guys that were curious and were motivated to drive out to the desert with me each time I went out there and take risks with me."
Way has known Brown since they were about 15 years old and Way traveled to Australia for a skateboarding demonstration. Brown was living in Sydney at the time with his father, Terry.
Brown's parents divorced when he was a child, and he lived with his mother, Janice, until he was 12, seeing his father only about once a year during that time. He then moved in with his father until he was 16, when he moved from Sydney to Melbourne to skate more regularly. Brown's mother drove a school bus and his father worked at an oil refinery and he figured he was destined for a similar job before watching Australian skaters, such as Jason Ellis, make it big in the States. So he decided to move to Southern California in 1997.
"No one in Australia was making money skateboarding, so I didn't know I could do it as a profession," Brown said. "I still can't believe it."
Way knew Brown was destined to make it big from the moment he saw him, and encouraged him to come out to California when he was ready.
"The first time I met Jake, right then I knew this kid has got some crazy talent," Way said. "His ability to skate at 15 was abnormal and it was obvious that Jake was going to be a future skateboarding star. He's someone that matters to this sport. The entire world of skateboarding respects Jake."
Few skaters in history are as well respected as Burnquist, who has called Brown one of his favorite skaters to watch and said his influence on skateboarding goes far beyond the medals he has won and competitions he has been in.
"Even if Jake Brown hadn't won any X Games medals ever, and he does, he has six and a couple golds, it doesn't matter because he's a giant in skateboarding," Burnquist said. "He's one of those guys that's not just a competition guy, he progresses. He's been one of my favorites for a long time. His approach to skateboarding, his style, his personality, he's just unique. There's no one like him."
Way said he looks at Brown for inspiration when he thinks about the next evolution of the MegaRamp.
"Jake is one of the few guys on the skate ramp that I look up to," Way said. "He's one of those guys that motivate me. He's a guy that I look to and think, 'What's Jake doing?' That's inspiring. Jake is one of the most innovative guys I've ever seen on the ramp."
Brown laughs when people call him fearless. He doesn't believe such a feeling exists.
"Everybody has fear," Brown said. "Just trying to push past it and push through it is what brings the cream to the top. People who can push through their fears can accomplish anything. Overcoming your fears is the best thing. When you're making tricks that you didn't think were possible, that's the best."
One of the tricks that many didn't think was possible but Brown made a reality this year was a 720 ollie – a no-handed, double-rotation aerial over the 65-foot gap – at X Games Foz in April. The move had never been done in any competition on any surface before.
"It was good to know that the trick was possible," Brown said. "It was good to know that I was still progressing in skateboarding. It is weird. You go through stages of getting stagnant and doing the same tricks. It's not really hard to do the next trick; it's just hard to work out what's possible. It takes time. I don't have a MegaRamp so it's hard to spend the time to dial in and do the next-level tricks sometimes."
Brown walked away with the bronze in Foz Do Iguacu despite his historic run while Burnquist ended up winning gold, his third straight gold in Big Air. Burnquist, however, said Brown's 720 ollie was one of the greatest moves he has ever seen.
"He had one of the worst slams in skateboarding history and most people would be traumatized and slow down and say, 'I don't want to kill myself on this,' but his personality is like, 'So what? That's in the past.' He attacks it and he skates and he has a good time and he put the effort in to bring something new," Burnquist said. "The ollie 7 was that kind of magic. That's Jake Brown. He's an icon." Brown landed another 720 ollie at X Games Barcelona. But it's his historic first one in Brazil that gets talked about whenever skaters gather and discuss the craziest tricks they've seen.
Way hasn't competed at X Games since 2009, but he watched Brown's 720 ollie on television and has replayed it numerous times for friends on his computer.
"It's groundbreaking," Way said. "Things like that make Jake Brown who he is. Hopefully the rest of the world can start to realize that he's not just a guy that can take himself out and make a comeback. He's a guy that matters to the progression and the relevance of the sport. He has global respect amongst the industry."
Brown looks down at the tattoos on his arms as he talks about his future and the inevitable end of his career. On his left arm is the logo of his clothing line, Laced, which he started with fellow skater Peter Smolik last year, and on his right arm is an image of hundred-dollar bills being set on fire.
"Money is the root of all evil," Brown said. "It's the problem with the world pretty much so I'm burning up all the money."
Brown is an unabashed drinker, smoker and gambler, which is where his money usually gets burned. All three play a prominent role on his Instagram feed, and two words of his nine-word Twitter profile are "drink" and "gamble." In a sport where the athletes are known to push the limits on and off their boards, Brown doesn't take a backseat to anyone in either department.
"I do like to have a good time," Brown said. "But I don't let it affect my skating. I definitely try to do well in the contests and try to put out progressive footage and photos. Skateboarding is not a ballet."
Brown has suffered more concussions than he can count and has had over a dozen surgeries during his career. He was most recently knocked unconscious during Big Air practice at X Games Munich. Brown pleaded with X Games officials to allow him to compete the next day, but, citing policy preventing athletes with concussions from participating in X Games events, they would not let him compete.
His general disregard for his body and bank account isn't a great recipe for long-term success after he's done skating, which hasn't been lost on Brown's family. They have talked to him about finding ways to transition from skating to his post-career endeavors, such as his clothing line, but Brown said he still has another four years of competitive skating left in him, which would mean he would be competing into his 40s.
"My mom has mentioned Parkinson's disease," Brown said. "I don't really know what that is. Isn't that when you can't remember [stuff] or something? It's just part of the sport. Anybody can get knocked out at any time. You could get knocked out in the shower if you slip on the water. If you worry about everything, you end up living in a bubble and I'm not going to do that. I'm a skateboarder. I'm going to keep skateboarding until my body starts shutting down."
Jake Brown's story didn't end when some thought it would and he hopes it doesn't end the way some think it might.
As he gazes at the sunset over the Tehachapi Mountains with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he thinks the end of his story will be more of a fairy tale than a cautionary one.
"Hopefully I'll have a nice little umbrella drink on a sandy beach," Brown said. "With G-string bikini babes and perfect rolling barrel waves. I really want to get a MegaRamp so these last few years I can be super focused and get some of the craziest tricks I can do out of my system so I can go to that beach with that umbrella drink and be happy."
That's a legacy Jake Brown would be happy to end with.