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Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Frankie Hill: "I aint gonna be limpin"


Frankie Hill in Santa Barbara, Calif.

As a young skateboarder growing up in France, Santa Barbara, Calif. evoked only two things to me: the name of my grandmother's favorite, horrendous soap opera, and Frankie Hill, the handrail pioneer whose legendary career contains its fair share of ups, downs and bone-thrilling drama. 22 years after Frankie's cornerstone "Ban This" part, I took my first ever trip to Santa Barbara to attend the premiere of "Bones Brigade, an Autobiography." Unfortunately, Frankie Hill didn't show up because he's still uneasy about being mistaken for "the guy who sued Powell" as rumor wrongfully once had it. Following the premiere, I was determined to track down the 40-year-old entrepreneur whose own company, Hill Skateboards, is launching this month. What follows is an all-out conversation with the OG street skating stuntman who went broke and got broken, but never gave up.

ESPN.com: Did you grow up in a huge skate town, Frankie?
Hill: I was born in Santa Paula, 45 minutes south of Santa Barbara, and grew up on a farm. I mean, it was just an acre of dirt clods. We moved to Santa Barbara when I was 8. My dad worked for Texaco and my mom was fixing up houses that we'd buy. Oh, and we had a pony named Bullet.

Is it Bullet who told you to start skateboarding?
I saw a guy do a ollie off a street transition and he caught more air on a skateboard than I was getting on my bike. I just wanted to learn how to do that. So I built this really gross halfpipe in my backyard, and I talked that same guy, Kent Knepper, into coming over. So Kent is skating on this pile of junk, and then he does a Mark Gonzales boneless off this fountain we had at home. I was like, 'What the hell was that?' He was like, 'Oh, that's street skating.' So we left my backyard. I started skating to Isla Vista, that's where I met Kit Erickson, Brandon Chapman and Jake Bradley. Ron Allen lived there at the time, too. I really learned street skating from those guys.

That's a "Public Domain" heavy set of names. What are Jake and Brandon up to these days?
Well, Jake was about to go pro for Powell but one day as he was skating down State Street, a tandem bicycle ran a red light and hit him. He hit his head on the curb and went into a coma for ten days. When he came out, it was tough. After Jake hurt himself, Brandon just told me one day, "I'm not gonna skate anymore." He pretty much quit right there.

How old were you when you started to feel you were really progressing?
Maybe 15 or 16. I started entering contests in Isla Vista, and Jesse Martinez would be a judge on some of them. One day in 1987, he called up Jim Muir and got me on Dogtown. I stayed on for a year and a half. From there, all my friends who were on Powell were going to a contest in Vegas. [Powell team manager] Todd Hastings offered to give me a ride. I had nothing but my skateboard with me, and 5 dollars. Todd's like, "Where's your bag, where's everything at?" I showed him I had two shirts on, you know? After that contest, I begged all the team riders to ask Todd to put me on the team. Of course he said no. I begged and begged and one day Todd came to me and said, "If you're gonna beg everybody, why don't you ask me?" It's just that I didn't wanna blow it, cause Powell was in the same town than me. Brandon and Jake were both on Powell, I kept showing up with them at the company, "I'm back again!" Eventually they gave up. Six months later, I got on.

But then you flipped the script and had the "Ban This" part. How did that happen?
I wanna know too. I think my skating was evolving, cause I have no idea. Todd came to me one day and said, 'Look, they're gonna give you the opening part to the video.' Just like that. That motivated me to really go big. They have a lot of unreleased footage for "Ban This" too. I slid a double-kinked handrail -- it went 8 feet out and down and out again -- on a main street in Montecito. Robert Kitillä filmed this. He filmed on rollerblades.

How about that huge rail cut mid-slide?
I got so close to making that. That was a 35-stair at the Long Beach Convention Center. I hope they release the footage some day. I was so damn near, I slid at the end of it. I was going 60 mph down that thing, ffffssshh! Someone 50-50'd the 30, but I don't know if anyone ever made the 35. It's on the other side. I should have done the 30 but there were workers there that day. 30 stairs could have been good enough.

Did you drag that jump ramp you got in "Ban This" all over the place or what?
This rich kid in Montecito had this jump ramp that must have been made by NASA. The thing connected, it was all masonite, just perfect. I loved the damn thing so much that he gave it to me after a while. I just started taking it everywhere. I turned pro right after that "Ban This" part.

That was the board with the bulldog graphic, right?
Yes. Me and Todd Hastings went to Amsterdam, not on a tour. We just took a break and we went to the Bulldog Coffee Shop. I looked up and saw their logo. I asked, 'What do you think about that for the graphic, Todd?' He liked the idea. So I told Powell to do a bulldog. It's a pretty close rendition of the one in Amsterdam.

Frankie Hill's infamous bulldog graphic from the Powell days.

After all these parts, Steve Rocco's empire kind of took over. Were you tempted to join, like so many Powell skaters did?
I always felt that a big company would make my life easy so I wouldn't have to make tough decisions. But then that ad came out in the magazines. It said, "Five of these eleven pros will be leaving their current sponsor in order to create a new company," and my name was on the list. The ad came out after Mark Gonzales called me up one day to go skate in SF with Jason Lee, which I accepted, but then Mark asked me to skate for Blind, and I said no. It seemed to me that I could still make something at Powell.

Then I remember that rumor floating around that your leg got amputated.
Almost! That was at the end of 1992, right when the popsicle boards came out. So I'm riding that little popsicle board for some TransWorld calendar, and tried to ollie over a wall that was on 7 stairs. But I didn't have enough speed. My truck barely nicked the edge of the wall and I came down with my leg fully extended. I just knew. I screamed, "I'm done, it's over!" I had to push myself on my butt, on my board. It blew everything. The cartilage, the tendons, everything went. That was the end of it. There was no question at all. Instead of taking the MRI it required, I went to a Trade Show and then down to Mexico. That happened right when Blind and these companies were taking over. Powell was saying that I needed to bring the attention back to the company -- that's the impression I got, at least. I knew that with one leg and without surgery, it wasn't gonna happen. So I eventually just quit. The video "Chaos" had a full part of mine, it was all filmed with one knee! That was my going-away present to skateboarding.

Did you sue Powell for surgery money?
Not at all. I just got a job at Ready Brake, delivering brake parts to gas stations, and you know how car mechanics at gas stations are really nice [ironic]. That was a nightmare. My mom called the Workers Comp lawyer, he took on my case and got me $30,000 for surgery and two years of college paid for. It wasn't out of Powell's pocket. My stepdad is in the whole prosthetic teeth business so he said I'd have a job if I went through dental school. I did. I lost 30% of the mobility in my leg permanently, so I'm not gonna be able to take over the world now.

When did you start skating again?
In 2000. After Kit Erickson passed away in 1997, his dad gave me his skateboard. I remember around 2000 looking at it and just thinking, 'Man, Kit would want me to skate this thing.' I rode it until everything was toast on it. I did a video in 2003 for Revolver, cause I wanted to show that I still skated and didn't just disappear to go make teeth. Then I twisted my knee again, and re-started in 2008-2009. I never gave up. That's my message. I'm gonna be skating off into the sunset! I ain't gonna be limpin'.

Frankie Hill skates for Hill Skateboards, Gullwing Trucks, Loyal to Your Soil clothing, Less Fashion More Thrashin clothing, Easy Studio Costume and Nightmare griptape.