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Sunday, July 1, 2012
Updated: July 22, 9:15 AM ET
Plight of the box packer

"Box packers, the guys whose pro career never worked out and ended up packing boxes in the warehouse of some surf company."

That's how it was put to me by an Australian friend. We'd been talking about what life after pro surfing means, and "box packer" was his term for those who had obtained some kind of noteworthiness while in their prime, but whose fate eventuated in less than glorious fashion.

Pro surfing's a tricky game. At its best it can put somebody in front of a global audience, hoisting trophies, being sprayed with champagne in that most Spicollian of dreams. But at its worst it's a destructive force, capable of leaving wrecked youth in its wake. And today, as surf companies look to locked-down bright, marketable talent at ever younger ages, that line is razor thin.

The dilemma: do you finish high school, or do you jump on a few sponsor funded trips, get some "real world experience" and see where that takes you? Enabled by the dodge that is home schooling, no question, if done correctly some kids can flourish, but it should never be an excuse to skip out to Indo for a couple weeks. I've been on a couple boat trips where kids have asked me for help on their math homework, and trust me, you don't want me teaching your kid math.

Over the last couple of weeks a couple hundred of America's brightest young surf talents have filtered through Southern California, competing in the Surfing America USA Championships and the NSSA Nationals. Out of this herd, maybe one percent makes it on the world tour. Maybe less. There's only room on tour for 34 surfers, which means it's harder to get one of those top spots than it is to make it into the NBA or NFL ... there's always long snapping.

For the sake of argument, toss guys like Kelly Slater or Mark Occhilupo out of the conversation. Into their 40s with thriving surf careers still, they're the one percent of the one percent. Unless you're winning titles or have that unquantifiable "it" factor that makes you marketing gold, eventually the time comes to give up the dream and get a job. Some former pro surfers transition into the role of pundit, getting jobs at magazines or commentating during webcasts. Some transition out of surfing all together. While others start surf schools or camps and "spread the stoke." And occassionally there are those who find more success in business than they ever did in the lineup. Pat O'Connell has turned a moderately successful world tour career into a strong vice president position at Hurley. Or one better, Paul Naude, who helped pioneer pro surfing in his native South Africa and is now the president of Billabong and one of the most powerful men in surf.

Unfortunately, guys like O'Connell and Naude are more the exception than the rule. Substance abuse and brushes with the law has taken its toll. As he sits in a Santa Cruz County jail cell serving a sentence for selling speed, look no further than the tragedy of Anthony Ruffo to see what happens when a surf life goes wrong. Or maybe the most emblematic of the chew-you-up-and-spit-you-out syndrome is San Diego's David Eggers, who had one of the most successful amateur careers in the history of the sport, but by the halfway point of his rookie year on tour in 1986/87 the 17-year-old was cooked. He'd never reach his potential, mainly because he was young and surrounded by bad influences. But again, both of those are more high-profile, worst-case scenarios than general rules.

As my Australian friend astutely labeled them, a lot become "box packers." Lacking the education or skillsets to obtain the same professional success they enjoyed when they were surfing at their highest level, they're forced into a blue-collar career. After their oversized prize checks dry up, they get the "bro" deal into the warehouse. Or maybe they have an uncle that's a contractor, so they start banging nails. Pool cleaner is another popular one. Whatever the case, the NSSA is the only surfing organization that puts an emphasis on young surfers' academic pursuits, but as the sport grows and surfing becomes more of a realistic career opportunity for kids, more needs to be done to ensure that they're prepared for life when the tide starts to wane.