I recently found myself in Los Angeles lounging in the sun at the 2012 Summer X-Games watching the Skateboard Big Air final right smack in the middle of Chick Hearn Ct. at LA Live. 23 year old me hadn’t really thought about skateboarding or extreme sports in a long time, but 12 year old me had spent countless hours watching the likes of Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, Dave Mirra and all the other X-Games legends who marked my generation. To see a lot of the names I had grown up with whipping through the air at seemingly suicidal heights and speeds brought me back to an earlier time when all this seemed admirable as opposed to now when it mostly seems irresponsible. In fact, there was even a 12 year old (yes, someone born
in the year 2000) effortlessly doing 900s on this beast they have deemed the Mega Ramp. 23 year old me then snapped back into the present and had to take a step back and think that allowing a 12 year old on this thing is just bad parenting. This kid hasn’t even hit puberty or even started getting into girls, but he’s jumped off the biggest skateboard ramp we have seen in a competition, and hundreds of times at that. The truth of the matter is that this has become the standard. When Danny Way made the Mega Ramp competition a reality at the X-Games in 2004, he had a standard of his own that was created for him and others walking the line between extreme sports athlete and daredevil, and that standard was Mat Hoffman.
Hoffman’s 30 for 30 story is called The Birth of Big Air and, and rightfully so. No, he did not invent BMX freestyle and he was nowhere near the first person to take a BMX bike into a half-pipe, but it is safe to say that action sports would not be where they are today without him. The movie opens with Tony Hawk, Danny Way, Travis Pastrana and Evel Knievel (four of the most recognizable names in the history of action sports) all speaking to the brilliance and fearlessness of Hoffman. We see a young man taking the sport to new heights from the young age of 17, winning the amateur, expert, and professional level competition in his first ever professional event. Hoffman is quickly shown as different, a guy who thought about
his body not as a living breathing entity, but as his best friend and partner in crime Steve Swope put it, simply as a part of his bicycle. Unlike the motocross and BMX riders of today who practice in foam pits and wear technologically advanced pads,
Hoffman wore pads seemingly made for another era and had only a few beaten down mattresses to break his innumerable falls. The theme of this story quickly becomes one of a man who sacrificed everything to further his sport. Hoffman at one point even says, “If I died and my body wasn’t completely beaten down, I would feel like I wasted it.”
What comes next is the beaten down man’s need to go bigger. Tony Hawk describes Hoffman as someone who did not see the evolution of his sport in a normal way. He does not see the need to add an inch at a time but someone who adds a mile at the time, and out of this attitude, the 20 ft. ramp was born. The video footage of this rickety, poorly constructed ramp looks like something out of MTV’s Jackass (ironically enough Jeff Tremaine, creator of Jackass, directed this movie) and makes the viewer nervous at best. His friend Steve Swope can be seen towing him with a motorcycle only connected by a rope the two must’ve found in some old junkyard and Hoffman getting enough speed to take advantage of the monstrosity of this ramp.
Then you see him, suspended in the air 40 ft. above the earth, and you realize that something special has just happened. Hoffman did something no one else was willing to do or even attempt. That moment marks the highlight of Hoffman’s BMX career as what we see in the rest of the film is the cost of his unique fearlessness. His friends and wife constantly worried about his well-being and the very possible fact that if something went wrong, it could kill him. The most chilling moment of the film is without a doubt his fall on the 30 ft. ramp he built in his backyard in 2000 that put him in a coma for 3 days. His wife crying, holding their newborn child and their two other kids as they wondered whether their dad was alive or dead, a real reminder that fearlessness often comes with a price. Perhaps the realest moment in the whole movie is when Evel Kenevel, who Hoffman developed a relationships with over the years, says about what Hoffman is doing and trying with his bicycle, “It just seems impossible to me.” Perhaps the greatest daredevil of all time saying something like that, is telling of how different Hoffman really was from the rest.
He may not be an X Games hero of this generation like Tony Hawk or Dave Mirra, but he allowed those types to be where they are today. Hoffman took the necessary risks and broke the necessary bones to show the action sports world that the human body combined with the right mind can do what seems to be impossible. This point is why the movie left me feeling conflicted. On one side, Hoffman created a standard for what is considered “going big” and should be one of the first people we thank when we see some of the incredible things action sports athletes are doing today. On the other side however, this standard has caused the inevitable gruesome crashes like that of skateboarder Jake Brown in 2007 that make us ask, is this all worth it? Without Hoffman, there would be no X Games, there would be no Mega Ramp, and there would be no 12 year olds like Tom Schaar on doing 1080s on the Mega Ramp. But without Hoffman there would also be less of an acceptance for the life threatening injuries that go along with action sports. Mat Hoffman gave birth to the Big Air, but he also gave birth to the need to push the standard as high as it can possibly go. We lament the 100+ concussions, 20+ broken bones and 20+ surgeries he endured in becoming the first true action sports daredevil, but we thank him for it because he invented the standard that keep action sports so incredibly exciting. But at the end of the movie, the question still remains, is it all worth it?
We give this tale of a man who did everything and more for his sport a 3.5 out of 5.