The splinters were so big that Robbie could see them from the top of the ten-foot-high ramp. Despite his kneepads, he knew the wrong fall on the half-pipe would shred his legs. Still, he had to practice for a couple of hours every day before a competition. And anyway, skating had become more of a refuge than ever before when he was sliding down the ramp, there wasn't time to think about anything other than the next trick.
Today he was planning to seriously work his slim seventeen-year-old body drop in, pick up some speed, maybe try a couple of handplants or backside airs. He'd hang on the ramp's lip in a one-handed handstand with his board attached to his upended feet only by grip-tape, and then zoom past all the nagging thoughts about his parents' marital trouble and the unfair hand fate had dealt his older brother Scott, who was severely disabled by cerebral palsy.
When he was skating a ramp and the music was cranked all around him (the Clash or maybe the new Bad Brains), he was devoid of attachments. He was simply Robbie Weir, one of the best skaters on the planet, soon to graduate high school, move to California, and turn pro.
So he drew a deep breath, bent his knees, and let gravity carry him down the ramp's steep side. He could feel the bumpy splinters under his polyurethane wheels. He hit the lip, spun around, and then headed back down the other side. Did the same seconds later, gaining speed. He felt like he had enough velocity to launch from the ramp and into a backside air at the other end and he did. Coming back down, though, with only fractions of a second to assess the situation, he could feel the board floating away from him. He knew he wasn't going to land the trick, and he didn't want to slide over the splinters.
So he made a rare bad skating decision: He pushed the board away and let himself fall ten feet straight down.
His left leg was straight when his feet hit the plywood, and he felt the knee bend backward. There was no pain at first.
But then he began to feel throbbing throughout his whole body. He was on the plywood in a fetal curl when his buddy Cleo sprinted out to help. At first he refused to go to a doctor or hospital, thinking he'd feel better soon. But the next day a doctor drained a cereal bowl's worth of viscous fluid from the misshapen balloon his knee had become, and his plans were permanently altered.
It was January 1983. His parents divorce and his brother's arrest would follow in quick succession. Another big fall was still to come.
Robbie and Scott Weir were the daredevils of their West Kendall neighborhood in those days. Despite his disability, Scott, a wisp of a kid with a puff of long blond hair, drove a go-cart with great abandon from the age of twelve. Robbie, four years younger, with his mother's impish face and mischievous eyes, usually followed on a dirt bike. The boys competed to cut the sharpest corner or complete the most breathless jump.
"We were crazy," acknowledges Scott, now a 45-year-old with a goatee and an ever-present black Dale Earnhardt baseball cap. "But we had fun."
"We pushed each other," says 41-one-year old Robbie, who would look twenty years younger if it weren't for the gray hair. "He was my older brother and we depended on each other. He needed me, usually to help him fight other kids who made fun of him. And I needed him for encouragement."
Scott often prodded Robbie to greater recklessness. One day in 1974, for instance, the little brother jumped off the roof using a beach umbrella as a parachute. That stunt ended in a trip to the hospital to treat some relatively minor injuries. Scott guffaws madly when he remembers it today.
In 1977, at age eleven, Robbie was sitting in his front yard tinkering with a dirt bike when he saw a new neighbor doing something strange. The kid had long hair parted in the middle and smashed down with a headband. His striped socks were pulled up to his kneepads. "He looked like a weird ninja or something, doing some martial arts out in the street," Robbie remembers. "It looked like he was floating."
Twelve-year-old Robert Rodrigues was freestyling on a skateboard, spinning, moonwalking, and doing nosewheelies. Robbie didn't know much about it, but he wanted in.
"I remember it so clearly; it obviously made an impression on me," he remembers. "It just looked like a lot of fun."
Robbie's doting mother Anne, a native of Loch Lomond, Scotland, bought his first board within a week. She also donated an old couch she was planning to throw out and some rotting plywood for Robbie's first ramp. It was a simple construct. "I basically leaned the plywood on the couch, then laid out another sheet of wood like a runway," Robbie says. "That was it. The idea was to start at the top and try to go as fast as possible."
Scott would spend hours watching Robbie or circling the ramp on his go-cart. "He was always cool about it, even though it was something he couldn't do," Robbie says. "And it made me better. Like if I fell and hurt myself, I could hardly complain knowing what Scott deals with every day."
Scott, whose condition makes speech difficult, says simply: "When Robbie started skateboarding, it was cool. I liked to watch him. I still do."
"I didn't think much of it," says Anne Weir, her brogue thick as if she'd never left home. "Between the dirt bikes and the go-carts and the BMX bikes, it just seemed like another toy to me."
There was something else to the allure of skateboarding, something Robbie couldn't articulate at the time. "It required some focus, and it was kind of an escape that way," he says. "You had to pay attention to what you were doing, to sort of lose yourself in it. I had a happy childhood, but I've always been a bit of a worrier."
Robbie and Scott could sense danger like a shark smells blood in the water. They knew skateboarding had potential to be perilous and exciting. They just couldn't figure out how to unlock it.
"I needed speed," Robbie says. "Freestyling in the street was fun, and little homemade ramps were okay, but there aren't any hills in Miami, and I couldn't ride it off the roof. Although I did think about that."
Then Robert Rodrigues took him to a place where the kinetic possibilities of a wooden deck with plastic wheels could be realized.
Robbie began junior high school in 1978, the same year Runway Skate Park opened off Quail Roost Drive in Cutler Ridge. Robbie and Robert Rodrigues were regulars from opening day.
"Weekends at the Runway were great," says Nick Hutchinson, a former South Dade kid the same age as Robbie who skated the Runway in the early days. Nick, now a 39-year-old freelance writer in Denver, says Robbie competed with the older kids and clearly excelled. "There would be 100 or maybe 200 kids, mostly high-school-age kids, hanging around," he remembers. "It was like Dazed and Confused in the parking lot, with people blasting music and sneaking beer and smoking joints. But there was a core group of kids like Robbie who were superserious about skating. They pushed each other and skated hard to try to do something they hadn't seen before."
There was a lot of novelty to the skating style practiced at the Runway. The park had two twelve-foot-high bowls and two cement half-pipes that catered to vertical, or "vert," skating. Boards had become shorter and wider to accommodate the new style, and skaters were experimenting on both coasts with new tricks that involved improvising at the lip of the bowl or ramp.
"Some guys did mainly lip tricks, grinding along the edge and dropping back in," Hutchinson says. "Other guys, like Robbie, tried to fly out over the lip, up into the air, and then come back down onto the ramp without falling off."
One older kid immediately caught Robbie's eye.
"Monty Nolder could skate the half-pipe and come over the lip and all the way up to a brick wall six feet above the ramp," Robbie remembers. "It was awesome."
Then fourteen years old and a West Kendall skate rat, Nolder had an aggressively physical style. Now a heavyset mechanic in Gainesville, the older skater remembers the Runway vividly. "We were like brothers," Nolder says. "There was a whole bunch of great guys who skated that park."
Hutchinson remembers Robbie and Nolder as the Runway's leading lights. "They had real different styles," he says. "Monty did everything big and, like, attacked the ramp, and Robbie just looked like he floated through it. He has a real graceful style."
Robbie skated the Runway three or four times a week. "Robbie always took it seriously, and I was always proud of that," says dad Robert Weir, a minor-league shortstop in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system before a bout with diverticulitis forced him out of pro sports and into piloting commercial aircraft. "He took care of his body and really worked hard at conditioning himself."
By the time Robbie was ready to enter Miami Sunset Senior High in 1980, he'd mastered the emerging art of vert skating. Up in the air, he felt like he was flying. "It was great, partly because I was good at it," Robbie remembers.
Other South Florida kids were catching on to the phenomenon, which was inspired by California skaters like Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta. In the late Seventies, those West Coasters transformed what had once been a surfer's hobby into guerrilla recreation. Alva et al., whose exploits were memorialized in the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, broke into Los Angeleno back yards in search of empty swimming pools, where they pioneered the vert skating style that evolved into today's ESPN fare. Their style was caught on camera and printed in skate magazines; Robbie and his crew became intimately familiar with it.
South Florida skaters got an early start thanks in part to Bruce Walker, a University of Miami graduate who set up a surfboard store on Ocean Drive after graduating in 1972. "I, like, scoured the city for skateboards. You couldn't find them anywhere until I finally tracked down a toy store that had 'em in stock," says Walker, spitting out his characteristic rapid-fire chunks of dialogue. Walker, who owns a skate/surf shop near Melbourne, is the godfather of modern South Florida skating, and he loves recounting, in great detail, the birth of the scene. "I bought the entire stock of boards from this skate store, and they started selling at the surf shop, like, the first day I ever displayed one," he remembers. "People thought skateboarding was dead, but there were people out there who were really happy to find a place to buy skateboards."
Walker and his pals, much like the Dogtown crew in L.A., alternated surfing in the waters and skating on the streets of South Beach. As the skate scene heated up, Walker formed a team that dominated competition across Florida. Eventually he'd cross paths with Robbie Weir, but not before Robbie had achieved notoriety.
"One day in 1978 these guys in suits and ties showed up at the Runway," Robbie remembers. "It was the summer before my freshman year in high school, and the place was pretty packed. They watched everybody skate for a while and they got some of our phone numbers. A few days later they called my house, asking if I wanted to be in a Burger King commercial."
Two weeks later, Robbie and two Fort Lauderdale skaters did their best aerial tricks for a camera crew at the Runway. The shots were interspersed with footage of Burger King (not the creepy big-headed modern king, just a goofy guy with a fake beard and regal robes) skating. Robbie was featured doing a layback air, a combination of a handstand and a backside air. He made $30,000 in residuals from the ad. "I'd get calls from friends and family all over the country, saying, öHey, I just saw your commercial!'" he remembers.
By the time he entered ninth grade at Sunset, people were calling him the Burger King Kid. "The Burger King commercial was kind of a big deal," Hutchinson remembers. "Robbie was becoming one of the premier local skaters."
His parents had begun to notice their son's hobby morphing into something bigger, and the commercial cemented the notion. "I couldn't watch Robbie at the park, what with all the dangerous tricks, the whirligigs and whoopsidos and whatnot," mom Anne says. "But I knew he was very good at it. And when I saw the commercial, I was very proud."
Scott laughs when he's asked about his bro's BK premiere. "Robbie on TV very cool," he says. During the time when Robbie's commercial was airing, Scott was getting familiar with the local cops, mainly by stealing his parents' cars and racing through the streets of West Kendall. "I remember one night I was driving around with Mom," Robbie says, "and we passed this wreck, and I said, öWow, that looks like your car, Mom.' When we got home later, the car was in the driveway, and the front end was smashed."
Robbie was pretty proud himself, especially after skate guru Walker saw him win a competition at the Solid Surf shop in Fort Lauderdale and invited him to be part of the Walker team. "It was amazing," Robbie says. "This guy was the Stacy Peralta of the East Coast!" There were writeups in magazines like Skateboard, respect from the other skaters, and, most important for a fifteen-year-old boy, chicks.
The good times trips to competitions all over Florida and California, wins at Kona in Jacksonville and Sensation Basin in Gainesville culminated with the ultimate invitation. "I was fourteen, skating my little miniramp in the back yard, when my mom yelled out the kitchen window that the phone was for me," Robbie says. "I asked who it was, and she says, 'Stacy Peralta.' I just knew it was one of my friends pranking me, but it wasn't." Peralta invited Robbie to skate for Powell-Peralta, the nation's elite skate team. "Between Walker and Peralta, it just couldn't have gotten any better," he says. "I was getting all kinds of free equipment, winning competitions, and getting a lot of attention. I was always having my picture taken and meeting really, um, eager girls.
"I wasn't exactly a star quarterback, but somehow cheerleaders still wanted to date me," he adds. "Life was golden. It's amazing how things change."
Then came the 1983 accident. Robbie was on crutches while his knee healed. Then his parents divorced. There were no fireworks, but it took a toll on the family. Robbie's connection to the big-time Powell-Peralta and Walker evaporated. And then, just before Christmas, Scott came within a hair of doing jail time. He was zipping through the neighborhood in his El Camino when one of his friends, riding in the pickup bed, threw something at a car full of young Hispanic men, Robbie explains. "The guys followed Scott, and he was terrified," he adds. "They followed him home, and he thought they were going to beat the shit out of him, so he went inside the house and got his shotgun. He fired over their heads to scare them." Scott was arrested and charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.
"It was a weird period of time," Robbie says. "I really didn't know what the hell to do with myself." His dad helped him get a job at the airport, cleaning planes for Eastern Airlines.
Emotionally it all hit home two years after graduation. Robbie's knee had healed, and he'd begun to skate a little. But he was floundering. (The lone bright spot for Robbie was Scott's health. Despite poor prognoses from doctors since birth, Scott seemed as strong as ever.)
"I guess I probably had an attitude back then," Robbie says. "I just thought that if you worked hard at something, you became good at it. And if you became really good at something, good things would happen to you. I didn't understand why the good things had stopped happening."
In 1985 Robbie left Eastern and found a job driving a UPS van. "I got a delivery in the suburbs somewhere, and I get to the house, and it was a skateboard I had to deliver to some kid," he says. "I had a, almost a flashback, and all I could think about was how I used to wait for the UPS truck to bring my boards, especially after I got on the Walker team. They'd be bringing me stuff all day. It had only been five years before, but it felt like forever. I really almost broke down."
It took Robbie fifteen years to find success again.
"Here's the thing about Robbie," his dad says. "I don't think he's some kid who was good at skateboarding and got lucky with other things. I think he's a kid who works so hard he would have found success at anything. But he did go through tough times trying to figure out what exactly to do for a living."
As the Eighties ebbed, Robbie slowly built a life for himself. He'd skate the occasional exhibition to make a few bucks and promote a ramp-building business that he'd launched in his dad's back yard.
He found occasional stunt work in commercials, TV shows, and movies (Bad Boys, Deadwood). And he discovered an entrepreneurial bent he never suspected in himself. "I was doing an exhibition in Lauderdale and I brought one of my ramps up there," he says. "There was a woman there who started asking me about if I built the ramps and how I hauled them around and the kind of work I'd done," he says. "I had no idea what she wanted. But then her husband called and offered me a job."
Soon Robbie was ferrying around beautiful women in tony RVs for the ACT Modeling Agency. Using his ramp-building expertise, he also began building portable sets, a useful commodity in South Florida, where unpredictable weather can often ruin plans for a shoot. "It was great," Robbie says. "I started making a little money, and I got to hang around all these models."
In 1990, after he'd been working in the modeling world for two years, Robbie met South Beach fashion photographer Willie Miller. "I thought he was the rudest guy I'd ever met," Robbie says.
Miller, Robbie's elder by twenty years, acts and dresses like a perpetual adolescent. The two have become close friends. "Robbie's the shy one, and I'm the one who's not afraid to talk to women I don't know," says Miller (whose preferred pickup method seems to be yelling, "Nice shoes!" at women on Lincoln Road). "Not that Robbie isn't happy to just stand around looking young and healthy and wind up getting the women that I put in the work for."
In 1992 Robbie bought his own fleet of RVs and contracted his transport services to modeling agencies, a move urged by Miller. He was living on the Beach, hanging out with models, and Scott was healthy. Robbie even worked Scott into his professional life. "We have this joke we play on the models sometimes," Robbie says. "If I'm driving one of the RVs and I've brought Scott along for the day, sometimes I'll pull over and say, 'Okay, my brother's going to drive now.' They all act like they're cool with it, but some of them are terrified. He can drive perfectly well, but he likes to throw a scare into them."
But something was missing.
Miller says Robbie has regrets. "Look, the kid's doing fine businesswise; he's doing fine with women, but he was never the one thing he really wanted to be a skating superstar," Miller reveals.
Adds Hutchinson: "It's hard to say who could have been famous or great. A lot of guys that were great fell apart or got into drugs or just stopped. Robbie was certainly one of the best at one time, and he took better care of himself than a lot of guys."
Robbie chafes at the idea he might regret something in his past. "I have a happy life," he says. "I still skate plenty, but the important stuff is family. And my brother is a miracle."
Robbie was as nervous as he'd ever been for the competition that afternoon in November 2001, and the goddamn weather wasn't helping. Hurricane Michelle was headed for South Florida, and Robbie watched the trees bending in the wind as he stood atop the ramp. He'd never stopped skating he even built a half-pipe in his back yard but it had been years since his last competition, and he'd been surprised to receive an invitation to skate the Legends Competition alongside Tony Caballero and Tony Hawk.
Though he was 36 years old, he felt like he was sixteen again. He looked out over the ramp and couldn't resist the obvious metaphor. "Just like my life," he thought. "All the way up, all the way down."
The event at Peacock Park in Coconut Grove had all the trappings of the flourishing skateboard culture. Big, well-marketed names promoted X Games videos and apparel. BMXers were doing tricks everywhere. Skate heroes like Lance Mountain and Mike McGill casually sauntered through the crowd.
For Robbie, it was Heaven and Hell. He was in better shape than many of his thirtysomething contemporaries. "I guess I didn't realize how much it all still meant to me until I got the invitation to participate in the Legends Competition," he says. "I got so anxious; even though it was just for fun, I felt like everything depended on it. Like if I did well enough, it would make up for me not turning pro."
Standing on the top of the ramp, Robbie resorted to an old technique he used before competitions in high school. As he watched the first skater, Mike McGill, perform his famous 540 McTwist, Robbie shoved his hands into his pockets, clenched his fists as tightly as he could, and then relaxed them. Clench, relax, clench, relax. Before he knew it, it was his turn to drop in. He carved across the finished plywood and launched into an invert, crouching and grabbing his board as he flew through the air. Next he slid on his board's tail along the ramp's lip. Then he dropped back in and caught front-side air.
The crowd was standing and cheering. When the ten-second alarm sounded, people yelled for him to do a layback air, and Robbie went for it. The crowd went nuts.
"I felt like I'd been on hiatus for fifteen years, but now I was home again," he says.
"He was great," says original Walker Team rider Alan Gelfand, the South Florida skater who invented the "Ollie," or no-hands aerial, and was at the competition. "I've seen Robbie skate a lot in my life, and he was truly great on that run."
"Robbie was on, as on as I'd ever seen him," Nolder says. "First time I'd seen him in twelve years, and he looked the same and skated better."
Then it was time for the second run, and Robbie's anxiety had disappeared. "I sort of felt like I was going to win," he says.
While the wind whipped the trees around and the spectators crowded the ramp, Robbie dropped in and immediately began grabbing grinds and fall-back airs. As he was sliding along the lip, about to drop back in, he felt a jolt. "My board got caught," he says. "I went in head first, twelve feet straight down."
The crowd went deathly silent.
"It was serious," Gelfand remembers. "People thought he was really badly hurt."
Robbie shattered his shoulder when he used it to brace his fall. "It was that or break my neck, I guess," he says.
One of the competitors, a skater named Todd Johnson, described the fall on Floridaskater.com: "We all took three runs except for Weir. He broke his shoulder hanging on a roll-in. We jumped in to help him and [someone] thought it looked like it had popped from the socket, but there was something preventing them from yanking it back into place. Lucky he was too, because it was a fracture and they almost started pulling on his arm."
Robbie would later write about the fall as well: "They opened the emergency hatch at the bottom of the bowl, and when I looked up, the first person I saw was Monty [Nolder]. It appeared as if a door was being opened to a place where dreams never come true."
Robbie argued with the paramedics, saying all he needed was a painkiller and a sling and he could skate again. His friends forced him into the ambulance. "I tried to keep it in its proper perspective, but it was difficult," he wrote. "Especially when I witnessed the event getting smaller and smaller as I was looking through the rear window on my way to the hospital."
Based on his only run of the day, Robbie placed seventh in a field that read like a who's who of all-time skating greats. "I don't know how to explain that day," Robbie says. "It had all the highs and lows of my whole life wrapped up into a few hours. My shoulder was thrashed, but I felt like a weight was lifted. Like I could go back to my life."
Clomp, clomp, clomp.
This is the sound that passes for applause at Olliewood, Alan "Ollie" Gelfand's skate park in Hollywood. Thirty years after the invention of vert skating, the etiquette is well established. Drop in if you're sure no one else is about to. Try not to take anyone's head off with an errant trick. When someone does something good, give him a whistle or just lift the tail of your board with your foot and let it drop on the plywood. If he does something great, let it fall two or three times skateboarders' applause.
The park is actually a warehouse just off Dixie Highway where Gelfand has constructed a huge bowl out of specially treated plywood and surrounded it with couches, coolers, and a serious stereo system. On a recent June night, it echoes with the rumble of skateboards and the din of Bad Religion. There are five skaters present, all in the customary garb. Robbie has a matte black helmet and pads to go with khaki cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. Resident photog Charles Lillo wears a light blue "Grind for Life" T-shirt and camo cargos. Chris Griffiths sports green cargos and a black T-shirt. All the skaters are thirtysomething, except Robbie. He is slimmer than the others, many of whom look better built for an offensive line than a skate ramp.
Griffiths, who weighs about 215 pounds, skated with Robbie 25 years ago. "I dropped out of it for a long time," he says, his long hair dripping sweat. "But a lot of guys hooked up again because of this place. I love it."
Gelfand, a slight man who looks like the love child of Jamie Kennedy and Ad-Rock, saunters up the stairs and starts slipping on pads.
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Then Robbie limps over to say hello. It's clear the skating accidents, stunt work, and wakeboarding a more recent hobby have begun to take their toll on Robbie. Doctors tell him he'll need new hips in ten or fifteen years. But he still goes to Olliewood once a week or so, and tonight he is as good as anybody in the place, landing handstands and layback airs like he was fifteen again.
Tomorrow he'll spend the day with his family. His parents, though divorced, are living together again. Scott lives with them. Robbie's father was recently diagnosed with cancer. "It's pretty advanced," he says. "I'm really starting to hate hospitals." He'll take his dad to the hospital for treatment tomorrow and maybe spend a couple of hours revising his memoir, a self-published tome called Miami Inverted (www.miamiinverted.com) that his buddy Miller co-wrote.
"Watch this, watch this," Griffiths says, pointing at Robbie as he drops in and carves across the bowl. "See, he's always had that style. Even back in the day, he was one of the guys with a distinct style. Some guys look like they're using a lot of effort or straining to do tricks. Robbie always looked like he was just floating across the bowl, just floating up into the air."
Robbie goes up on one hand as Lillo snaps a photo. The assembled skaters clomp their approval. Then he slices across the plywood and grinds across the lip at the other end.