I’ve had a blast reliving moments from my past, but I was dreading this one. It isn’t that I don’t want to delve into the topic, or that it’s upsetting. I just didn’t want to make it sappy or all about me. And I wanted to do it justice. After all, no other event has rocked my foundation like the death of my best friend.
Jeff Hunter and I were inseperable for eight years, from pimply Jetty upstarts to established professionals. We hung together, surfed together, traveled together, and grew up together. It just so happened we were two of the best young surfers around here, so we were also rivals. Then, without warning, at the end of a beautiful fall day in 1992, after managing his mom’s hair salon and surfing fun waves at The Jetty with his friends, Jeff’s heart quit working. He was 24.
I knew Jeff as well as anyone did, and as well as I’ve ever known a person. I was too stubborn to admit that I learned anything from him while he was alive (except for how to do a roundhouse cutback. His was the best around. He told me that instead of pushing hard with your back foot, distribute your weight evenly and guide your board around. That way you can maintain your speed.) After he died, I realized he’d taught me lots more than that, including how to be a good human. The best way I can honor him is to pass these truths to you.
1. Family isn’t so bad. Even when there were waves, Jeff always showed up for family functions. The youngest of three boys, he got along with everyone. His mom, a hairdresser from Morocco, is about the sweetest lady you’ll ever meet. Jeff adored her, just not her extravagantly-spiced cooking, which is why he’d always raid my refrigerator for my mom’s leftovers after picking at his plate at home. He never spoke ill of his family. Too many people write off their parents or siblings over disagreements. He wouldn’t think of it.
2. Be you. Jeff was proud to be Jewish way before Adam Sandler made kitschy songs about it. While I did my best to hide my heritage from my friends, he embraced his. He was never afraid to be different, even if that meant ridicule. Jeff was never into drugs. He rarely drank and quit completely by 22 (except the single tallboy I made him drink after he beat me in a man-on-man heat in a pro event at Sebastian Inlet). People gave him grief for drinking water at a party or in a bar, but he didn’t care.
3. School sucks (for some people). Graduating from high school was a huge deal for Jeff. He was the only member of his family to do so. Afterwards, he would’ve been happy to never see the inside of a classroom again. I pressured him to go to college, and he signed up but only lasted a few weeks. He told me that higher education isn’t for everyone, and he was correct. Some people learn better from the school of life. Even without college, he was on his way to a successful career.
4. Roll the dice. Jeff was a phenomenal surfer, among the best on the East Coast. Not content with that, he moved to California to test himself on the U.S. tour. He did okay, but he grew and learned a lot as a person. He made heaps of new friends, rode plenty of waves, and after a year realized that Virginia Beach wasn’t such a bad place to settle down. Plus, he let me sleep on his sofa for a summer.
5. There’s more than waves out there. Try as I might, I could never convince Jeff to go to Hawaii. All he’d do there is surf big waves. Instead, he traveled by himself to France. He rented an apartment for a couple weeks, soaked up some culture, surfed some interesting spots, and cruised around Paris. He also traveled to Israel, where he hung out with his grandparents and still managed to ride a few waves. He was open to what the world had to offer, a world that extends far beyond the coastline.
6. Find your thing (hint: it probably isn’t surfing). Jeff loved his hair, his impossibly thick, gorgeous, naturally spikey hair. Why not make sure other people have good hair too? He took over his mom’s salon at the beach and made it a cool place to be. He had no problem leaving behind the surf industry and thrived on the challenge of a completely different field. In a newspaper article from when he was 23, Jeff talked about quitting surfing and said, “I’m getting a little old to be a surfer.”
7. Playboy life gets old before you’re an old playboy. Jeff was a stud. All he had to do was flash his stunning eyes, and mesmerized girls did whatever he asked them to do. Along with swearing off alcohol, he retired from womanizing after a short but legendary career. He couldn’t reconcile with treating females as objects. At the time of his death, he was in the most serious relationship of his life.
8. Treat your feet. I could never see spending much money on kicks, but Jeff routinely splurged on his shoes. He insisted that since we’re standing for so much of each day, our feet are the most important part of our bodies. If they aren’t comfortable and well-supported, you’re going to have problems. With this in mind, I just ordered a new pair for $130, the most I’ve ever spent.
9. Strangers are friends you just don’t know. Some people are simply assholes, and Jeff had no patience for them. However, he was more than courteous to everybody else. He was even nice to boogieboarders, a notion that most surfers of his status couldn’t fathom. His friendliness was evident at his funeral, where hundreds of people of all ages came to pay their respects.
10. Friends are the best thing you’ve got. I was so caught up in our competitive rivalry that I treated Jeff like shit. I wanted him to lose in contests, I told girls he was a jerk, and I ridiculed his every move. Through it all, he showed nothing but kindness to me. It should be obvious that friends are meant to support one another, but I failed to grasp that concept until it was too late. The final day of his life, I surfed the rights peeling off the Jetty and refused to paddle down to the lefts Jeff was riding at his spot a hundred yards down the beach. I wouldn’t get another chance.
I wrote my first article for publication, a short piece on Jeff’s life for Surfer Magazine, just after he died. For nearly 20 years after his passing, many of his friends gathered annually to honor his memory, have some fun, and ride some waves. The articles I wrote about these gatherings for Eastern Surf Magazine later got me hired as East Coast Editor at Surfer. So, in addition to all he taught me, in a way Jeff also made me a writer.
He wasn’t around for long, but Jeff affected a lot of lives in a positive way. It was tragic that he left us so soon, and anyone saying his death was part of some masterplan is just trying to make themselves feel better. Literally, Jeff’s heart was too big. He also “had a big heart,” but that is hardly fatal. It’s something we can all strive for, and something that will ensure we’ll live long after we’re gone.