“He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before.” – John Denver
1970 – Henry Deutschendorf, aka John Denver, age 27, found his “home” when he experienced the mountains of Colorado, inspiring the above words; I was born. 1997 – 27 years after “coming home,” Denver piloted his plane into the Pacific and died; I reached my 27th year and found my “home.” I’m not a big John Denver fan (although the haircut is pretty sick), but I’ve been partial to “Rocky Mountain High” since discovering the commonalities in our timelines.
Success or failure in pro surfing was easily defined in my day. You qualified for the world tour…or not. I didn’t. I was half in college, half in contests, and never maximized my potential in either. By 1997, I’d come to a crossroads.
My “career” as a pro had been a creeping rise through my small pond with ocassional forays into national competition. I’d outlasted my homies or was too dumb to find real success like them, outside of a contest jersey. Either way, I had nothing to show for my efforts, and with another season of the Association of Surfing Professionals East Coast tour about to kick off in Florida, I had no plans to be there.
I was about to finish my Master’s in Education at Old Dominion University, but going to work in a classroom appealed to me as much as a rash on my nuts. Desperate for alternatives, I’d sent resumes to Surfing and Surfer magazines. Surfing contacted me and asked if I’d like to cover the ASP East season. I preferred the depth of Surfer over the teeny-boppiness of Surfing, but I would’ve written for Kook’s Digest if such a thing existed.
The Thursday evening before the first event, I was hemming and hawing about a $300 flight and how high I’d need to finish to break even. Even with a couple hundred bucks from Surfing, I’d have to make the quarterfinals just to recoup my investment. With kid #1 on the way, the bulk of my dollars were going to burp cloths and butt-wipe warmers. Gambling on a surf contest made as much sense as buying a bunch of lottery tickets.
K and I had started dating in high school, and in the decade since then she hadn’t uttered anything profound. Maybe it was the wacky hormones from the baby growing inside her, but all of a sudden she was Confucious. She looked at me and said, “Just win it.” Hmm, I honesty hadn’t considered that as an option. With that directive, there was no alternative; you don’t cross a pregnant woman. I bought the ticket, and that Sunday down in Boynton Beach, I won the contest.
I found myself in a bunch of finals through the year, and on the eve of the last event of the season, I started doing some math. While figgurin’ ain’t my strong suit, I was able to ascertain that even if I went out a first round clown, nobody could catch me in the ratings. I called Craig Colburn, the tour director, to see if I was correct. He hadn’t thought about it, but after some figgurin’ of his own he confirmed that I was the ASP East champ, the first non-Floridian to win.
At any moment, the ceiling would open, and a blizzard of confetti would stream over me. ESPN would fly a reporter to my house and interrupt a Laker game to air a live interview. Paparazzi would trample one another as I hoisted the championship trophy for the cover of Sports Illustrated. I was a god.
I walked back into the living room where K was holding our baby boy. “I won,” I announced. “Good job honey,” she replied. “Now grab a diaper.” And we went back to watching Seinfeld.
The tour folded one event into the following year, effectively ending my “career” as a surfer. I was the champion of a thing that didn’t exist. Life was telling me to grow up and earn an honest living. I responded, “Not so fast, Life. I’ll just write for surf magazines and teach people how to surf.” I started my own surf camp that summer and moved over to Surfer after editor Steve Hawk got around to reading the letter I’d sent six months earlier.
1997 was the most eventful year of my life, including my peak achievement and the establishment of how I still earn my living today. None of those things, interestingly, was the highlight of my year. None of them, however exciting they seemed at the time, changed me or had much impact on me at all.
The titles of champ, writer, and instructor pale compared with the other I received that year, a title I treasure although I did nothing to earn it, a title I’ll spend the rest of my life striving to live up to, and the reason I am what I am and do what I do, the title of “Dad.” That’s the one that matters. Yeah, it was a big year.