In the skate world, he needs no introduction. The story of John Cardiel is inspiring to anyone who is passionate about their sport. From his early days as a “gromit” in rural California up to the tragic accident that cut his career short and left him partially paralyzed, Cardiel has been and still is the embodiment of what it means to be a skateboarder.
John Joseph Cardiel was born on December 17, 1973 in San Jose, California and grew up in nearby Half Moon Bay. In the seventh grade, John moved to rural Grass Valley, California where he seemed to stick out right away. Coming from pot and skateboarding by the ocean to chewing tobacco and riding dirt bikes in the country, there was an initial culture shock but he soon found himself gelling into his environment. Friends remember John as being like a spontaneous performance artist that just seemed to be bursting with energy at all times as he performed daring, “Jackass” worthy feats to wow his audience. “I think I just get so juiced when I’m around my friends,” John says, “and people are all like, ‘AHHHH!!!’ So I’m like ‘AHHHH, I got something for ya, I got something for ya!’ Then boom, try do a flip or some shit. Just DO something, ya know. DO something basically is what I feel like doing. Something. ”
This lack of fear was surely the result of a life lesson his father, a Vietnam vet, had taught him at the age of nine. On the way home one day, John’s dad pulled the car over on some ungodly high bridge and told his son that if he didn’t jump, he was walking home. From that day on, John learned that air was his friend and he wanted to hang out with his friend all the time.
Interestingly enough, Cardiel was sponsored for snowboarding before skateboarding. It was actually at a snowboarding contest that John’s skating abilities were initially noticed. The first day of the event was in the powder and day two was a professional skate contest that showcased such greats of the day as Ed Templeton and Mike Carroll. Temperatures were cold on the mountain as the pros began to get a feel for the course during the practice session. Having his board with him, John charged out with the pros. It didn’t take long to not only get the recognition of the spectators but of the professional skaters and their sponsors as well. A virtual unknown, this was the first time the world got a glimpse of John Cardiel. After receiving his first few free boards from Dogtown Skateboards, John, only 17 at the time, felt the a rush of enthusiasm that prompted him to take his skating to the next level.
It didn’t take long for the name, John Cardiel, to begin to circulate throughout the skate world due to his reckless abandon style. Always recognized for his complete disregard for his body when he skated, John would attempt back flips (a move unimaginable in the early 90s) on vert ramps with no padding or helmet whatsoever. It was all or nothing when he approached a trick. This philosophy of “make or die” coupled with his God given natural abilities are what gained him a spot on the Dogtown Skate Team.
At the time the John entered his professional career, skateboarding was in an evolutionary phase going from small, technical, slow moving flip tricks to applying the same set of tricks but going bigger and higher. Cardiel had the control and technical abilities that any other pro had, only he had a way about his skating that almost made you cringe as he approached a trick. There was no “fast enough” as he would charge ramp or rail at full speed. If he landed his intended trick it would be the gnarliest thing you’ve ever seen but when his board would leave his feet going off a 12 step staircase or his front truck would stick on a hand rail, it would look and sound like a murder scene as he would slam viciously into the pavement. Somehow, he always got back up and charged the same trick again as if nothing had happened.
In 1992, Cardiel was named Thrasher Magazine’s skater of the year. Still a relative unkown compared to prior recipients, editor Jake Phelps felt John represented what was going on in the skate scene at that time. It was soon after receiving this honor that friend and skate crew companion, Julien Stranger, contacted John about starting up a new company with the help of their sponsor, Deluxe. What was created was Anti Hero Skateboards, a name suiting of its constituents. Their flagship video was a raw piece of cinematography appropriately named “Fucktards.” It is apparent from the film that Cardiel and his crew were just given a camera and let loose to make a video. With no musical score and rough scene transitions, which included scenes of the guys just hanging out, drinking, smoking and shooting guns, “Fucktards” has since became a classic skate video that captured the true nature of skateboarding. The sound of the wheels rolling on the smooth concrete walls at Burnside gives the video a very real feel to it as it is more like being with the crew on an everyday skate session.
The Anti Hero skate team began to develop their reputation of being the gnarliest bunch of dudes in skateboarding. They were a wild crew that shot guns in the middle of nowhere on skate trips, slept in tents, ate Advil for breakfast and, of course, shredded every piece of cement and rail they could find. The organic feel in Anti Hero movies gave them an edge that hardcore skaters could appreciate. They were dirty and reckless with no regard for personal injury. Cardiel exemplified this crew with both his skating and personality. The photographers that followed their crew were encouraged to use color film during a session in order to capture the blood.
Tony Hawk may have had the 900, but Cardiel has been responsible for several highlight moments in skateboarding lore. At the famous Burnside Skate Park in Portland, Oregon, John executed a tail drop from the highest point possible on the park’s massive vert wall. There was absolutely no room for error and certainly no opportunity to get up and try it again if he should miff it. With the park standing dead still, half out of respect and half out of fear, John dropped from the unthinkable height and hit the transition smoothly and road out to the sound of cheers. Being sponsored by Vans, which was trying to become less retro at the time to compete with the changing market, John demanded that they use the orginal “Off The Wall” slogan on his next advertisement.
Another pinnacle moment in the career of the great Cardiel came in 2000 during a competition in Marseilles, France. The park in Marseilles is well known for being one of the sickest bowl parks to skate with an original design and awesome transfers. That year, Omar Hassan took home first place, but it was John Cardiel that stole the show. With his brother passing away around the same time as the event, he described himself as just being possessed to do nothing but skate. He had became somewhat distant from the crew in terms of partying and hanging out around this time as well. John was determined to win the Marseilles contest for his brother, but it didn’t work out that way for him when it was all said and done. But Cardiel was far from done as he proceeded to attempt over and over again (a 360 transfer into the bowl, a trick only done by one skater before him). As always, the crowd was psyched on watching John’s aggressive style even though he wasn’t sticking his trick. On one attempt, his board snapped and was barely holding itself together, but it didn’t matter to him as he kept trying to hit a huge transfer on broken equipment. Then, before taking a run at it yet again, John pulled out a can of Copenhagen, put in a dip and turned to Thrasher editor Jake Phelps and said, “Old man, this one’s going in.” In it went as he stuck the 360 and once again rolled away with thunderous applause.
After the death of his brother, John poured his heart into his craft and his skateboarding once again seemed to reach another level. Perhaps his exploits didn’t get him on the cover of a video game or a cereal box, but the name Cardiel had reached a level of respect in the skate world only enjoyed by a select few. At the height of his career, John had a style that could not be replicated or duplicated. In 2003, John embarked on a four week road trip in Australia from Brisbane to Melbourne to shoot the video, Tent City. The filming of the video had left the skaters involved a bit worse for wear and many were looking forward to getting home. The crew departed from their last demo at a skate park with most of the crew in a van pulling a trailer and John in a rental car following with Matt Rodriguez driving. Concerned about getting separated from the rest of group in a foreign country and not knowing where to go, John jumped out of the car to go tell the van not to lose them. Unaware that he had done so, the driver of the van cut at he corner at the red light as John approached the side. He tried to get out of the way but it was no use. Those inside the van knew something bad had happened at the sound of the impact. When he woke up, he was in the hospital with friends standing over him. John initially assumed he had hit his head, but he soon learned the news was far more grim, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
It was devastating not only for John but for all those around him. For someone who lived and breathed skateboarding, who went at it harder than anyone before or after him and represented what skating was all about, being told he would never walk again pierced the hearts of the whole skate community. John himself did not accept the doctor diagnosis and made it up in his mind that he would walk out of that hospital on his own two feet. For a while, he was wheelchair bound and forced to figure out how to get through life as a paraplegic. When many people would have packed in it and accepted their fate, John chose to reject what the doctors said about his zero percent chance of walking again in order to prove to those around him that they don’t need to feel bad for him, he’s coming back. He approached his rehabilitation in true Cardiel fashion as he pushed the limits the doctors placed on him. Each day, he attempted what he was told was impossible. But attempting the impossible is what John Cardiel does. After six months, John upheld his promise to walk of the hospital to some degree as he managed to take a few short steps out the door where his mother was waiting.
John has proven the medical experts wrong by regaining his ability to walk. He was even able to fudge out a manual for an Anti Hero advertisement. Although it was far from his former capabilities, the picture represented something bigger as the whole skateboarding world was waiting for the day John Cardiel stepped back on a board. John Cardiel still resides in California and has found an outlet for his lust for the extreme in bikes. On a bike he is able to compensate for his handicap and is finding new ways of putting himself at risk for injury yet again. There has been sporadic sighting of John on the board, even riding in a bowl, but with out the use of his left ankle, it has been difficult for him to feel like the old John. His inability to do the thing he loves the most has not discouraged him from seeking out the same joy he had skateboarding in other activities such as biking and making music. Even if he doesn’t achieve the virtually impossible by overcoming paralysis, the name Cardiel will always be remembered in skateboard history. Here’s to the legend that is John Cardiel.