The Coke Dive and Digital Triumph of Nicholas Rozsa
From Stab issue 59: Once upon a time, Nick liked to get wasted. Now he’s back into wasting waves.
Words by Elliot Struck. All photos by William Sharp. Designs by Shinya Dalby.
Nick Rozsa did, for a time, enjoy Cocaine. Just as he did, for a time, enjoy competitive surfing. But his taste lasted for neither. The cocaine helped him escape and it helped the good times roll.
But, the thing about the good times? They never keeps rolling.
As a kid, Nick was coming up, watching a modest pay cheque swell his bank account monthly. All he had to do was loosen his fins to the beach for a team of judges and let his pretty hair grow long.
But, in competition, sometimes, things don’t go your way. And, after a few bad calls, disenchantment came knocking. All of a sudden y’got a kid who’s sick of being a marionette. Sick of it all. And, maintaining salary and marketability is tough when your attitude’s regressing. So, the river runs dry.
Then there’s some light, someone else picks you up. Thing is, they sign what they think is a competitor, but what they really get is a jaded kid who just wants to do his thing, unshackled. Nick ain’t the first world-class talent to blow off contests, of course. It’s not enough to just wanna be a professional surfer. You have to need it. And, it’s tough because, at the beginning of a career, true talent doesn’t exist. There’s only the promise of the coming man.
Fast-forward a few years and you have a man who still doesn’t compete, but is paid a salary and surfs enough to release frequent web clips. These clips started with a series called Homegrown and have proven to be Nick’s surf career defibrillator. The quality of these clips is second only to those of Dane Reynolds’ site, Marine Layer Productions.
Nick is crucial because he’s proof of the afterlife. He’s a rarity because he ain’t rotting away as a surf coach or company rep, mumbling about his days in the sun. He successfully re-invented himself and from grassroots, he came back with finners and flow like few others. How many have blossomed, burntout and lost it all, become a dad, and fought their way back into the surfing world’s collective psyche (more than ever), all before they’ve lived a quartercentury?
Sure, the pay cheque might not yet reflect the talent and following he now has. But Nick’s clawed his way to cult hero. Before y’scream exaggeration, consider this: Collectively, the clips on Nick and his filmer Chris Papaleo’s Vimeo account, Salty Beards, have had 278.2k plays. On a Kai Neville boat trip, Dane Reynolds said: “I wanna do those backside finner-to-reverses like Nick Rozsa.”
After seeing Homegrown Pt II, Kelly Slater tweeted of Nick: “Best sponsorless surfer?”, before linking up for a surf with Nick to investigate just what the hell the deal was with this totally-super-electric tween daddy from Cali. Stab shares Mr Slater’s curiosity. And it’s for this reason we give you the insights below.
Stab: Let us discuss the initial demise of your surfing career.
Nick Rozsa: I did the whole QS thing when I was younger. I had a bunch of sponsors. But, basically, I had really bad calls at some contests and it made me feel like my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t happy. I got sick of the whole industry and scene. I was going through the motions and I got burnt out really quick. I was 20 when I left O’Neill for Reef. Reef signed me thinking that I was still headed in the contest direction. Realistically though, I was kinda making a transition. It was when Dane was taking a break from contests. I grew up surfing around Dane and he’s someone whose footsteps you wanna follow in. It inspired me to do something other than just competition. So, that was the direction I wanted to take at the time, but it wasn’t really what everyone was doing then. Freesurfing was kinda like a myth. Only Donavon and a coupla guys like that were doing it then. That was a really confusing time and I didn’t know where I wanted to take my surfing. I got lost, so I ended up just doing nothing. Reef had signed me for three years and, first year, I struggled with what I wanted to do. Second year I approached them and said I wanted be a freesurfer. They weren’t sure but were like, “Your sponsor dollars are getting cut then.”
How much were you making at that point? I’ve never made over $50k in a year, ever, in the surf industry. The first time around with Reef, I signed for three years and my pay got cut every year. The first year I got a decent sum of money, but still under $50k. At that time, as a 19-year-old making that much, I was like cool, I’m cruising. Then I got my pay cut the next year, then again the next year. So by the third year I was like, really low. Each year I lost more and more motivation and didn’t have any goals, or opportunities, or anything to look forward to. So I got really burnt out with the whole thing. My passion for surfing wasn’t there anymore, I was just over it. It’s like, you put a carrot in front of a horse’s face, the thing’s gonna run. For me at that time, it was the opposite. There was no carrot. I just lost interest, I was over it and didn’t wanna do it anymore.
Where does one go from that point? I started partying a lot, doing mad drugs and just on a whole different program. I didn’t even care about surfing anymore, I just lost complete interest in everything. I wasn’t doing crazy drugs like heroin or anything, I was just doing all the stuff that goes around at parties like cocaine and, occasionally, ecstasy. It was like, we’re going out, let’s go get a bag. Or, hey this guy’s got pills, so I’ll take some pills or whatever. It never got to a point where I was on it really hard, but I just went through a phase for a coupla years where I had a little bit of money, I was single, I wanted to party. This one time, I went to Bali for three months, and surfed maybe two or three times. I just partied the whole time. I went on the ultimate bender. I stayed with some people that influenced me in the wrong directions. But when I say that, I don’t wanna put the blame on anyone. What I did, it’s all on me, it was all my decision. But y’know, sometimes being around the wrong people doesn’t help.
Do any fond memories lighten the haze of regret? Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun, I met a lot of really cool people, I still have friendships from when that was all going on. It wasn’t all bad. But it did get outta hand, it took a big hole outta my life. I got off track and my interest in surfing took a back seat. That trip to Bali was in my last year with Reef. By that point, I was getting paid around the $20k mark. It pretty much halved in three years. Which didn’t particularly help my enthusiasm towards surfing professionally. But the partying had been getting outta control. I had no self control. I have a really addictive personality, and for me to stop something that I’m really into is a very hard thing.
What changed? One morning I went to planned parenthood with my girlfriend Darlene ‘cause she hadn’t had her period. We’d gone out that night and I was hungover. What was crazy was that I got the call from Reef that morning, as I was there, saying, “You’re dropped. It’s done.” I was so relieved in a sense. It sucked, but at the same time I was really happy because I knew everything in my life at that time had now halted. I didn’t have to be part of that whole scene anymore. It felt like a ball and chain had been taken off. But at the same time, I’d put in so much work when I was younger to be a pro and it was all gone, just like that. Everything I’d worked for was gone. I was left with nothing. But there was also that sense of joy and relief. So Darlene comes outta the planned parenthood or whatever, and I was crying and shit, I was all mixed up. She’s like, “I’m not pregnant.” I just said ok, I just got dropped.” She’s, like, “Oh my god!”
Nick Rozsa, the young and the free! Well… I moved outta my place in Vista, San Diego, back up to Ventura, where I grew up. Darlene stayed down there and we weren’t really sure what was gonna go on because, at the time, I’d just dropped surfing and didn’t have any money to support myself. She had her own life down there. It was like, ok, you’re not pregnant, I’m gonna go home and maybe try to get my shit together. Two weeks later, I get a call from Darlene saying she’s pregnant. I was like, oh my god, there’s no way I can have a baby right now, I don’t have shit going on in my life, like, nothing. I just lost everything I’d been working for, the only career I’d ever had. My parents didn’t have any money. I’d been paying rent since I was a little kid. So at that point I was like, holy shit, I’m about to have a baby.
That’ll straighten a man out. Well, three months had gone by and I was just trying to focus on appropriate ways to get my life together. I was going to church, I was doing anything I possibly could to figure out where I was gonna take my life. I was seriously, seriously lost. At that point, I hated surfing and didn’t want anything to do with it. I was working construction and plumbing with my dad and not making any money doing it ‘cause it was all going towards rent. I’d surfed once or twice in four months. That was when Chris called me. Chris had filmed me surfing ages ago when we were younger. I hadn’t talked to him for a solid year. One day he was like, “Let’s put an Innersection together.” I was really desperate and he’s like, “Dude, you can win $100k, we’ll split it.” I was like, shit, I haven’t surfed for four months so I dunno how this’ll go down. But we made an Innersection. We did it in two days. And it sucked ass. It was really horseshit. I got a bunch of really negative feedback. I was like, this sucks, fuck surfing.
I remember it, Nick Rozsa: Innersection Loser. Was that the first step towardsHomegrown? Yeah, well, another month or two went by, but I’d started talking to my girlfriend, trying to figure out what we were gonna do. I still had no job, no place for us to live, I didn’t know what the fuck was gonna happen. Six months down the road, Chris started calling me again like, “Let’s film! The waves are gonna be good!” And there was this one day we went and surfed, and the waves were really good, and at that point I realised just how much I loved surfing and how big a part of my life it is. Sitting out there, it just slapped me in the face. I was like, I have a kid on the way, I can’t be dicking around anymore, I sure as hell don’t wanna be working construction, what am I doing? I started realising I had to get my shit together and that this baby was coming in a few months. I realised it wasn’t about me anymore, I just had to do what I had to do to provide for my child and my girlfriend.
How’d the first clip come together? Chris started coming down the beach a lot and filming me, whenever he could. We had literally nothing, I couldn’t pay him for anything, it was outta complete friendship. So I was surfing more, my joy and passion had come back, I realised how much I loved it. That first Homegrown came outta that. I realised, if I was gonna give it another shot, I needed to give it my all. It was a gamble, to be honest. If this whole thing hadn’t worked out, I’d still be struggling. But it paid off. Chris has dumped so much money into this, probably $20k. I think I’ve paid him back maybe $1.5k. He’s been the gnarliest friend through all of this. So, we put Homegrown out and were like, let’s see what happens. To be honest, we weren’t even gonna do another video. We thought no one would watch it, and that it was super boring. I think it got like, 20k views or something pretty quickly, and we were just like, woah! How’d that happen? I was pumped, like, this kinda works? Let’s do another one. Chris wasn’t sure ‘cause he had work and his own life. We ended up doing the second one, and that was the one where Slater Tweeted to Chris about me, “Best unsponsored surfer?”
You feel some hot lil emotions after that? Chris woke me up the morning after the clip released and was all, “Dude, I don’t know if this is real, but I just got a Tweet from Kelly Slater claiming that you’re the best sponsorless surfer.” I was like, no, that can’t be real, there’s no fucking way. I didn’t think twice about it, I was just like, no way, why would Kelly even watch my video? And then Tweet about it? It’s just someone trying to pull pranks. So, Chris got all bummed. Then later that day, Kelly wrote Chris an email saying, “Hey, I wanna know what’s the deal with Nick? Who’s he riding for? Is he riding for anyone?” Chris came to me and said, “Dude, I’m retty sure this is Slater and he’s asking questions about you.” So we decided to figure out if it was really him. I called one of my buddies who has Slater’s email and it turns out the email had come from Slater. So we kinda freaked out ‘cause Slater was hitting us up. I just thought it was crazy.
That’s where it all changed, right? That lit a fire under our asses. Hey, we’ve got fucking Slater’s attention, we’ve gotta be doing something right. So Chris said, “OK dude, we’re filming every day from now on, we gotta get shit done, this is working.” He was freaking out. In the meantime, Reef had hit me up after that second video and I ended up signing back on with them, ‘cause they’d seen what I’d been doing and they wanted to help me out. So Chris wrote back to Kelly and he hit us up to go surf. He came down for a session near my house. We were freaking out, like, oh my god, Slater’s coming to hang out with us. Chris didn’t even answer his phone the first two times Kelly called, like, “Dude, some random number’s calling me.” Then he wrote Chris an email saying, “Did you gimme the right number? I’ve been trying to call you.” Chris was like, “Oh, shit!” So he hit him back and we surfed together. It was weird because Slater was originally interested in me, I think, for his new company VSTR. I don’t mean to presume or anything, I just say that ‘cause he asked who I was sponsored by, and he was saying to Chris, “What’s Nick’s plan for next year? I wanna help him out. How can I help him out?” But I’d gone to Reef ‘cause I wasn’t making any money and had a child on the way. That pressure was on, I needed a pay cheque. I could see in Kelly’s face that he was bummed when he found out. He was like, “How long have you signed with Reef for, a year?” I told him yes, and he goes, “Ok, good.” Whatever that meant. I don’t wanna assume anything. That’s just what he said to me that day. Then he was all, “Alright dude, I’m out!” And he just bailed. We used the clips of him in part three of Homegrown. And that was that.
Do the clips come easier now? The craziest thing about every one of these videos is that everyone thinks we’re just at the beach filming all day, every day. But Chris and I literally have to take time off to try and catch swells and film. Chris lives in the valley and has to drive an hour and half to the beach, film me, then drive an hour and a half back home. It’s a nightmare for him and it just shows how dedicated he is to helping me out. He’s the best friend ever, I can never repay him, ever. Luckily I get a video incentive with Reef now, so every bit of money I get from that, I go and pay Chris with it. I give it straight to him ‘cause that’s the one way I can help him out, money-wise.
Let’s end happy! Well, I’ve been re-signed with Reef since January. Right now I’m 24, turning 25 in September. I got a little boy, he’s eight months old. He’s a little rascal, he’s rad. His name’s Roenn. I always told myself I’m not gonna make him surf or put pressure on him to surf, but as he’s getting older, I’m like, fuck, I kinda want him to surf!
Buy Stab issue 59, here.