Just past the halfway point of potentially his last year on the World Tour, pro surfer C.J. Hobgood reflects upon his past and ponders the future
“At this point in my career, these are the moments and matchups that I live for – the reason I’m still on tour. No better way to gauge where you’re at then to meet the best surfers at their particular spots. I’ve got nothing to lose, so I can let it hang out. I love being in the underdog role, but to win these heats is always a very humbling experience.”
Its late July and C.J. Hobgood finds himself in a unique position. The 35-year old pro surfing veteran is in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa for the J-Bay Open, the sixth event on the 2014 Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championship Tour (WCT), the elite Men’s tour in the governing body for professional surfing. In short, surfing’s big leagues. He has just upset two-time event winner and South African charger Jordy Smith at his home break of Supertubes and will soon face last year’s ASP world champ Mick Fanning. As if that’s not enough, Hobgood will then square off against the relentless Brazilian surfer Gabriel Medina, the top-ranked pro in the world.
Exchanging a volley of emails during his time at J-Bay and afterwards, I discover C.J. Hobgood is an interviewer’s dream; courteous and humble, professional yet candid with his answers and time. In the modern era of athletes plastered with sponsorships and their words full of corporate scripts, Hobgood is a throwback of sorts to the 1960s and the amateur days of surfing, an open book with honesty spread across the pages. He’s evolved his talents to match where progressive surfing continues to advance, from the days of sweeping carves across waves and barrel riding to adapting his game above the lip and taking to the air.
Just as relevant today as he was when he began his pro career, Hobgood knows the value of hard work. He still wants to win.
In between our correspondence, Hobgood’s run at the J-Bay Open goes like this: after defeating Smith in the third round of his backyard contest; Hobgood loses in a close second round three-man heat to Brazilian upstart Alejo Muniz and to friend, three-time world champ – and eventual contest winner – Fanning. In the following fifth round, an elimination heat, Hobgood loses by a nail – seven-tenths of a point! – to Medina.
“He’s giving it a go,” says 1989 ASP world champ and commentator Martin Potter over the event telecast, in the closing seconds of Hobgood’s duel with Medina. Needing a 5.25 wave to win, Hobgood charges into a barrel, only to have it close out as he makes it halfway through. Emerging from the whitewash, he paddles back out, in search for the winning wave that never came. “I like the fact he’s rolling the dice,” Potter continues. “He’s not sitting there, waiting.”
Perfect words for the life and professional surfing career thus far of C.J. Hobgood.
Born Clifton James Hobgood in July 1979, C.J. and his identical twin brother Damien were born in Melbourne, Florida and grew up in nearby Satellite Beach. He and Damien first began surfing the sandy beach-breaks around the age of 4, and started competitively by 11 years old, entering local Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) contests (C.J. would go on to win the Menehune division at the 1991 ESA Championships). Continuing with their national amateur careers, both Hobgoods entered the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA), where C.J. won the East Coast Boys Division in 1994. The following year he took the men’s national juniors crown, then won the NSSA East Coast Men’s title in 1997. Growing up, Hobgood always wanted to be a surfer, and after finishing high school in June 1998, entered the ASP Qualification Series (QS) winning an ASP 5-star event in Portugal later that year. That win launched him into the 1999 ASP World Tour, joining the likes of fellow Floridian Kelly Slater. After finishing 18th overall and winning the ASP Rookie of the Year in 1999, Hobgood won his first WCT event the following season (the Rip Curl Hossegor Pro) and has remained in the upper third of the Top 34 for most of his career. Damien joined C.J. on the World Tour in 2000, where he won Rookie of the Year honors.
Over a career spanning close to two decades, Hobgood has felt the highest of highs and endured life-changing lows. Known for his surfing versatility in all conditions and waves, the fearless goofy-footer won the ASP World Championship in 2001, and has captured numerous events and heats over the course of his time as a pro. However, there have also been trying times for the World Tour staple. He suffered through a divorce while he was in the QS, eventually remarrying. Within the last five years alone, he has lost – and gained – several major sponsors, experienced Damien falling off the tour, and after his first 12 years in surfing’s big leagues, C.J. was knocked off the tour at the midyear rotation in September 2011. Needing immediate success, Hobgood dialed in, won the ASP PRIME Billabong Azores Islands Pro contest, and made the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipe Masters event that followed in Hawai’i, re-qualifying in early 2012. Making his way back, step by step, he returned to the Top 34 of the sport he loves.
Fast forward to 2014, which has already been a busy year for Hobgood. Just past the halfway point of his 15th season on the World Tour, this year finds C.J. approaching a crossroads, in both his career and personal life. Married with three young daughters, traveling the world surfing competitively over the last several years could be growing on him. Question marks dot the landscape at every stop on tour, even with winning heats and his competitive spirit as high as ever: will 2014 be the last year for C.J. Hobgood?
In addition to the tour, he remains busy with several projects keeping him in touch with both the sport and family. C.J. and Damien have both been hard at work on a feature-length documentary project that the brothers have listed through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. C.J. said he wanted to put the film out to see if surf fans were interested in the siblings’ story – and rivalry – as brothers, as professional surfers, and potential plans for their post-competitive surfing days. Rewards for supporters range from a digital download of the film to an autographed surfboard of C.J.’s or Damien’s, a 30-minute phone/video chat with the brothers to a private Q&A with the film’s director Justin Purser or the editor, Patrick Stublen, to a surf session with the brothers in Southern California or their native Florida. Proceeds from the pledges will benefit various organizations, such as To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOA), one of CJ’s former main sponsors, as well as Surfrider and Waves For Water. Perhaps the most intriguing and eye-raising reward is for the top pledge of $15,000, which is Hobgood’s 2001 ASP World Championship Trophy.
The documentary focuses on the Hobgoods growing up along the Space Coast, taking their talents to the World Tour – with hype and fame as well as the pressures and challenges that followed. Along the way, both brothers shared the same dream of being pro surfers – as well as similar identity crises. In chasing those aspirations individually and collectively, C.J. admits, wasn’t always the easiest thing to manage while on tour.
“Honesty was always straight in your face,” Hobgood said of having Damien alongside him on tour. “You want to be completely honest with yourself, day in and day out – get a twin brother to call you out every day.”
Hobgood says he and Damien are making the documentary now to tell their collective story as brothers and the film will shed light on several plotlines important to both brothers as they look back as well as to the future: C.J. is now the face of a major sponsor; and Damien barely missing re-qualification for the 2014 world tour. At the heart, it is a story of two brothers competing and fighting for their dreams, their identities and at the end of the day, realizing family is what matters. “I’m a part of a surfing family that will never change,” Hobgood says. “Me and Damo are at some serious crossroads – the next chapters in our lives. We want to try and answer these questions and tell our past – how we got to this point. It’s not a surf film; it’s a universal story of identity, failures and being completely honest with yourself, around every corner, with surfing as a backdrop.”
A couple of weeks pass and Hobgood is competing back in the States, at the Vans US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, California, long known as surfing’s annual spectacle, with Damien in competition as well. Slater pulls out of the event early due to injury. Hobgood wins his first heat against three younger surfers, calling forth the shore-break mastery he used on the waves found along the East Coast.
Also of note in 2014 – Hobgood carries a major sponsor once again.
For what seemed like an eternity without a sticker on his boards, Hobgood received endless public support from fans at contests and over social media for a major corporation to back him. No matter the obstacle, Hobgood’s Christian faith and willingness to make the most of his opportunities keeps him grounded and ready for what the next direction along the road of life brings. “Don’t take yourself too serious,” Hobgood muses, of the challenges he has adapted to or evolved with over the years. “It’s always about the growth, not about the wins and losses. Never stop evolving.”
Since 2008 Hobgood had gone without a major sponsor within the surfing industry, a decision which has allowed him freedom and creative control, although he’s admitted it has been a Catch-22 situation at times. In 2012, he was supported by TWLOHA, a nonprofit organization helping young adults through depression, addiction, self injury and suicide. He’s received and turned down several lucrative offers from companies he feels he simply couldn’t get behind. Another nod to an almost-forgotten time, Hobgood has remained true to his ideals and has chosen sponsors he believes in.
This year he created Salty Crew, an outdoors lifestyle and clothing company aimed at sea-minded surfers, fishermen, and “a crew of like-minded Salty individuals who share a passion for the ocean,” according to the company’s website. Salty Crew is serving as Hobgood’s main sponsor this year.
The name Salty comes from [S]alvaging [A] [L]ifestyle for [T]omorrow’s [Y]outh. Hobgood gives his take on what called him to action. “I’ve been given a good foundation of truth from my beliefs and a peek into what life really looks like,” Hobgood says, of the inspiration in starting his newfound venture by simply following his heart. “We all need to go to where we feel alive, not where the money always is. Also, you need to connect with people to tell your story. God’s plans are always better than mine. I’m just hanging on, taking baby steps of faith and getting the blessings in the process. It really is that simple.”
“From what I and a retail family have seen and been through, we felt our story was everyone else’s and Salty Crew was formed. We are standing up and saying, ‘this is a movement to get our industry back to the beach.’ We are encouraging our neighbors and protecting the Salt, we hope, and [we’ve] already seen this movement really take root from the need that’s out there. Pretty exciting times.”
Over the first weekend of August I receive an email notice from Indiegogo that the Hobgoods exceeded their $80,000 crowdfunding goal by over $4,000, and the documentary will proceed the way they envisioned. Meaning that the fans have spoken. One of those fans being Fernando Aguerre, the co-founder and former CEO of sandals and lifestyle clothing giant Reef, who stepped in with a $15,000 pledge, becoming the new owner of Hobgood’s 2001 world championship trophy.
Both Hobgood brothers teamed up with Globe in the new Joe G-helmed globe-trotting surf epic Strange Rumblings In Shangri-La. With the Super 16mm movie set to drop at the end of July, I ask Hobgood about any clues into he or his brother’s sections in the film, which also features Taj Burrow, Dion Agius, Nate Tyler, Yadin Nicol, Creed McTaggart, Noa Deane, Alex Smith and Brandon Gibbens in a collection of jaw-dropping locales stretching from frosty Iceland to alluring Mozambique. “In a couple weeks you’ll see it,” Hobgood teases. “I can’t take away anything from Joe G, who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest filmmakers I’ve ever seen.”
Check out the teaser trailer for Strange Rumblings In Shangri-La below:
At the US Open, joining the Hobgoods and Slater, there is only two other East Coasters in the Men’s Prime event; Florida’s Evan Geiselman and Michael Dunphy from Virginia Beach. South Carolina’s Cam Richards (who nearly out-tweeted Dane Reynolds for a wildcard entry into last year’s Hurley Lowers Pro) is the notable East Coast surfer in the Men’s Junior Pro event. Floridian Justin Quintal wins the Duct Tape Invitational for a second straight year, the longboard contest that logger Joel Tudor hosts annually. While there are a handful in the WQS, East Coast surfers making the WCT these days are few and far between. Along with Slater, Hobgood is the only other surfer from the Right Coast currently on the World Tour. I ask Hobgood who he thinks could be the next surfer to reach the elite level. “Tommy Coleman,” he replies, noting the 11-year old Vero Beach, Florida goofyfooter and former Camp Hobgood grom. “I hope he can make it through.”
Rumored to be his last year on tour, Hobgood has not yet expressed publicly whether he’ll surf competitively after this season or hang up the jersey for good. Naturally, he seems torn with the decision. “I love surfing and watching these kids on tour grow, but I really miss my kids,” Hobgood says. “It’s a constant that every man deals with when he has a family and provides. By getting off the tour, it won’t completely go away. I guess another question I need to ask myself is, ‘Am I holding back the tour and the progression of the sport by having me around?'”
In the 15 years Hobgood has spent on the WCT, he has accomplished most everything in competitive surfing. If you’ve caught him on tour this year, watched his surfing and post-heat interviews, it’s easy to see the competitive fire still burns within. Yet, he admits that personal growth is the most significant take-away from his years of surfing competitively.
“It’s growth in my life, personally – always – but that’s not something the media really sees or cares about much, and I understand that. But surfing is the best lifestyle. I can still take care of my family from surfing. I remain healthy doing it. I’m able to experiment with my surfing, still learning and getting better and I really want to win a contest this year.”
I ask Hobgood what 35-year old C.J. would say to his 20-year old self, and he gives an answer worthy of a quote calendar. “The failures and low times you’ll remember more than the highs, because of the growth that took place.”
In the second round of the US Open, Hobgood places third in his heat behind Brazilian veteran Willian Cardozo and Frenchman Maxime Huscenot and is eliminated. Hobgood has a window before heading to the next destination on the WCT slate, Tahiti. Hobgood’s success and marketability grants him numerous opportunities for the future; he could become a free surfer like many become after their pro days are over, chasing waves all across the world for magazines, filming surf flicks – or for themselves. Even giving it a go as an event commentator, perhaps joining fellow former pros like Potter on the ASP webcasts is a valid option. Along with Slater and 2012 world champ Joel Parkinson, he is a linchpin between 90s surfing and the progressive modern surfing of today, where launching airs draws the magazine covers, acclaim, even contest wins.
Hobgood is candid on his love of the sport, yet leaves the door open for what’s next.”I love surfing. It’s all I know and I know too much most of the time, so I’ll do something in surfing to give back. I’ll just have to figure out what gets me most excited and go towards that, but I don’t know what that is at this time.”
Still winning heats and currently ranked #17 in the world, Hobgood is upright in balancing his thoughts on the present while planning for his future. Asked for what he’s going to miss the most when he decides to walk away, he denotes the stops on this year’s tour calendar and his fellow competitors.”Look at this run we’re on right now – [Tavarua], J-Bay, Tahiti…does it get any better than that? I’m going to miss the people the most, no doubt.”
Even with all he’s gained throughout his storied surfing career, now competing against many almost half his age, C.J. Hobgood is indeed a man with nothing to lose. Headed next to daunting Teahupo’o for the Billabong Pro Tahiti, Hobgood is already qualified to compete in the Top 34 for 2015. Should he choose to retire, free surfing is an alluring option, one which would grant more freedom to surf the waves he chooses and time with his family. If he were to pursue a more official route in the sport, the ASP could benefit highly from having such a surfing mind as knowledgeable and open-minded in the commentator’s booth. In the coming months, Hobgood will likely make a decision on what he’s going to do in the future. Many paths await, with just as many directions to follow. Whether he returns or retires next year, he will go down swinging. For now, however, C.J. Hobgood knows to leave the tough decisions to a higher power.
“God only knows, but it will be seeing a need and trying to service that need. Helping others through surfing. Pretty simple.”