18 at last
Nyjah Huston was planning to defend his Street League Skateboarding gold at X Games Munich this week. But on Tuesday, he withdrew from the competition due to a rib injury. This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 24 Money issue. Subscribe today!
SKATEBOARDER NYJAH HUSTON is jumping up and down at the top of the course, rapping his board on the concrete: blap-blap-blap. The Street League Skateboarding final at X Games Barcelona was already delayed by May rains, and now wind at the mountaintop site isn't making it any easier for the two skaters left in competition. Paul Rodriguez already aced his closing trick, so Huston's last-ditch attempt must be near perfect to win.
Huston doesn't do nervous. His methodical style gets into rivals' heads, makes them cave; folks call the 18-year-old Soul Crusher. He won X Games gold at Foz do Iguacu a month ago, and before the SLS series and X Games partnered this year, he'd won seven of the past 11 SLS events and two overall titles since 2010.
Now Nyjah is the last skater in the start area. Rodriguez, barely hanging on to first place, watches from the course-side area, bro-ing it up with eliminated skaters. P-Rod's final run got them on their feet, and Nyjah's nervous display has amped their anticipation. Are they finally going to see Nyjah crack? One more blap-blap and Nyjah's on his board, charging toward the drop-off. And then he ... stops.
THIS ISN'T Nyjah Huston's first time in Barcelona. He came here five years ago on a sponsor trip with his dad, Adeyemi, only to return home to Puerto Rico to find that his mom, Kelle, his three brothers and his sister weren't coming home after a trip to California. For better or worse, the 13-year-old was now alone with his dad.
A middle child, Nyjah grew up in a family that was progressively adherent to the Rastafarian religion. His parents met in junior high in Merced, Calif., and by the time they graduated from high school, the Bob Marley–loving couple were listening closer to his lyrics. Rastafarianism made sense: living close to nature, eating vegan and seeking independence from capitalism.
The individuality of skateboarding fit right in with Adeyemi's interpretation of the religion. Team sports were too codependent, so skating was the one sport that the father, a skater in high school, could share with Nyjah and his older brothers, Ahbi and Jahmai. By the time Nyjah was 6 years old, he'd been skating for one year and had sprung dreads like his dad. He and his brothers started winning every contest in the California Amateur Skateboard League.
Like an alterna-Partridge Family, the Hustons bought a motor home to travel to skating events, where they'd roll up seven-deep with a meatless picnic. Adeyemi nurtured Nyjah's obsession, building ramps in their backyard and a small course on the side of their house. With cash from Adeyemi's mom, they soon bought the dilapidated Boardwild skatepark, renaming it Frontline, 20 minutes from their house in Davis, Calif. Dad rebuilt the indoor course and Mom home-schooled the kids there, letting them skate daily after work was done. But as the older brothers casually skated with friends, Nyjah regimented his sessions. He would start with a list of tricks in his head and wouldn't move on until he'd landed the progression in seamless order. "That's where it all started," Nyjah says. "If you're in an environment where you have a perfect skatepark every single day, you're naturally gonna get good if you love to do it."
At age 7, Nyjah was so good that Adeyemi's videotapes of the boy skating his line got a sponsorship from Element. "In any family, when a kid gets that good, everyone gets excited, and it was clear that he had a gift," says Element founder Johnny Schillereff. "For a long time, it was good. It was a good relationship with the Huston family and Nyjah. It wasn't always dysfunctional."
NYJAH HAS SLID the back of his board on the concrete, inches from the drop-off -- his expression reads that he has surprised even himself. He pats the air with his hands as if asking the Barcelona crowd for a minute. No one has seen this from the skater with nerves of steel. Certainly not a pacing P-Rod or the commentator who wonders aloud whether Nyjah is rattled.
The crowd encourages the do-or-die drama, raining down high-pitched whistles. And P-Rod looks as though he can't handle much more of the tension. Even as the other skaters pat his back and hug him, he shakes them off and twice reminds them: "This guy is very good."
AT 10, Nyjah did the unthinkable. He won first place in street at the Tampa Am, the top competition for amateurs -- beating out skaters as old as 30. He followed that by becoming the youngest-ever X Games athlete at 11 years, 246 days. (Skateboarder Jagger Eaton now holds that record at 11 years, 129 days.) Adeyemi cleared away any distraction to Nyjah's singular approach, and his devotion rocketed the kid's development to the point where Nyjah held his own against pro skaters twice his age. "That's the best thing he could've done for me," Nyjah says, "keeping me concentrated on skating at such a young age. That's obviously what I'm meant to do in life. The worst thing was just not being able to let go."
Nyjah's talent, age and look -- those dreads now draped down to his knees -- made him stand out to more and more endorsers, who all got filtered through Adeyemi. At first, it made sense that the parent who incubated Nyjah's gift would also sort out the deals. But soon internal conflict flickered between Adeyemi's religion and his son's burgeoning success. "It stemmed from being caught up in that whole Rastafarian belief system," Kelle says, "where you kind of are trying to isolate yourself from society. But then at the same time, we had a son who was on his way to becoming a superstar and needed to be part of society."
In some respects, Adeyemi (who did not respond to interview requests for this story) proved to be a shrewd manager, bumping up a $15,000-a-month deal with Element to $20,000 monthly and licensing Nyjah's image for Tony Hawk's video game. But he proved difficult in other ways. Contracts required Nyjah to go to signings and on foreign tours, obligations that Adeyemi often refused to uphold. Then, shortly after visiting Puerto Rico for a contest, Adeyemi bought a 26-acre farm on the island valued at $400,000. "He wanted to move there, I would say, to keep me and my brothers away from going to school in California and getting girlfriends or whatever," Nyjah says. "He was always so against that part of life."
The remote farm was outfitted so crudely that the plumbing system would fail during most hard rains. This left the children trekking 1,000 yards to haul heavy buckets of clean water from a reserve tank to wash dishes and clothes or to flush the toilet. They rarely interacted with other kids, and Nyjah didn't even bother to learn Spanish.
Life in Puerto Rico was far from the one the family had loved at Frontline, but Adeyemi wouldn't compromise on where he thought they should live. "That was the beginning of the end of our marriage, because we couldn't agree on what was best for our family," Kelle says. And it didn't make life easier professionally either. When a sponsor, frustrated by a potential breach of contract, called Kelle, she says Adeyemi flew into a rage over being circumnavigated.
To get a reprieve from the isolation, Kelle left for California with the rest of the kids while Nyjah and Adeyemi were in Barcelona in April 2008. "Because my dad was my manager, I was kind of the one child out of all my brothers and sisters who didn't kind of have a choice," he says. "I was forced to live with my dad, so that was really unfortunate."
NYJAH TUGS at his black jeans, then jumps up and down again, tapping that board. A deep breath later, he pushes off, gliding to and over the drop-off.
He's sure to have landed his planned trick -- a nollie hardflip over the Hubba feature -- a thousand times in his head. But he has landed it only once in practice at Barcelona, three days earlier. No one knows what to make of his nervous pause -- whether he'll land his trick or maybe even change the script.
KELLE PLEADED with Adeyemi to split the year between California and Puerto Rico. She wanted the kids to be around peers, and she wanted Nyjah to be able to fulfill his contracts. Adeyemi wouldn't budge. And when Nyjah's 9-year-old sister, Isha, came for a visit, she stayed longer than Kelle had expected.
Over the next two years, Nyjah and Isha had little contact with Kelle. She says it was nearly impossible to reach the two because the phone had been shut off. So she resorted to showing up at skate contests just to catch a glimpse of her son. In 2009, because of Nyjah's unreliability, he lost all his deals and his income was halved (from $374,425 in 2008 to $158,612 in 2009). Adeyemi took the perceived underhandedness of big-money brands to the extreme and started his own board company, I&I Skateboards, with Nyjah's earnings.
Nyjah had grown to believe that his mom, who had filed for divorce, had effectively abandoned him. While he quietly questioned his father's influence, he still followed him to major competitions, including in Southern California, where Adeyemi had rented an apartment without telling Kelle the address.
Nyjah was working as hard as ever, compiling endless hours of footage showing new tricks and progressions. "Because my dad was controlling and he made me skate every single day, there would be some situations where I would be sick and he would still want me to go out and skate," Nyjah says. "I would be like, Damn, I don't feel like skating, but f---, I guess."
The skate footage became a pawn in the divorce proceedings. Kelle finally got custody of Nyjah and Isha in 2010 -- and Nyjah warmed up to her within days -- but Adeyemi refused to give Nyjah the film. Devastated, Nyjah wrote a letter to the judge, detailing each trick: "My footage means a lot to me because it's hundreds of hours of hard work and pain I've dedicated to my skateboarding career, so it would be a shame if it all went to waste. If somehow I'm not able to get my footage from my dad, then my relationship with him will be completely ruined."
Nyjah never got the footage back.
Despondent about the videos and the family drama, he quit skating. That lasted about a month. When the 2010 summer competition season came around, Nyjah once again wanted to get back to what was familiar. Despite the layoff and with a professional agency repping him, he placed second in X Games Los Angeles and in the Maloof Money Cup, then won the very first SLS contest and its $150,000 prize. Element also welcomed him back. It was the first time he'd done anything in skating without Adeyemi.
The second step 16-year-old Nyjah wanted to take on his own was to sever a symbolic tie with his past. As he was preparing for a new skate video, he figured it was time to cut his hair. "I didn't want to be known as that kid who had dreads," he says. "I wanted to be known as myself, Nyjah Huston, the skateboarder."
NYJAH LAUNCHES from the drop-off, pressing hard on his back foot, flipping his board as he is up and over the Hubba feature. His front foot catches first, his back foot follows, and he lands clean, with command.
Before Nyjah can make it back to the other skaters, P-Rod meets him halfway with a hug. A real one, not some back-slapping bro-hug. One long enough to show the genuine respect between the two.
The judges award Nyjah an 8.5. Other skaters try to fool him into thinking it's a tie, shouting out "One more trick! One more trick!" But there are no more tricks, no more fools. Nyjah has won gold by one-tenth of a point.
NYJAH HUSTON is on his own now, and that's evident in ways beyond his haircut. He is choosing his own business partnerships based on how they line up with his interests, many of which he's still figuring out, and he's deciding how to spend his earnings. (He made $1.58 million in 2012.) He's found out that his favorite food is sushi, tasted ice cream for the first time and dated -- and then dumped -- a girlfriend. He's moved into his own Huntington Beach two-story house that's pretty immaculate, considering his best friends crash there too. They're five kids he's known from his CASL days, back when things seemed to be lining up for the Rasta family.
Nyjah and his dad haven't spoken in a couple of years. Last November Nyjah got a birthday card from him, unsigned. The envelope listed his grandmother's home in Merced as the return address, even though Nyjah knows Adeyemi doesn't live there.
"I still have respect for him and everything that he did for me," Nyjah says. "But you have to let your son have his freedom and figure out the game himself. If he did decide to call me any time soon, I would completely accept him back into my life."