There was a time many years ago, a lifetime ago even, when Gabriel Rodriguez would find himself sitting in a bar next to his childhood friend, Guy Mariano, rapping with a stranger.
It was typical late-night barstool conversation -- the kind that reeks of despair and squandered opportunity, of clinging to what once was and likely never will be again.
"Do you know who this is?" Rodriguez, a Los Angeles street skateboarding pioneer, would say to his fellow barfly while gesturing toward Mariano. "This is the best skateboarder in the world."
The barfly would scoff and dismiss what he heard -- an understandable response, given the setting and the fact that Mariano had given up serious skateboarding years before. But the difference between Rodriguez's statement and traditional drunk talk was that, even then, it might have been true.
This week, a resurrected Mariano arrives in Munich as a contender to win his first X Games gold medal at age 37. His Real Street video entry is vintage Mariano, stacked with technical skateboarding the likes of which few have ever matched. But it is most remarkable because it cements once more Mariano's comeback from a drug addict on the brink of death to a reformed man at the top of skateboarding's pedestal of innovation.
Watching his footage, it's easy to forget that from 1996 to 2004 Guy Mariano basically disappeared. He was a hero when he left, arguably the most popular and talented street skateboarder of his generation, if not any generation. Then: poof. Gone.
He grew addicted to narcotics, the heavy ones. Strung out and holed up at drug dens for days at a time, Mariano, the prodigy who had lived under a spotlight since he was 11, says he no longer cared if he woke up each morning.
"A certain part of me thought I had lived my best years," he told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I probably would have rather died."
The fact that he didn't illuminates the power of intervention and love. In a sport that has seen its share of tragic endings -- including some of Mariano's contemporaries, most notably the late Keenan Milton, who struggled with substance abuse before drowning at a party in 2001 -- Mariano represents what is possible when addiction is treated.
His skateboarding represents what is possible, period.
Just as it always has.
Mariano was raised in Burbank, Calif., by his mother, an accountant who still reads all the skateboarding magazines and places sticky notes on any page that contains Guy's name or photo. Mariano's father, a bartender at a bowling alley, died of a heart attack when Guy was 5.
When Mariano was 11, Rodriguez introduced him to Stacy Peralta, a skateboarding icon and talent scout who had a reputation for turning kids into stars. Rodriguez, then 16, and the gnome-sized Mariano began filming with Peralta along with their friends Paulo Diaz, 14, and Rudy Johnson, 15. Peralta took to calling them the "L.A. Boys," a moniker that thrust the fresh-faced foursome onto street skateboarding's grandest stage.
Even among world-class talent, Mariano stood out from day one. "There wasn't one trick he couldn't do," Diaz recalls. "You would think he couldn't do it because he was so small, but he could do anything."
Mariano's profile quickly rose, and he appeared in a handful of influential films, none more significant than the 1991 cult classic "Video Days," which debuted when he was 14 for Blind skateboards. Five years later, he put out another seminal part in a film called "Mouse" made by his longtime sponsor, Girl skateboards.
Despite the fact that he rarely entered contests -- a trait that still holds true -- by the mid-to-late '90s he was among the hottest names in the sport and arguably the most talented street skater in the world. But unbeknownst to most, Mariano already had begun to spiral into an underworld of substance abuse. He turned down film trips to Europe and stayed home to party, each absence widening the gap between his former life and his current one.
"I removed myself," he says. "I didn't want to be around. I didn't want people seeing me like that, especially close friends. And honestly, I think the fact that a lot of them were doing really well at the time, I may have been a little resentful, like upset at myself for wasting an opportunity."
Around 1998, Mariano and Rodriguez moved in together, a decision that marked a turning point for both of them. Rodriguez was sidelined by a broken ankle and began drinking heavily, every day. Mariano turned to harder drugs.
Mariano declined to go into detail about his drug use for this story, but in a Vice documentary that came out in 2007, he talked about smoking crack. Rodriguez says he tried to dissuade Mariano's crack use, to no avail.
"The worse it got, we'd be hanging out, and I'd be like, 'Yo, Guy, come on, that's no good,'" Rodriguez says. "It became so casual, almost like smoking a cigarette to him. It'd be 2 in the morning, and he'd be like, 'I gotta go get some.' I'd be like, 'You can't.' Because the area we lived in, around the corner there were gangs. So I'd tell him to forget it, but then I'd have to drive him because I didn't want to see him get hurt or killed."
Says Diaz: "There was dreadful stuff going on within all of us."
Mariano went months without riding his skateboard except as a means of transportation. Every now and then, however, he and some friends would skate down to a local spot and pop a few tricks, just to remind themselves that they could. As always, people were astounded by what Mariano would unleash.
"Guy was the only one that I've ever seen do this," Diaz recalls. "He wouldn't touch a board for like a year, then he went out one day and did a switch 360 kickflip over a picnic table, first try. Then maybe didn't skate again for another year."
Yet as impressive as they were to others, those moments only evoked agony for Mariano. "I would have these little fantasies, like maybe I can come back, maybe I can do it again," he says. "That would be followed up by depression, like, that'll never happen."
All of Mariano's sponsors had dropped him by the early 2000s. When his girlfriend wasn't looking, Mariano says, he stole cash from her wallet. His mother helped him make ends meet. "I used people," he says. "I stole from anyone."
Rodriguez, convinced he was watching his friend commit a prolonged and agonizing suicide, contacted Girl skateboards co-founders Rick Howard and Megan Baltimore. "This kid's going to die," he says he told them. "He's literally going to die."
Shortly thereafter, in early 2004, Baltimore, Howard and another Girl employee, Jason Callaway, reached out to Mariano's longtime girlfriend, Gina Rizzo, and offered to help Mariano get into rehab. Rizzo, despite living through the darkest days of Mariano's addiction, didn't feel he was ready for an intervention. She feared it would push him into a deeper hole. She declined to participate, and they held off.
Six months later, in September, Rizzo returned from a trip and Mariano picked her up from the airport. She was stunned by his appearance -- almost skeletal, with a grayish hue to his skin. "He looked like he was dying," Rizzo says. "It was really scary."
She went home and called Baltimore. "I'm ready," she said.
The next day, for the first time since his addiction began, Rizzo gave Mariano an ultimatum. "I can't sit here and watch you die in front of me," she told him. "You need to get help tomorrow or you have to leave the house tomorrow."
She fell asleep that night not knowing what would happen the next day -- whether she would say goodbye to Mariano forever or watch him take the crucial first step toward getting healthy. To her amazement, he woke her up at 5 a.m. and told her he was ready to get help.
It didn't go quite as smoothly as planned -- Mariano got drunk on his way to the rehab clinic with Rodriguez and was not allowed to check in -- but after a stint in detox, he completed two and a half months of rehab and emerged clean. He and those closest to him say he has remained clean ever since. Later this year he will celebrate nine years of sobriety.
Soon after he got out, Mariano began searching for a job. He told Howard he would pack boxes if Howard would let him. Howard had a different idea. He offered Mariano sponsorships from Lakai footwear and Girl skateboards if Mariano agreed to throw a couple of tricks for a new video that renowned filmmaker Ty Evans was working on. Mariano, grateful for the opportunity, agreed.
Evans already had spent two years working on the movie, which would become known as Lakai footwear's "Fully Flared." When they met for their first day of filming, Mariano repeated what Howard had told him -- that he would try to film a couple of tricks. Evans, who had wanted to work with Mariano for years, responded by telling him he was not going to release the film until he had a full part from Mariano.
Mariano knew he needed something to anchor his return to a normal life. Skateboarding was the obvious answer. Still, he was terrified. "I didn't want to fail," he says.
For the next two years, almost every day, Mariano and Evans met at 9 a.m. and skateboarded for hours on end. When the film came out in 2007, Mariano's part blew the sport away. Most had given him up for dead. "I owe Ty the world," Mariano says. "It was a point in my life when I achieved something that I didn't think I was capable of."
Remarkably, Mariano's life now is not all that different from what it was 18 years ago. Most of the same sponsors have picked him up again. He proposed to Rizzo on the beach in Mexico in 2007, "clammy hands and all," she says, and they bought a house in Encino. When Rizzo refers to Mariano's rebirth, she talks about "the magic that is happening now."
As for skateboarding, sometimes Mariano wonders if he threw away his prime to drugs. But you could also make a case that he's in the midst of it now. "I have had days in recent years when I've thought I'm a better skateboarder than I ever was," he admits.
Preaching has never been his style, even with the perspective he carries. But every now and then, he'll drop a quick hint to a future star -- the next Guy Mariano, perhaps.
"Sometimes I see these kids now," he says. "They're full of energy and fresh cartilage and no bone spurs. I'm like, it goes by fast. Don't waste a second."