When Dogtown surfer and original Z-Boy, Chris Cahill died in June, friends blamed cancer, but the real culprit was a deadly mix of cocaine and heroin.
The toxicology report in the autopsy lists Cahill's cause of death as "acute cocaine-morphine (heroin) toxicity." LA county coroner Chief Craig Harvey called it an overdose. Cahill's sister is still in shock about her brother's last days and wonders why he died alone.
In 2009, Paul "Baby Paul" Cullen, the youngest Z-Boy, also died from an heroin overdose. Andy Irons' autopsy report from his death in June, revealed a combination of a heart attack and drugs killed the three-time world champion surfer. But another surfer, Joshua Persoff, became a certified drug and alcohol counselor-- on a mission to save his tribe from more tragic deaths.
When Cahill was 11, a speeding car smashed into him and shattered his hip. There were complications with infections from the reconstruction of his leg that crippled him for years. Then in his late twenties, Cahill's love of surfing cost him, as his ear canal began to close due to prolonged exposure to wind and water. Cahill's older sister Tara Fondiler, 55, said, "He had to have his ear cut back and rebuilt." She still shakes from anger when she thinks about her brother.
"He was a survivor and came out swinging and bopping, but Chris was in constant pain," said Fondiler. She found her brother living in a van and "drinking a lot" during a visit in 2007. She thinks his drug and alcohol addiction were self-medication. Fondiler said, "He tried to quit all by himself, sometimes."
Josh Persoff remembers living in his own busted white Toyota truck. He was a block from the ocean, but might as well been in the desert. "I couldn't find the motivation to do what I love," said Persoff. The truck that used to take Persoff to the surf, became the place where he crashed during his binges. Persoff's alcohol and cocaine addiction then stole his ability to hold a job.
"I basically bottomed out over a nine-month period," said Persoff. "There were lots of people encouraging me to change my life. It was the end of the line, and I knew there wasn't anything left," said Persoff. So he went back to the beach. "I showed up to AA on the beach, on the sand, in front of the surf where I felt comfortable, with people like myself. I chose a sponsor who was a surfer," said Persoff.
Persoff's sponsor took him surfing. To get Persoff back riding waves, his sponsor provided a surfboard and all the gear Persoff needed. The first year of recovery was marked by a surf trip to Mexico. By the second year, Persoff completed his final step of recovery on their surf trip to Costa Rica.
In 2002, Persoff had a mountain biking accident which meant he needed a sit-down job. "I chose counseling. My love for surfing -- which was the one sport I could still do -- made me think about how I could blend surfing and recovery," said Persoff. So he created the Surfer's Code for Recovery, based on fellow surfer Shaun Thomson's book, 'Surfer's Code.'
Persoff explained to ESPN some of the core ideas he's shared professionally with around 40 surfers in recovery. He's quick to add that the Surfer's Code for Recovery is in addition to -- not a replacement for -- traditional recovery programs. "This is a way to translate traditional recovery programs into the surfer language," said Persoff.
"I will watch out for other surfers. Surfers are a unique population, a tribe. Most of the education needs to come from within the tribe, like any cultural group," said Persoff. He takes surfers in recovery back out on the waves, and provides surfboards and gear, like Persoff's sponsor provided for him.
Persoff said, "I will pass on my stoke. Andy [Irons] passed on his surf stoke to so many people. For recovery, someone needs to pass on their stoke for recovery to someone in addiction who needs it."
Surfers that Persoff has counseled report the idea, "I will always paddle back out" also helped. Persoff said, "They call me up and say, 'I went back out to the source of my recovery, my meetings, my sponsor.'"
Persoff said, "Take the drop with commitment. This is like making a commitment [to recovery], like getting on a bigger wave. There are consequences of not maintaining commitment: The gnarly wipe-out, or possibly, death."