Skateboarding has always looked out for its own. For all the competing companies and stints of infighting, deep down there is a solidarity that comes with riding that board.
There are countless examples of skateboarders rallying behind a cause. However, none have been as wide-reaching as the skate community's support of the late Johnny Romano and his battle with leukemia.
In the wake of Sunday's second annual Johnny Romano Skate Jam (formerly the Texas Skate Jam) to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and as we look back on skating's support for a vibrant little skater with a disease that kills nearly 22,000 people in the U.S. each year, it's important to remember that Johnny was a human being -- a skateboarder.
At age 2, Johnny, the second child of Julie and Mike Romano, found his father's skateboard and took to it immediately. Growing up in Galveston, Texas, he was so passionate about skateboarding, his parents would take Johnny to skateparks at age 4.
At 7, Johnny was plagued by fatigue, paleness and gum problems, so Julie took him to the doctor. Johnny was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a blood cancer that affects the body's white blood cells and blood components, like platelets, which are necessary for clotting when you cut or bruise yourself. Doctors ordered him to begin a 3½-year chemo treatment the very next day.
Since simple injuries could lead to internal bleeding or easily broken bones, doctors discouraged Johnny from skating. But Johnny was a skater, and despite his doctor's orders, he continued to roll. "We followed doctor's orders, but he was so depressed that my wife started letting him push around the driveway," Mike Romano says. "We always knew what his platelet count was and decided if he could skate or not depending on that. Just getting on a skateboard seemed to pump him up so much that he felt like a normal kid again."
In 2006, following a mandated six-week hiatus, Johnny was back skating, when a friend of the family asked if he wanted to go to the Make-A-Wish event at Southside Skatepark. Johnny said yes and that's where he was able to meet and skate with the Real and Adio teams.
"It's totally selfish," says Jim Thiebaud, owner of Deluxe Distribution (Real Skateboards), "but I saw him from behind that morning and he looked just like my son, Jack. I was devastated thinking, what if this were my son? I thought, I have to do something for this kid."
At first, Thiebaud would just call to check up on Johnny. But soon after their first meeting, Johnny had a weeklong stay in the hospital. Thiebaud found him down and out that week and made an offer. "Would it cheer him up if I made him a board?" he asked Johnny's dad. "Yes, definitely," Mike responded.
Thiebaud had designers at Deluxe mock up a pro model graphic, printed a few boards and sent some to Johnny. "I just wanted to make him the youngest pro on Real," Thiebaud says. But the unexpected gesture started a chain of support.
"After that," says Thiebaud, "I took one of the extra boards to the Action Sports Retail show and everyone was stoked on it. Shop owners, pros and ams got behind it, so I made a run of it." From there, the rally behind Johnny began.
"Every skater I knew got on board," Thiebaud says. "It was really unifying. Danny Way, Stevie Williams -- they sent him stuff. I took Johnny to the X Games and introduced him to skaters and every single skater tried to brighten his day."
For Johnny, the board changed things. "Johnny never wanted to talk about the cancer," says Mike. "He didn't complain about it or ask, 'Why is this happening to me?' or 'It's not fair.' So, when Jim gave him a deck, whether it was because of skill or not, other kids wanted to talk to him about skateboarding. Suddenly, it wasn't all about his cancer any more."
Johnny had a new challenge. "He took it seriously. He didn't want a pro deck and not be able to skate well," Mike says. "From then on, he practiced every day. We would take him for chemo. He would still skate. We took him for spinal taps. When he got home, he would pull his board out and do an ollie to make sure they didn't damage anything. Then he'd go upstairs and sleep for a day."
Two years of harsh chemo, hospital stays and spinal taps had its effect on Johnny, but with skateboarding behind him, it made it more bearable. "It was hard, but you wouldn't know he was sick by looking at him," says Mike. "The doctors started saying, 'Nothing with wheels,' but eventually they said, 'Whatever he's doing, keep doing it.'"
"I met Rob Brink through all this," Thiebaud said. "He sent me a $100 dollar check for the first Johnny board and that's how we became friends."
Brink, a staff writer for The Skateboard Mag and online content manager for etnies and éS, never met Johnny, but he was moved by him. "I wanted to get involved in any way," says Brink, who lost his own father to cancer.
Kenny Anderson kept in touch with the Romano family after meeting Johnny at the 2006 Make-A-Wish benefit. "It's hard to put into words seeing him over the years," Anderson says. "Talk about inspiration. We all know as skaters, growing up, that skateboarding can keep you focused on something and save your life."
With skaters helping Johnny through tough times, it served as an example of their power to lend a hand. The experience created a climate of change in skating with an emphasis on altruism. Steve Berra, co-owner of The Berrics, noticed the phenomenon: "Johnny galvanized an industry with a lot of people in it. Someone's got to be grown up enough to look at the welfare of everyone who loves skateboarding, and put together projects to help them out."
Despite the collective support and even a recent offer from Jamie Thomas to have a Johnny Romano shoe on Fallen, in May 2008, bad fortune hit Johnny -- he suffered a relapse. Treatment was more dire and required that Johnny have three months of heavy chemo until his leukemia was in remission enough to attempt a bone marrow transplant. The weekend before treatment, Johnny had one last skate at the Galveston skatepark.
The first day home, after a week of intensive chemo, Johnny ran a temperature of 104 and threw up. His father rushed him to the hospital, where Johnny went into septic shock. His blood pressure plummeted. But Johnny survived.
Once skaters heard about his condition, there was another outpouring of support. Johnny received cards, letters and care packages. The delivery system at the hospital couldn't keep up with the number of well-wishers.
The Berrics filmed invitations on their site to have Johnny come skate their park. They auctioned off signed decks to raise money. Jamie Thomas, Danny Way, Jake Brown, Tony Hawk and Guy Mariano called him. Skin Phillips of TransWorld Skateboarding made Johnny an honorary Skater of the Year trophy. Just talking about skating sustained Johnny through those hard times. Big name or not, he was grateful to share his passion for skating with anyone.
For four months, Johnny was confined to the ICU with continuous infections, spinal taps and bone marrow aspirations. Hawk, Jason Ellis and Kevin Staab went to the hospital to visit. Adrian Lopez, David Reyes, Tony Tave and Julian Davidson from C1rca stopped through. Justin Brock, Peter Ramondetta and Ernie Torres dropped in as well. "I felt so bad seeing him like that, in the bed with no power," Torres recalls. "Other times we met, he had all his hair and we were skating around. I just wanted to cheer him up."
On Sept. 23, 2008, Johnny slipped into a coma and passed away a few hours later. The skate community continued to show its support for his family. The J-Grom blog received over 10,000 hits on the day of his death. Thiebaud and Thomas flew to Texas to celebrate Johnny's life.
Last year's Make-A-Wish event was only weeks after Johnny's passing, and they renamed it in his honor. In the second year since his passing, the event was swamped with skaters. Luis Tolentino took home the Destroyer Zumiez trophy for skating everything like a champ. Dennis Busenitz sped all over the course in warm-ups. James Hardy contorted his body on the Zumiez ledge with a 180 alleyoop fakie 5-0. Ben Hatchell annihilated the bowl. And Chris Cole baffled everyone with his helicopter-esque FS 270 frontside noseslide (you're just going to have to watch the video for that one). Meanwhile, all the attendees and vendors did what they could to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Johnny's legacy will live on in Southside Skatepark's annual Johnny Romano Skate Jam -- the largest charity event in skateboarding -- and through the work that continues. The Romanos founded the JohnnyKicksCancer Foundation, committed to funding leukemia research. But Johnny's legacy reached further still. There is a renewed sense in skateboarding that on the other side of a cause there is a face -- a change worth fighting for. Collective support behind Johnny created momentum for consciousness in skating.
As Anderson puts it, "With the climate of giving that Johnny created, company owners realize the power we have. A lot of kids skate and they see what's going on. Whether they are really invested in a cause or not, at least they're able to see there's a way to make a difference."
Recently, etnies and Thunder Trucks did a collaboration, but Mike Taylor and Sean Malto made it clear they wanted a portion of the proceeds to go to JohnnyKicksCancer. "We didn't just want to make another shoe," Taylor says. "We wanted to use it to get involved in the cause."
The giving spirit is entering skating in other ways, as well. Thomas offered a Haiti Fallen shoe, donating $5 dollars per pair to health and community development in Haiti. A Zero Skateboards initiative donated proceeds from a certain deck's sales to protecting endangered owls. Black Box distribution provided boards for the Afghan skateboard school, Skateistan. Thiebaud's team rider, Dennis Busenitz, approached him with the idea of doing a board benefiting an art program for the developmentally disabled, called Creativity Explored. Real released another board to help Lee Bender, a skater diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Element collaborated with TOMS shoes, offering a board/shoe package with proceeds providing shoes to children in developing countries. The Berrics rallied to support Nick Mullins, a skater stricken with a life-threatening staph infection. Chris Nieratko and various pro skaters took skateboards to Cuba to help their scene. Girl Skateboards collaborated with Project (Red) for antiretroviral drugs for AIDS patients in Africa.
Solidarity in skating has always existed, but since skaters were touched by Johnny, giving back to the community has become more prevalent than ever. Hopefully, that will be Johnny's legacy. "Something with Johnny resonated with everyone," says Brink. "He brought so many people together. He brought love, awareness and consciousness to people."
Thinking back on the impact Johnny had, Thiebaud remarked, "You know? If this has taught us anything, it's that you don't have to be grown up to do good stuff. We can all stay young at heart, be skater kids and do really amazing things, too."