It's rare that one man's death can send two sports' populations into mourning, but that's what happened this week in the wake of Chuck Allen's passing.
Allen, who died Monday at age 74, gave generations of surfers and snowboarders -- including some of the best in history, from Tom Curren to Shaun White -- more opportunities than they ever would have known without him. That's the short of it. The long of it reads like the back of a Hall of Famer's baseball card.
After a successful banking career, Allen co-founded the National Scholastic Surfing Association in 1978; coached an upstart American team to a stunning and era-defining world championship in 1984; and won seven national titles while compiling a 139-3 record as coach of California's Huntington Beach High School surf team.
For his second act, Allen used what he learned in surfing and applied it to the sport's frozen, nascent cousin. In 1988, with a $500 donation from TransWorld Snowboarding magazine, he founded the United States Amateur Snowboard Association, which now counts more than 5,000 members. Part of his rationale held that if such a renegade sport ever was to be considered for Olympic inclusion, it would need a legitimate farm system. Sure enough, snowboarding debuted at the Nagano Winter Games 10 years later.
"When you think about what he accomplished," said surfing legend Peter Townend, who was friends with Allen for 33 years and ran NSSA with Ian Cairns early on, "for him to do all that without growing up in an action-sports culture is amazing."
That was part of Allen's genius. You never would have known he was a rodeo cowboy from his shiny blond hair or beach-boy tan. But before Allen became a board-sports icon, he had to get out of small-town Oklahoma. He escaped to California in the mid-'50s and spent the rest of his life riding waves and mountains. "The Cowboy Surfer," Townend and his friends called him.
Allen's purpose always revolved around others. "You could be a high-ranking diplomat or a young kid struggling to make the surf team -- it didn't matter," Townend said. "Chuck had time for everybody."
In the late '70s, with American surfers struggling to keep up with the rest of the world, Allen teamed up with four Orange County teachers to found NSSA, an organization that cultivated powerful talents but also improved the sport's image. "We operate by his founding philosophy to this day," said Janice Aragon, the longtime director of NSSA, "which is keeping kids in school, requiring they have a 2.0 GPA to participate."
Alas, Allen also "loved to win championships," Aragon said, and he did just that in 1984. Coaching alongside Townend, Allen helped Team USA upset a heavily favored Australian team at Huntington Beach, a victory made even sweeter when Aragon and Scott Farnsworth swept the individual world titles. The team also included some of the modern surf industry's most influential figures, from pros like Jeff Booth, Brad Gerlach, Mike Parsons and Todd Holland to shaper Bill Johnson and Volcom co-founder Richard Woolcott.
"Chuck helped guide the way for me," said Aragon, who remembered Allen always coaching from the beach, never from the lineup. "It was his energy and inspiration, the way he'd talk to you before a heat: 'I know you can win this.'"
When Allen's focus shifted to snowboarding, he brought his ambassador charm with him. "He was one of the guys who got resorts to open up to snowboarding because he helped civilize the sport," said Kevin Kinnear, the founding editor of TransWorld Snowboarding. Kinnear, who first met Allen in the early '80s, added: "He was kind of like everybody's big brother, everybody's dad."
Allen, who had 11 children of his own, worked for more than a decade as special events manager at Mountain High resort, right up until his death. His breathing deteriorated in his later years, and he began carrying around an oxygen bottle and using snowmobiles to get around instead of his snowboard, said John McColly, VP of sales and marketing at Mountain High. Allen had recently moved to a lower elevation to ease the strain on his lungs.
"Every time you sat down with him, he'd still have a thousand stories," McColly said. "Whether it was from snowboarding or surfing or banking, or even from when he owned a video rental shop in Arkansas back in the day, he'd tell stories from his life."
Allen's legacy will be celebrated during the NSSA nationals in June, Aragon said, at his beloved Huntington Beach.