The following story appears in the Sept. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Click here to download the full insert.
It's an hour after skateboard street finals at this summer's X Games in LA, and Chaz Ortiz is locked in a game of Skate 2 in the PlayStation trailer. Ortiz, 15, repeatedly tries to land a trick he dreamed up about five minutes ago -- a superdupe backflip on a megaramp. He is close, but he can't quite get the board to touch down wheels first. His opponent is Jon, a 14-year-old fan who won the chance to play Skate 2 against Ortiz, his favorite skater. Jon is a model of consistency. As time runs out, he easily tops Ortiz's high score of 2,200. Game over.
One more run each, Ortiz says, half-asking. He misses again. A PlayStation rep walks into the trailer and announces: It's time for an autograph signing with Chaz Ortiz! A line begins to form in front of the trailer, but Ortiz is still at the PS3, controller in hand. "One more try," he says. Again he misses. "Okay, cool," Ortiz says. He turns to the rep, then immediately 180s to face the video screen again. "One more try, he says. "I've got this." He's not wired to give up.
That single-minded circuitry helps make Ortiz one of the best street skaters in the world. The hours spent obsessively practicing new tricks is why every movement on his board appears effortless, as if he were born knowing how to front board-slide a 12-stair rail. At only 5'4", 110 pounds, the Chicago native also goes big at contests, attacking rails and throwing himself over gaps.
Still, fans and sponsors aren't lining up simply because Ortiz is a gifted skater. It's his image that has everyone clamoring for more. Ortiz speaks the way he skates, with an air of cool confidence. He's charming and approachable. His look is equal parts East Coast hip-hop and SoCal skate rat. Kids aspire to skate and dress and talk like him. Even street-skating vet Paul Rodriguez, nine years his senior, has attached himself to Ortiz.
Rodriguez has become both friend and mentor, helping Ortiz navigate life as a teen celebrity. And while Ortiz idolizes P-Rod, the veteran now finds himself looking up to his protégé: Ortiz is in position to repeat as Dew Cup champ in skate park (as of Sept. 16, he led the standings with two events remaining; Rodriguez was in fourth place).
But when it comes to beating Jon at Skate 2, Ortiz has a way to go. He misses the superdupe backflip on his final try and shakes hands with Jon. "Guess I'm going to have to keep practicing," he says, smiling beneath his white, flat-brimmed DC hat, cocked to 8 o'clock. Ortiz is competitive, sure. But he also uses his failures as fuel for tomorrow. That attitude is what kept Ortiz from spending the afternoon bummed out in his hotel room. The previous day, he missed qualifying for skateboard street finals by one spot. That meant no medal, no TV time and a long wait until next year. "I did everything I could," Ortiz says. "But I'm only 15. I've got a lot of years to come to X Games and win."
He sucked up his disappointment and stood front and center as a spectator to cheer his buddy Rodriguez, who took gold. "It was cool to see Paul win," Ortiz says. "We're like brothers. I love that guy. It's even better than me winning." Ortiz's respect for his elder goes only so far, though: "All these guys better watch out next year, 'cause I'm coming in hot. I'm so motivated. I can't wait to get back on my board and skate."
Ortiz first made the jump from Chi-Town amateur to skating's wunderkind by shredding the Dew Tour in 2007. After competing for six years in amateur events, Ortiz won the Gatorade Free Flow Tour, the Dew Tour's four-month contest series for amateur skaters and BMXers. With that title, he earned a wild-card spot in the final Dew Tour stop of the 2007 season, the PlayStation Pro in Orlando. He finished sixth. Even more important, P-Rod saw him skate in person for the first time. "He had a distinct style," Rodriguez says. "A lot of kids can do fancy tricks, but they look like kids doing fancy tricks. Chaz has this grace and maturity about him. I was like, 'Damn, I'd better stay on my toes.'"
Rodriguez's premonition was right. In 2008, Ortiz finished in the top four at four Dew Tour stops, won his first pro title in Salt Lake City and clinched the overall skate park championship in Orlando in October, a title Ryan Sheckler owned the previous three seasons. The new champ's sponsor tally ballooned to include Zoo York, Silver Skateboard Trucks, Bones Wheels, DC Shoes and Gatorade. Suddenly Ortiz was out earning his folks (his estimated annual take hits six figures). He even attended the Super Bowl as a guest of honor. At a shoot in Chicago earlier this year for Gatorade's G Manifesto commercial, he worked with director Spike Lee and met Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Picabo Street and Kerri Walsh. "Jordan walks up to Chaz, says he's heard great things about him and gives him a ribbing for not wearing Nike gear," says Kenny Mitchell, Gatorade's action-sports team manager. "Most kids would have freaked out meeting an icon like Jordan, especially a Bulls fan from Chicago. Not Chaz. He says, 'Hey, man, appreciate it.' He was completely unfazed. The kid has ice in his veins."
Ortiz exudes confidence -- heck his Twitter name is steezortiz -- but his head hasn't swelled along with his bank account. That's because his folks, Mark, who works at an auto parts company, and Natalia, a stay-at-home mom, taught him humility and hard work. Even back when Ortiz was 8 and a junior state wrestling champ, Mark and Natalia didn't overstress winning and taught their son to embrace losses as learning experiences. "Not many people know I wrestled," Ortiz says. "But I loved it. I liked getting out my anger and tossing kids around." He pauses. "That's a joke." When it came time to focus on one sport, he didn't have to think twice. "I'm better at skateboarding," he says. Today, Ortiz punishes the pavement instead of kids in singlets.
Ortiz's parents also preach the importance of schoolwork -- Chaz is a sophomore at Dundee-Crown High in Carpentersville, Ill. -- and last year they hired an agent and a manager so they don't lose their foothold as Mom and Dad. But Mark and Natalia aren't around all the time. That's when Rodriguez fills in. He imparts the wisdom he wishes he'd received as an up-and-coming skater. "I talk with Chaz and his pops a lot," Rodriguez says. "When he was going through sponsor negotiations, I told them to be patient and wait for the right sponsors." Rodriguez, a new father himself, also echoed Mom and Dad's mantra of staying in school and staying in Chicago.
Although Chaz's contest schedule and sponsor commitments require him to travel, often to NYC and LA, Dad makes sure the trips are quick and streamlined so that Chaz is back in Chicago as quickly as possible.
"A lot of times when guys blow up, they move out to Cali and get distracted," Rodriguez says. "Their practice schedule changes, they're not skating with the same crew they grew up with, and they become less productive." Chaz soaks up everything Rodriguez has to say. "I tell him, 'No matter what pressures people put on you, if you just focus on skating, everything will fall into place,'" Rodriguez says. "Don't think about pleasing people. You got here by skating with your friends, having a great time and progressing. You'll stay around that way, too."
Sometimes, though, Ortiz reminds Rodriguez that he should take his own advice. In mid-April, at Rodriguez's private skate warehouse in Canoga Park, Calif., four of the best street skaters in the country -- Ortiz, Rodriguez, Sheckler and Greg Lutzka -- were filming a commercial promoting the 2009 Dew Tour. At the call for action, each took off, one by one, and attempted to kickflip over a ramp set up in front of a white screen. The director wanted all four to land their tricks in one take. If one messed up, the group started over.
First Sheckler missed, then Rodriguez, then Lutzka. Irritation mounted. No one spoke. Chaz, unaffected, kept nailing the trick. Even when he finally missed, landing flat and tweaking his ankle, he shrugged it off and pushed back to the start, cool swagger in check. "Another testament to Chaz never stressing it," Rodriguez says. "I was busy being pissed off, but if I'd put it in perspective, I'd have realized we shouldn't be stressing." On days like these, the mentee becomes the mentor. "Looking at Chaz is like looking into a mirror from the past," Rodriguez says. "After awhile, you can lose sight of why you do this in the first place. He's my reality check. He helps me remember when I was his age, skating around the neighborhood with my friends and a couple bucks in my pocket. Chaz reminds me where I came from." And P-Rod reminds Chaz where he can go.