Re-riding history

The following is the cover story of ESPN Action, ESPN The Magazine's 2010 X Games Special, available in issue 13.15 -- on newsstands July 16. Download the whole special here.

Anthony Napolitan is contemplating the past. Walking down Dearborn Street in Chicago, while in town for a mid-June dirt contest, the 24-year-old BMX rider pauses to ponder a question: If he could go back to last summer's X Games and do it all over again -- if he could prime event producers and media with his plans for the BMX big air finals so they could hype his history-making double front flip -- would he?

His peers and big air competitors wish he could. "He waited for the biggest stage, on the biggest night, when he would benefit the most," says Kevin Robinson, who won the event. "It was one of the most glorious moments in action sports. But it surprised everyone."

Those close to him believe he was robbed of his due. But they're not talking about his score or his fifth-place finish. After all, a rule's a rule: He didn't follow the ("crazy, next level"" -- Ryan Nyquist) ("do or die" -- Mat Hoffman) double front over the 70-foot gap with a trick on the quarterpipe, which contributes to half the score. His peers say he was robbed of the hype leading into X, and he was robbed of having the crowd jump to its collective feet in a unified understanding of the magnitude of what they'd just seen -- a game changer as big as ("Tony Hawk's 900" -- Kevin Robinson) or ("Travis Pastrana's double backflip." --Tony Hawk)

He'd landed the double for the first time only two weeks earlier and never over a 70-foot gap. He was riding with a torn MCL, and he wasn't even on the original invite list. "I was an alternate," says Napolitan. "My friend, Steve McCann, got hurt three weeks before X Games, and I got a call that I was in the contest. I figured I should start working on the double again."

No one who watched skateboard vert finals in 1999 will forget Hawk's landing his sport's first 900. Same with Hoffman's no-handed 900 in BMX vert in 2002 and Pastrana's FMX double backflip in 2006. Why? Because Hawk, Hoffman and Pastrana tipped their hands pre-X. Their tricks were historic moments before the competitions even started. Not so with the double front, a trick Napolitan kept under his helmet until the moment he began tucking for a second revolution. The crowd gave him a standing ovation as soon as he landed it, but within minutes, the next rider was dropping in for his run. And when Napolitan landed the double front for a second time (again whiffing on the quarterpipe), and his score of 87.66 held him in fifth place, the flash fizzled out of Staples Center. "The crowd isn't as appreciative when they don't see a trick attempted a bunch of times," says Hawk, who landed the 900 on his 11th attempt. "If you land it right out of the gate, they don't feel as invested in the trick. They have no idea the drama he went through to get there and the injuries and fear he had to overcome."

For those reasons, Napolitan's friends fret his double front will be forgotten by those outside the sport, blending in with double backflips and ­double front variations to come. Still, when he finally answers the question of whether he would change his approach, Napolitan does so with conviction. "No," he says. "I wouldn't change a thing."

Napolitan doesn't need the publicity. For him, the satisfaction of knowing he did a trick no one else had done is enough. The ability to invent tricks, evolve the sport, make the impossible possible -- that's what he hopes defines his career.

Napolitan has been pushing the sport since 2006, when he burst onto the BMX dirt scene by winning the Louisville, Ky., stop of the Dew Tour and eventually the overall dirt title. That year, he competed at X Games for the first time, setting himself apart with innovative front-flip and 360 variations and taking a bronze in dirt. But, like many came-out-of-nowhere stories, his success was a long time coming, earned by years of hard work and guided by the kindness of fellow riders.

He grew up fast in Youngstown, Ohio. When he was 9, his father, Ronald, passed away because of complications from a bone marrow transplant. Anthony assumed the role of man of the house and father figure to his younger brother, Ronnie, and sister, Hannah. As a kid, he was ("mature, responsible behind his years" -- Vickie Napolitan) and ("obsessively neat." -- Ronnie Napolitan)

The same is true today. Napolitan's house, a condo he bought in State College, Pa., in 2008, is a hub of activity for his friends and out-of-town riding buddies. He wakes early to cook breakfast burritos for his roommates -- brother Ronnie and fellow BMX pro Seth Klinger -- and to take Sparrow, his white bull terrier, for a walk. He BBQs for his houseguests and often makes lunch after a session of riding and ("listening to Europop" -- Jamie Bestwick) at the nearby action sports wonderpark, Camp Woodward. And then there's the cleaning. ­"Anthony is a neat freak," Klinger says. "He is always ­cleaning. The house can never be clean enough. At a dirt contest, he cleans his bike between runs." And yes, Napolitan is aware of the irony.

At the time of Ronnie Sr.'s death, Napolitan played football, a sport his father loved and one that brought his family together. But when a middle school friend introduced him to BMX, he realized he'd found his passion. "I started spending all my time at the skatepark," says Napolitan, who always has his eyebrows groomed and his long, blond hair ("dialed." -- Chad Kagy)

"When I got to high school the next year, my friends were surprised to see me. I hadn't talked to them all summer. They thought I'd moved."

In 2001, Napolitan met his idol and soon-to-be mentor, Kevin Robinson, at the local skatepark. "I gave him my number and told him if he ever needed anything, to call," Robinson says. "He was a pleasure to be around, super polite, mature and had a great temperament. He was taking fun lines no one else was doing, going in his own direction. A lightbulb went off that I was supposed to help this kid out."

Napolitan called Robinson whenever he learned a new trick or won a contest. Robinson urged his sponsor, Hoffman Bikes, to sign the budding star. "I told them, you have to pick up this kid," Robinson says. "He already acts like a pro, and he has the potential to be one of the best." Napolitan signed with the brand shortly after he moved to Woodward, Pa., to be near his mentor and to train full time. He did odd jobs around the Robinson house to earn extra money. Over the years, Robinson imparted the lessons that he learned the hard way. "Take your sunglasses off before an autograph session," advised Robinson. "People want to look you in the eye, to make a connection with you." Today, Robinson can't talk about his protégé without welling up. "He cried talking about me, didn't he?" Napolitan asks, now back at the hotel in Chicago, which buzzes with departing BMX riders. "Kevin has been a father figure to me, for sure."

Which is why, like all of Napolitan's mentors and friends, Robinson would love to see him make history again this year. This time around there is no avoiding the hype, as the months ramping up for the X Games have been some of Napolitan's busiest and most prolific. Last October, he won the best-trick contest at the final stop of the Dew Tour with a 360 barspin catch barspin to late tailwhip. In January, he signed with Red Bull. He's become more ("stylish" -- Dave Mirra) and has spent hours dreaming up double front variations. Napolitan might need those variations to win the gold. He's no longer the only owner of the ("pretty freaking epic" --Travis Pastrana) double front. On May 7, Australian up-and-comer Andy Buckworth, 20, landed the trick at the ­Brisbane stop of the Nitro Circus Live tour, on a Mega Ramp-like setup without a quarterpipe. Buckworth will compete in big air this year alongside Napolitan, Robinson, McCann and Chad Kagy in what promises to be the most exciting final in X history. "Andy is going to do it no-handed," predicts BMX vet Dave Mirra. "Big air will come down to who brings it and who lands the biggest trick on the quarterpipe. With Anthony, it'll be about whether he is willing to step it up." Napolitan is up for the challenge -- and he has something extra in mind.

"Last year, I made history. This year, I want gold."
And he's not one to dwell on the past.