On Aug. 28, 2010, pro skateboarder, reality television celebrity and entrepreneur Rob Dyrdek kicked off the first event of his Street League contest series. Skaters the world over couldn't wait to see who would win the $150,000 top prize. The safe odds were on two-time Thrasher magazine Skater of the Year Chris Cole or two-time X Games gold medalist Paul Rodriguez to take the first win. As it turned out, you'd have been wiser to take the long odds. Nyjah Huston, then 15 and a former child prodigy in skateboarding, emerged the victor. A star was reborn.
Huston's Street League win at that first event would propel him back into skateboarding's spotlight -- a spotlight he'd been away from for nearly two years. But to get to there from here, we have to go back a little further.
The world around him -- an adult world of contracts, obligations, communication and money -- was starting to lose its center.
In 2001 the Element skateboards team visited a skatepark in Davis, Calif. Pro skater Reese Forbes noticed a kid who stood out. Huston, a 6-year-old with lengthy dreadlocks and massive talent, was hard to miss. Seeing Huston's natural ability, Forbes approached his dad, Adeyemi. Soon after that encounter, a VHS tape of skate footage featuring Huston and his older brothers made its way to Element's marketing director at the time, Ryan Kingman.
"His brothers were also really good," Kingman said. "But Nyjah seemed to have something else."
Ryan Dewitt, who had just become Element's team manager, remembers how young and small Huston was when Element began sending him skate products. "His family sent me this photo when he got his first box of him wearing a "Listen to Bob Marley" shirt. It was just draping over him."
Nyjah and his older brother Abhi earned spots on the Element "Twigs" team, a division of Element dedicated to the sponsorship of younger skaters and the promotion of a line of smaller boards and accessories geared toward the younger market. In 2004 Marc Falkenstien, now Element's media director, was tasked with filming Huston for what would be his first major video segment in the Twigs team video, "Tricks."
"Watching him skate at that age was mind-blowing," said Falkenstien, who would travel from Southern California to Davis to work with Huston. "I'd come back a few months later and he'd have a whole new bag of tricks. It was unbelievable."
What followed was an childhood a shade different from the norm. While most elementary school kids sat in classrooms waiting for recess, Huston was skating, filming for video parts and competing alongside skaters sometimes twice his age, all while being home schooled by his father. In 2005 Huston won Tampa Am, the premier amateur contest in the country. He was 10 years old.
"Looking back, winning Tampa Am when I was 10, I'd say that one of the bigger things that I've accomplished in my career," Huston said. "That contest is so gnarly."
That same year, Huston earned a cover photo and a feature interview in Slap skateboard magazine. He also had the honor of the curtain-call last part in Element's "Elementality Volume One," a video stacked with skateboard royalty from Jeremy Wray to Bam Margera. Huston's star was rising.
Watching him skate at that age was mind-blowing. I'd come back a few months later and he'd have a whole new bag of tricks. It was unbelievable
With all the hoopla that surrounded him, Huston was singular in his focus. "I was so concentrated on skating and I loved it so much, that was all that was on my mind," he told ESPN. "I never thought, like, 'Wow, I'm actually a pretty good skater. I could make a living off of this.' My mind never even got there until I was 14 and I'm thankful for that in a way because that allowed me to stay humble and stay focused."
Huston remained dedicated to the board beneath his feet but the world around him -- an adult world of contracts, obligations, communication and money -- was starting to lose its center. Still a minor, Huston's sponsorship decisions and career choices fell largely onto the shoulders of his father. Over time, the relationships between Huston's sponsors and his father grew strained. "He had all this opportunity, when his dad was sort of in the middle creating a roadblock to his career," said Dewitt, referring to reported instances of disagreement between Element and Huston's father.
Huston produced another stellar video part for Element in 2007's "This Is My Element" and seemed poised to turn pro for the brand. But in 2008 the company and the Huston family severed ties. Around the same time he was let go from his shoe sponsor, éS footwear, as well.
"There was a fallout between me and Element," Huston said. "It had a lot to do with my dad, nothing big, just communication problems. It was kind of unfortunate."
"As a sponsor you sometimes have to walk a fine line between career development and life management," said Kingman. "I'm not sure where exactly things went astray but it's truly unfortunate that things went the way they did."
"Nothing was his fault," says Dewitt about Huston and the breakup with Element. "Absolutely, it was not his fault at all. It's just a shame that he had that break in his career when he clearly should have been flourishing."
When the initial deal with Element ended, Huston was out of the spotlight for a while. He and his father started a small board company, I&I skateboards.
"So my dad had this idea for me, to start our own company for me and my future" Huston said. "I think it was a great idea but it just wasn't the right time for me to do that. He wanted me to learn about the business side of things, but I was 14, 15 and I just wanted to concentrate on my skating, strictly.
Huston turned pro for I&I and began entering pro contests. From 2008 to 2010 Huston was a regular on the podium at major events -- but not in the winner's spot. A slew of second-place finishes (at the 2009 X Games, the 2010 Maloof Money Cup Orange County and the 2010 Tampa Pro) showed Huston's competitive acumen but a major win eluded him ... until the inaugural Street League season debuted in Arizona.
"I really think Street League is the future of contest skateboarding, so I'm just really thankful to have been able to take that first one," Huston said.
Huston went on to place highly throughout the 2010 Street League season and win the overall championship based on accumulated contest points. Then, at the end of 2010, a few old friends came calling.
"Ever since I had got off Element, my mom and Johnny [Schillereff, founder and president of Element] had been talking the whole time," Huston said. "They were friends and they would talk, not even just about getting me back on; they would talk about my career and whatever."
On Jan. 28, 2011, the announcement was made: Nyjah Huston was welcomed back into the fold at Element. With pro status on one of the most respected brands in skateboarding, and new representation with the Wasserman Media Group, Huston again had the skateboarding world buzzing with his name and accomplishments.
"I'd been on [Element] before. I knew how sick the company was, how they treated their riders. And I remembered that and liked that about them. So it wasn't that hard of a decision for me to make," Huston said.
Fast forward to May 8 of this year. At the first stop of Street League's 2011 contest season in Seattle, Huston dominated again, taking down all comers with a trick consistency rating of 89 percent. Having bested his peers in the trick-for-trick format, Huston shut the contest down with a never-been-done-in-competition backside 270 nosebluntslide on the course's biggest handrail. A month later, in Kansas City, Mo., he won again. Then earlier this month, on July 12, Huston returned to Glendale, Ariz., the site of his first-ever win as a professional, and shut everyone down one more time. He sits atop the Street League ranking heading into the league's championship event at the end of August and his competitors are openly wondering what it will take to beat him there. But between now and then, there's this little contest some people may have heard of known as the X Games.
"I'm really focused on winning going into X Games," Huston said. "Honestly, after winning three Street Leagues in a row, I want to prove to myself that I can win X Games in a different format."
A seasoned veteran at just 16, Huston has newfound popularity, wealth and confidence. He's poised to become a street skating icon in the coming years, but that didn't stop him from switching up arguably the most iconic things about him: those waist-length dreadlocks that got him noticed nearly a decade ago. Prior to the last Street League -- and without telling anyone -- Huston cut his hair. Could it have been symbolic of the next phase in his career?
"It was time for a little change and that's all there is to it," said Huston. "It didn't hurt my skating at all; I'm hyped on that."