This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Aug. 1, 2005, issue. Subscribe today!
Mathew Hoffman was born on Jan. 9, 1972, in Edmond, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City, the fourth of four kids. Why only one "t" in Mat? Dad Matthew wanted a namesake; Mom Joni refused to have her son called Junior. Thus was a compromise born.
As a kid, I dreamed of flying. When I was 7, I built a flying machine out of two-by-fours and a sheet. My brother, Travis, saw it and wanted to fly too. I ran into the house to find my parents. "Come watch!" I yelled. "Travis and I are going to fly over the neighborhood." My mom and my dad, who is a pilot, watched us carry that contraption up a 15-foot-tall sliding-board ladder. We got to the top, counted to three, jumped and crashed. I was banged up, and Travis broke his hand. My parents never tried to stop us. They just watched us try to fly, loaded Travis into the car and drove him to the hospital.
Hoffman got his first BMX bike at 11 and hit the ramps. By 15 he was being touted as the greatest freestyle BMX rider ever. The sport suited him. Extremely shy, Hoffman could hide behind his helmet as his fame grew. At 17 he became the youngest rider in BMX history to turn pro, and he dominated immediately. In March 1989, he entered the King of Vert in Canada. There, he did the impossible.
No one thought the 900 could be done. Two-and-a-half rotations, and you had to spot your spins from inside a tornado. The 900 entered my mind when I turned pro, and when I get an idea like that, I'm thrown into the backseat. The idea takes over; I'm just along for the ride.
The King of Vert was one of my first pro contests. I had a broken thumb and was riding with a cast. Before I dropped in, I still wasn't sure I was going to try the 900. I finished my run and had time left, so I went back to the top of the deck, rolled in, did a setup air and hucked myself. I started spinning so fast -- spotting all my turns -- and got all the way around. I landed on my wheels, then crashed. I thought, "Whoa, I can do this." The crowd started chanting, "Mat! Mat! Mat!" I tried it again and stuck it. The crowd ran down and mobbed me on the ramp.
That was the moment I realized anything was possible.
Joni Hoffman died of cancer in 1990, which led Mat to become more independent. The next year, as freestyle BMX riders were struggling to find equipment, sponsors and contests, 19-year-old Mat started Hoffman Bikes in Edmond and his own team, the Sprocket Jockeys. He also launched his own contests, the Bicycle Stunt Series. Those three moves are why Hoffman is credited with having single-handedly saved his sport.
I suffer for my art. I've been unconscious over 100 times and broken more than 60 bones. I'm constantly in pain and can barely walk. One day in 1993, I technically died. I built a 21-foot halfpipe in my backyard and rigged a weed-eater motor to my bike. After a few days I got 22 feet out of the ramp, highest I'd ever gone. But the motor made the bike off-balance and I crashed when I landed. I had no idea that my spleen had exploded. I stood up and felt dizzy and sick. My collarbone ached, but I hadn't landed on my collarbone. I lay down, and while waiting for the ambulance I started to feel thirsty. I stood to get a drink, but my heart stopped and I fell against a wall and passed out.
Once I was horizontal, my blood was able to pump again and I regained consciousness. The EMT arrived and checked me out, but he blamed his equipment when he couldn't find a pulse. My insurance didn't cover ambulance rides, so when the EMT said there was nothing seriously wrong with me -- I think it was his first day on the job -- my friends drove me to the hospital. The doctors ran tests and said, "Son, you have less than 20 minutes to live." I had so much internal bleeding that blood was filling my cavities and pushing up on my collarbone, which is why it ached. They removed my spleen, so I'm now seven ounces lighter and get drunk much easier. I was back riding in a couple of weeks.
ESPN began televising Hoffman's Bicycle Stunt Series in 1995, after he competed in its Extreme Games that June. It then hired him to organize the BMX events at the X Games the next year. Hoffman has run the BMX events at all 10 X Games, competing seven times. His medal haul: two gold, one silver and three bronze. Injuries knocked him out of the 1998 Games.
I tore my ACL and PCL in 1998. They were replaced with cadaver ligaments. I waited nine months to ride and missed the entire season. Within two weeks, I crashed and tore my ACL again. I was devastated. I thought my career was over.
I started researching synthetic ACL replacements. I found a doctor in France who had developed a polyester ligament and was testing it on rugby players in New Zealand. They'd tear their ACLs, he'd replace them with his invention -- called a LARS ligament -- and they'd be back on the field in four weeks. Then they'd tear that ligament and he'd replace it again. Disposable body parts. That's what I needed.
The surgery isn't legal in America, so I found a doctor in Canada who'd do it. It went down like a drug deal. I flew to Montreal the night before. The surgeon's assistant came to my hotel, and I handed him $10,000 cash in a briefcase. But there was a catch. The assistant told me the FDA might sanction the operation if it could be done without anesthetics. I said, "What the hell?"
The next morning, a cab dropped me off in front of an old hospital. "Bonjour!" the receptionist said. "Take a number." I saw one of those red dispensers you'd see in a deli. I took No. 14. After a while, a nurse called my number and pointed to a room: "Go in there and get on the table." The room was dusty and dirty, and the nurse hooked me up to monitors and told me to keep my heart rate below 80.
Pain is as much about shock and panic as it is about real pain. When you've had as many injuries as I have, you lose the shock and panic. The only pain I feel is real pain. I lay back and closed my eyes as the surgeon cut two-inch-long incisions above and below my knee. I was a Zen master. I don't even remember that pain. When he reached for the drill, I sat up. I had to assist him as he drilled through my bones.
He worked through the first quarter-inch of my femur. The room filled with the sound of grinding and chopping and the smell of burning bone. If you've never smelled your bones burning, I can't explain it. It's gnarly. The outer part of your bone is shockingly sensitive, and that first quarter-inch was intense. That was real pain. As he drilled deeper, through the marrow, the pain became duller, more manageable.
Halfway through the surgery, the doctor handed me the drill. I held it while he changed to a 15-inch-long drill bit so he could finish drilling the eight-inch-long, six-millimeter-wide hole through my femur, knee joint and tibia. He threaded the ligament through the hole, then inserted four screws to anchor the ligament to my bones. As he cranked the top screws down into my femur, it was the most intense pain I'd ever felt. The doctor must have noticed, because he stopped cranking. After he stitched up both incisions I could feel a bump where the top screws stuck out. Sure enough, when I started riding two weeks later, the ligament slipped out and my regular surgeon had to reattach it. I'm now on my third LARS ligament. The replacements were done with anesthesia.
On Dec. 30, 1993, Hoffman married Jaci Keel. Daughter Giavanna was born on Dec. 19, 2000, and son Jet Mathew was born on May 12, 2003. Hoffman has toned down his act since becoming a dad, calling his kids his purest inspiration and the governor of his wild ideas.
I set my first high-air record in 1991, 20 feet above the top of a 21-foot quarterpipe. To do this, my best friend, Steve Swope, towed me behind a motorcycle at 45 mph. When I used the photo of that air in my first Hoffman Bikes ad, people didn't believe it. They thought it was a good Photoshop job. By 1994 I was getting 24 feet out, but I didn't publicize it outside the BMX community. Finally, my ramp was destroyed in a storm. Looking back, that probably saved my life. When I get locked on something, I keep pushing. And I was pushing too hard.
Around 2000, other riders started claiming world-record airs. They were getting about 18 feet out and I thought, man, did people forget the history? That's when I decided to build a bigger ramp to set the record straight. I built a quarterpipe with 24-foot walls. On April Fool's Day 2001, I hit 26½ feet, which is still the record, and rode away from it. At the height of that ride I was more than 50 feet off the ground. But I wasn't satisfied. The next day, about 10 friends came to watch me try for 30 feet. Steve couldn't make it that day, so my friend Page towed me. At the start of the 400-foot runway I tied my tow rope to the back of Page's motorcycle and grabbed the knot at the end of the rope with my left hand. Page took off and I hit the wall and got higher and higher. At the top, I looked at the measuring stick and saw 28 feet. Then I realized I was going to slam. I came down hard, 52 feet straight to the ground. My face slammed the wood and my faceplate shattered. The shrapnel sliced my face and tore my lip off. I was KO'd and was in and out of consciousness for the next three days. When I woke up and saw my 4-month-old daughter, I realized, "This isn't about me anymore." I also realized I didn't remember much.
This was different from my other concussions. I had real brain damage. I lost my taste buds and for years had to order the spiciest food just to taste anything. I had amnesia for six months. My brain was like a hard drive that had crashed. All the information was there, but it had to be reformatted. After that, I promised my family I would never ride a big ramp again. I'm trying to honor that deal, but the desire for 30 feet is always there. I know it's possible.
The young Hoffman was a natural athlete, playing hoops and football. But his favorite was wrestling. A coach once told his dad, "We have a future All-America on our hands." But Mat wouldn't conform for his coaches, and in eighth grade he quit team sports to ride BMX. Smart choice. He's put his streak of individualism to good use, inventing more than 100 BMX tricks.
In my dreams, I control the laws of physics. For 13 years I dreamed of taking my hands off the handlebars on a 900. I was sure it was impossible. There's so much force that I thought if I took my hands off I would lose the rhythm and never make it around. And not landing that trick would be like running into a wall at 60 mph.
I retired after the 2001 X Games, but when the no-handed nine popped back into my head, I came back. I entered the 2002 Games, and the only person who knew why I was there was my wife. I asked her to sit with Giavanna in front, where I could focus on them. I knew if I crashed, I wouldn't get up for a while. So before the contest, I told Jaci to take Giavanna away if I slammed. I didn't want my daughter to see me like that.
On the third wall of my second run, I got a sweet pump, put all my power into it and started to spin. I felt the first spin but it came too quick. That's when I let go and extended my arms. The more I extended them, the slower I rotated. My second spin evened out my first and when I touched down, I landed perfectly. The crazy thing is, the only reason I was able to pull that 900 was because I took my hands off. No other rider has done the trick since.
Hoffman's fascination with flying inspired him to take up skydiving and BASE jumping. In Norway in 1997, he became the first person to jump off a 3,500-foot cliff with a BMX bike, and he's taken about 180 parachute jumps. When he travels, he packs a $7,800 motorized paraglider, which he straps to his back to take spins 1,000 feet above the ground.
I think I was a bird in my past life. Any time I have the opportunity to combine my two passions, BMX and flying, I grab it. In 2004, I dreamed of riding my bike out of a plane. I went to the Arizona desert, which is the only place in the U.S. where I could jump with my bike. I did about 40 jumps out of the Skyvan that week. I practiced running out of the plane and tucking into a ball as if I were holding a bike. I jumped with my friend Orly King, and had him spin me in the air so I could practice stabilizing myself during the fall. On the ground, I practiced riding my bike out the back of the plane. I went over everything that could go wrong.
The day of the jump was hot, 100° hot. At 15,000 feet, I grabbed my bike, walked to the door of the plane and threw Orly a shaka. I looked out at the sky. That's the moment I love best about what I do. I'm about to experience something no one else has. There's nothing to reference other than my imagination. It sounds crazy, but it's like you're looking death in the face but have total control.
Orly jumped first. I took a couple cranks of my pedals and rode my bike out of the plane. When you jump, there is this silent, calm, windless second. Then a 100 mph wind slams you. I flipped onto my back and slid on that air. I righted myself and spun a 360, then did a 360 the other way. I had complete control. But I was bored, so I threw my handlebars to flatten my bike and the wind caught me. I went for a ride.
I was flipping and tumbling through the sky, holding on as tight as I could. I felt like someone had put me in the dryer and turned it on high. At 8,000 feet I threw my bike and stopped spinning. My chute opened at around 6,000 feet and I started looking for my target. Flying above the desert, the ground below looks like Mars; nothing but cracked earth. I saw what I thought was our van and started flying toward it. I went about three miles before I realized I was headed toward an abandoned house. I dropped into the backyard and noticed a kid sitting by a fire, roasting marshmallows. In the desert. In 100° heat. He saw me, pulled his stick out of the fire, reached it toward me and said, "Would you like a marshmallow?"
The toughest guy in sports isn't afraid of heights, pain, crashes, broken bones or even death. Not that Hoffman doesn't have fears. He's afraid of crowds; he's afraid Jet inherited his fearlessness; he's afraid of himself; he's afraid that one more injury will mean his kids could grow up without him. But his biggest fear is not being able to ride his bike.
My surgery in Montreal did nothing to further FDA approval of synthetic ligaments in the U.S., though my doctor is allowed to replace the LARS ligaments when I break them. The problem is I have to get him the ligaments, which are hard to find and illegal to import.
I tore my ACL in March riding at a charity event in Bangkok for tsunami orphans. I tracked down a ligament in Vienna. The ligament costs $2,000, and the four screws are $200 each plus shipping. To get the ligament into the U.S. I had it shipped to my Hoffman Bikes distributor in Toronto. He repackaged it in a Hoffman Bikes box, along with tires and parts, and put HB stickers on the outside. The ligaments were listed as "bike samples" to get through customs.
I took the ligament to my surgeon's office in Oklahoma City two days before the surgery. Dr. Yates, who has worked on me for 20 years, took out the broken ACL, which looked like a frayed piece of rope, and put in the new one. When you've had 21 surgeries, you know the drill. By the fourth day after surgery, you start feeling better. But on Day 4, my knee was twice its normal size; it was infected. I couldn't walk. I was shivering, running a fever, having crazy hot flashes. It felt like there was hot acid in my leg. I guess packaging the ligament with a bunch of bike parts was probably not the best idea.
I had emergency surgery and spent the next five days in the hospital, getting pumped full of antibiotics. I spent the next six weeks pumping myself full of antibiotics. With all of my injuries, I was surprised how tough a staph infection is. I really thought this was the one that would take me out. I didn't think I could come back.
It's now July and I've been riding for about two months. I'm still here.