Video: Chris Papaleo. Edit: Jerry Ricciotti
Death Of A Disco Dancer: The Nick Rozsa Pro Spotlight
Nick Rozsa's second act
Washed up. Wasted talent. Forgotten.
One short year ago, at the ripe age of 23, Nick Rozsa was all of the above.
A dead set f—king loser.
Just over a decade after the day he first stepped on a surfboard in Ventura under the watchful eye of the Curran and Malloy brothers, his surf career came to a screeching halt with one phone call and four simple words: You're off the team.
And really, everyone saw it coming. Everyone except Nick.
Nick thought he was invincible. He had no idea he could lose his job.
And so it goes.
O'Neill sponsored Rozsa at 15 after he came out of relative obscurity to beat Dane Reynolds and win two divisions at the WSA Western championships. NSSA regional wins and national finals followed, as did travel and magazine opportunities. At 19, after placing fourth at the US Open of Surfing Jr. Pro in Huntington, Reef took notice and signed him to a generous contract. Nothing crazy—but for Nick, it was huge. Shortly afterward, he went on a Reef trip to Mexico and in the process landed himself the front page of TransWorld SURF; with the cover blurb reading: "The Good Life." And for Nick, indeed it was.
He was single and had money. But he didn't know what he was doing.
New money. That's what his friends nicknamed him. His first decent contract and cover incentive money was, self-admittedly, spent on questionable purchases: A brand new Audi, 15K in audio equipment (Nick makes his own music), and big nights out. Big nights out at home turned into all nighters in Australia, and eventually, those all nighters in Oz turned into three-month Bali benders
In Bali, he surfed three times in three months and woke up in a hospital. He hit rock bottom. And yet, it still wasn't the wake-up call he needed to change his life trajectory.
Not then, but the wake-up call would eventually come, in the form of two phone calls. The first from Reef Team Manager Heath Walker cutting him from the program, and the second, two weeks later, from his girlfriend with the news that she was pregnant. And like that, his life was turned upside down. Late nights partying turned into early mornings working. He was going to be a dad.
And according to Nick, "That was the best thing that has ever happened to me. I was forced to grow up quick."
And by all appearances, grow up he did. And in the process, he's been given a second chance at a professional surf career after being recently reunited with old sponsor Reef. Only time will tell if this turns into the feel good, comeback story Nick hopes it will be; but after being called the "best unsponsored surfer in the world" by 11-time world champ Kelly Slater, he's getting a chance to prove he's the real deal.
I sat down with Nick in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Darlene, and four-and-a-half-month-old son Roenn in Vista, California, to get the inside scoop on a tumultuous 12 months.—Zander Morton
You were successful as an amateur and junior pro, started getting paid from sponsors as a teenager, and landed a TransWorld SURF cover at 20 years old. Did life feel easy?
Nick Rozsa: It was crazy, growing up my main deal was competing, competing, competing. When I signed with Reef I was 19 and that was what they signed me for. I was entering a lot of contests, but my focus wasn't there. I was getting burnt out and I was watching everyone else ripping and I felt like I needed to catch up. I was doing five weak turns to the beach—I needed to change my game.
Right when I slowed down [entering contests] I got that TransWorld cover, and for me that was the coolest thing. I freaked out. I was about to turn 21 and I just went off the deep end. I celebrated and partied for a week straight with my friends.
Was that the beginning of a downward spiral of partying too much?
At that age, everyone is partying, ya know? The thing is I might have taken it too far; I went to Bali for three months, and I might have surfed three times. I went from a 19-year-old kid that had never done drugs and hardly drank, to all of a sudden going hard on the bandwagon. I was introduced to some people that had a big influence on me and I felt like I always had to impress and keep up with them. I was a straightedge kid that never partied, and when I was thrown in to the industry it swallowed me.
I'm not putting the blame on anyone else. I made my own decisions, and don't get me wrong, I had fun. But the lifestyle was an addicting high. It was like, "I met five chicks last night so I want to hang with them again tomorrow night." I was single, had money, was in different countries, and 90 percent of the people I hung with did the same thing. Thing is, I was more open about it; I just didn't really give a f—k about what people thought. I was definitely too open about the lifestyle I was living. And word spreads fast, so after everyone heard I was in Bali partying and not surfing, they started wondering, "What's this kid doing?"
So your transition from a straightedge teen to an early twenties party boy was a quick one.
Exactly, three years disappeared fast.
Care to elaborate on the specifics of your biggest vices?
I was just doing drugs. Party drugs. Cocaine, ecstasy, whatever I could get my hands on. But I didn't go super deep. I did the stuff everyone was doing. It was going around, that's the reality of it. A lot of people want to pretend it doesn't exist but you'd be so mind f—ed if you would've gone out with me and done some of the things I've done with certain people in the industry. These guys would be balls deep in snow mountain and I'd be like, "Everyone is doing it, why not?"
Some people can handle it and be successful. But I have a very addictive personality and when I get hooked on something I go all out. So when I started partying life became about girls, sex, drugs, and money. I was living the dream and felt like everything was going perfectly—I could do whatever I wanted. But it's an endless road; I was chasing something I could never find. Chasing a high that wears off, being selfish, feeling like shit, forgetting weeks and months at a time—all the while forgetting about the thing that gave me my lifestyle in the first place: surfing.
What was your lowest moment?
One day in Bali I woke up in the hospital with an IV stuck in me, with no recollection of the last 24 hours. When I woke up they told me someone found me passed out in some grass on the side of a street. They probably thought I was dead. Fortunately I wasn't.
From drugs or drinking?
Everything. Drugs and drinking. And afterwards, after spending time in a hospital bed, I still didn't get it. I walked out of there, paid 500 dollars, and went on my way like it was no big deal.
That's a heavy situation.
Yeah, I look back and I'm lucky to be here. What a waste. I ask myself, "Why the hell did I do that?"
Did the passing of Andy Irons have any profound significance for you?
When I heard Andy died; it stirred my soul. I thought, "Wow, Andy just died, and he's the king." I felt like he was invincible, he was the guy that could do anything and pull it off no matter what. When everyone found out he was taking drugs and that played a part of why he passed away, maybe it kind of woke us up. It definitely shook me up. It's scary, he had it all. World titles, a baby on the way…but drugs are that powerful, they can completely f—k you up. They can take down the best people in the world. It made me realize that. You can die; it's not a rare thing. When it happened to Andy, it was a jaw-dropper.
So what finally gave?
Reef cut me, and that was the best thing that happened. I had to grow up and learn how to actually f—king work. I worked with my dad, and he is the hardest worker ever. He wakes up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and goes looking for work. For me to jump in on that boat with him—it was depressing. A gnarly wake-up call.
But in a short time I learned a lot. I learned how to survive and was forced to grow up. It was good for me. I worked my ass off and realized life isn't easy. I was doing everything from construction to plumbing—the things my dad does for work. I realized how hard he works to make a penny and it made me feel like a piece of shit for the way I'd been living. I was living in a fantasy world. I was an arrogant, cocky prick. I didn't mean to act that way—I just hadn't grown up. I didn't think I could lose my job.
That's quite the life transition.
Yeah, and it all started when I got the call from Heath [Walker] telling me I was being let go in the beginning of 2011. I was actually at Planned Parenthood with Darlene [Nick's girlfriend], because we thought she might be pregnant.
Darlene: I walked outside after being told I wasn't pregnant—and Nick was outside by a tree just bawling.
Nick: Yeah, I just cried and cried and cried. And it sounds weird, but a part of me was happy. Like, the lifestyle that I knew was unhealthy was over. I could finally break the pattern. I called my dad, told him the news, and he was like, "I saw that coming."
Darlene: And then you decided to move home to work, and we didn't know what was going to happen with us because I stayed down here with my parents.
Nick: Yeah, and a few weeks later I had the bomb dropped on my head. Turns out she was pregnant after all and they'd been wrong the first time.
So you got dropped, moved home and away from your relationship thinking you weren't going to be a dad, and then all of a sudden got the news Darlene was pregnant after all.
Exactly. I almost had a heart attack. I was back in Ventura in a lot of debt, with no money, no plan B, and I was done with surfing. Brushed. Game over.
And then what?
I was raised as a Christian, and I'm not saying I'm super religious but I believe in God, and at home I was going to church trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to do. I was looking for answers. I was about to be a dad but I had no real job and I felt like a loser. It took about four months before things sunk in. At that point, I was over surfing. I was bummed with my surf career. I'd taken a wrong turn and I just wanted to open a new chapter in life and do what I needed to for my coming son.
I'm sure that was added stress, though, becoming a father.
Yes and no. Before the news I was in such a dark place—I felt like I had no soul. I was depressed, even when I was surfing and getting paid. So at first I was terrified, but after the news settled a switch flipped in my mind. I wanted to have a kid. It was the thing that was going to wake me up and get me motivated. Everything started to take a turn at that point. I was going to church and focusing on positives.
How did it feel watching guys like Dane that you grew up surfing with flourish while you were working shitty side jobs?
After six months of hardly surfing, I paddled out at Strand. My surfing had gone to shit and I was out of shape. But that day I showed up early, and the waves were firing. It was really, really good. For the first time in years I was excited, and realized I hadn't felt that in so long. I could hardly get my wetsuit on fast enough—I ripped through my booties. But I sprinted out there and surfed all day, and it made me remember why I love surfing. I got a natural high, and I hadn't felt that in so long. That was the moment I realized surfing was the only thing I know how to do well.
That day at Strand, I let go of the pressure I put on myself and the negativity I harbored toward surfing, and I finally went out and enjoyed myself. I was like, "Who cares if I suck on this wave or surf like crap all day, I just need to have fun." That was a turning point. From there I started surfing a few times a week and then before I knew it was surfing every single chance I had. I was still working my ass off and Darlene was getting really pregnant [laughs], but I quickly fell back in love with surfing. I no longer had any pressure to perform and good things started happening.
Sounds like you had to build some positive momentum.
After that day the good things in my life started snowballing. Of course it was a process, and it still is. Todd Proctor was another big influence. He made sure I had boards, he surfed with me, he settled me down when I started getting negative and frustrated, and he kept me in check. It was nice of him; he tried to get me back on track. He didn't want me to waste my talent. He told me recently, "I didn't know when you were going to snap out of it, but I knew you would." He was a genuinely good friend, not just a shaper giving me boards. And he wasn't the only one: My parents were always there for me; they stuck by my side through the good and the bad. Once I had Roenn, that was when everything came full circle. That was it. My life made sense.
Can you describe the feeling of becoming a dad?
It's not really describable. It's a mixture of every emotion in the world: happy, sad, scared, excited, nervous…you name it. It fried my brain for a while. But, it's the best thing that has happened to me. That day my life changed. I get teary-eyed thinking about it. Having a child made me feel like all the things I'd been doing my whole life, how selfish I'd been, it all went out the door. All my focus and energy went to him.
I'd assume that's not a fleeting moment either—you have a son now and you have to take care of him.
He's an everyday reminder for me. Some people have wake up calls in other ways, but this is what it took for me. I had no purpose, but he came out and now I do. I want to raise him and love him. He's a gift and a reminder to never to do the things I was doing before. I can't be an immature, stupid, cocky kid. I want to be a focused dad. It sounds crazy, but I want to yell at the world, "I'm back, I'm here, I want to do something with my life!" He's four-and-a-half months now and he's been the biggest blessing in the world.
When did you get reunited with Reef?
At the beginning of January.
How does it feel to have a second chance? In surfing a lot of guys who blow it once never get that opportunity.
I have to say, my buddy Chris Papaleo has had my back so hard through all this—along with my family and shaper Todd Proctor—and he was there for me and believed in me every day. Chris poured so much into helping me. He's been the one filming in the cold and missing his real job, losing income, just to help me. It was his idea to film and edit and get stuff on the web—and that was before he even owned a camera. If it weren't for Chris I wouldn't have gotten another chance. His web edits have been my foot back in the door.
That's a rad thing about the Internet—it's the perfect place to showcase good surfing and get people's attention.
Like you said, it's hard to get another chance and I couldn't appreciate it more. This time, I'm not going to blow it. I get it now. This is work. Before I didn't know what I was doing. I was just f—king around doing stupid stuff. I'm 24 now; it's now or never. I'm focused on my son, my surfing, Darlene, and my family. Everything is simplified. I have a good mind-set and a lot of hope. I'll no longer put myself in situations to be around the things that ruined me last time.
Things are certainly looking up. How'd it feel when Slater tweeted he thought you might be the world's best unsponsored surfer a few months back?
It was crazy, because as soon as my attitude changed good things started flowing right to me. I was in disbelief; I didn't believe it was really Kelly that said that. I was shocked. I felt like a little kid again. In a million years I never expected Kelly Slater to tweet about me.
Having the best surfer in the world backing you had to be a vote of confidence if there ever was one.
For sure, that made me think: "Maybe I'm not dreaming. I'm not washed up. Maybe I really can do this." I couldn't believe he paid any attention to what I was doing. And it was rad, because Chris spoke with him over e-mail afterward and he came up to meet us and surf, and he was really cool. We had a good time. Chris filmed, and of course he's all jazzed to be filming the king, and his presence made us feel like what we were doing was important. Like, if we're getting Slater's attention, maybe there is more to this than we originally thought.