Chip off the old Hawk
Tony Hawk will prepare to call this week's X Games Skateboard Street contest much the same way he has for the past decade.
He'll study up on the strengths and weaknesses of each skater, annotate his roster with details about their X Games histories and scribble down a few personal anecdotes. Then, moments before Thursday afternoon's prelims, the multifaceted skateboard icon will take his seat in the broadcast booth and remove one of his many proverbial hats.
He'll take off the one that says Dad.
"I'm going to do my best to be neutral," said Hawk, 46, who will be working as an ESPN television analyst when his 21-year-old son, Riley, makes his X Games debut. "There's no skater in the X Games I know better than my own son. It will be tough not to be so passionate that I end up sounding like a soccer mom or an obnoxious coach. It's going to be hard."
This is an experience few fathers have shared so publicly with their sons. It's one thing to watch your child come into his own on live television in the sport in which you built a career. It's another entirely to do so while swallowing your enthusiasm and dad-ness and attempting to remain calm, collected and indifferent to the final result.
"It's agonizing," said Los Angeles Lakers radio color commentator Mychal Thompson, one of the few men who know what Hawk is about to experience. "You're a professional, but you're also a father."
When the Golden State Warriors drafted Thompson's son, Klay, a point guard, in 2011, Mychal began preparing for the day when he would announce his son's name among the visiting team's lineup. That opportunity came early in Klay's rookie season, when the Warriors traveled to Los Angeles to play the Lakers in the city where, three decades earlier, Mychal had won two NBA championships.
"He was going against his idol and the greatest player at his position in Kobe Bryant," Thompson said. "I was proud Klay held his own and had a good game. In those instances, you want to cheer, but you have to be neutral and analytical and careful you don't come across as biased. It's a constant conflict inside of me."
Fortunately for Hawk, skateboarding isn't basketball. And the X Games isn't the Super Bowl. The formality and distance viewers expect with mainstream sports would seem almost out of place in action sports, where commentators regularly refer to athletes by their first names and their respect for the inherent risk involved in the sports blurs the line between enthusiastic analyst and unbridled fan.
Were Tony Hawk to free his fatherly instincts and toss out a familial anecdote or two, few viewers would balk at the choice. "I'm going to be an encyclopedia," Hawk said. "I think it's an advantage."
In fact, during the season NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese spent calling his son Brian's University of Michigan football games, his bosses at ABC Sports insisted he default to informality. "During the first game, I was calling Brian by his last name, like we were unrelated," Griese said. "Before the next game, I got a call from New York. My producers said, 'That doesn't sound too good. Call him Brian.'"
When Brian passed for 251 yards in the 1998 Rose Bowl to lead the Wolverines to a share of the NCAA national championship, Griese was in the booth. Thirty one years earlier, he had quarterbacked Purdue to its first Rose Bowl win. But on this day in 1998, his son accomplished something even his two-time Super Bowl champion dad never did.
"At the end of the game, someone hands the name of the MVP to the announcer," Griese said. "That was Keith Jackson. Keith looks at the paper and says, 'Woah, Nelly. Do you wanna know who the MVP is? Well, I'm standing next to his proud daddy.' What a moment. I said, 'Keith, you gotta take this the rest of the way. I don't think I can talk."
For the members of this finite fraternity, it's a difficult balancing act to react to what's taking place on the field in a way that neither causes viewers to feel their experience is being compromised nor diminishes their child's performance. Skateboarders are a historically stoic bunch, but even Hawk, like his mainstream predecessors, will battle the swell of emotion.
"Before the first Michigan game I worked, I called and told Brian I had good news and bad news," Griese said. "I said, 'The good news is your dad is going to be able to watch you play in person. The bad news is the analyst in the TV booth is never going to give you a fair shake.' I was harder on him. That inner being, the dad part of me, wanted him to do well. But the broadcaster had to hold back his emotions. I often went overboard in an effort to not show favoritism."
It's a fine line, but one Tony has tiptoed since Riley, the first of his four children, was born in 1992. Unlike mainstream sports, in which dads teach sons to toss footballs and catch line drives, skateboarding has traditionally been something kids chose to do in spite of their parents. Or to spite them. Not so in the Hawk house.
"At first, people thought it was strange that I was doing the skate thing too," Riley said. "Now I think people are stoked to see that my dad skated and raised me to skate. It's awesome. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Riley was smaller than his dad's skate deck when he began traveling with his parents on the Boom Boom Huck Jam tour, watching his dad perform demos and compete in contests. Before he could walk, dad would stand him between his legs and hold his hands as they skated together. On Thursday, riding his own signature Baker skateboard with the name "Hawk" emblazoned on the base, Riley will step out from behind his dad's reputation and begin to build his own. And his dad will be fortunate enough to watch from a front row seat.
"It was the greatest professional experience of my life," Thompson said. "To see your child realize his dream was a whole lot more satisfying than anything I ever accomplished in my sports career. It's a joy. But it's also terrorizing. My best advice for Tony is to take a couple deep breaths and believe in his son. He has the talent to be there, so relax and just focus on your job."
And immediately after the contest, put your dad hat back on.