Andy Irons broke our heart.

And he made it beat. And he made it pound and he made it shudder and he made it shake and he made it soar and he made it crash and he made it pound.

He made it pound.

When he was on, he was on. Machine-gunned truths firing out of that jaw. His jaw was like granite, carved and huge. Like Cary Grant’s. His eyes would blaze, blue and touched with pterygium, and he would fix you right in the dead center of that blaze. And those truths would pop pop pop pop pop. He would never hold back. Ever. Pop pop pop pop pop.

When his surfing was on, my goodness. Massive drops at Waimea and into the shorebreak and into the detonation. Late take-offs at Teahupo’o, standing straight and tall with the fury of thick turquoise hell all around. Pipeline. Pipeline. The only wave that truly matters. Low crouching Backdoor thrills, disappearing so deep, gone forever, and then shot from a watery crypt into the sunny haze, surrounded by millions of particles of salt and water and screams from North Shore decks, two lone fingers to the sky, mouth open in a victorious sneer.

When he was off, he was off. Buried and entertaining his ghosts. Surly and aggressive. Surfing like he had concrete fins and a mind completely elsewhere. Screaming obscenities into the ether.

Photo: Pete Frieden

But he was always captivating, on or off. Always. Magnetic. Everyone wanted to be around him and everyone knew he was as combustible as fire. Damien Hobgood, kind Floridian twin, gentle family man, wanted to be around him.

“Lots of times I’d talk to him and it’d be fun to see which Andy I was gonna get,” says Damien. “He’s got such a big, big heart…it didn’t matter what he said or what sort of mood he was in; you knew that he loved you. He was raw. Raw Irons. One time we were battling at Backdoor and I got a wave and came out right next to him and he just snapped. I paddled back out and started going off on him. Battling. And I won the heat.

“Later that night, I went to a party with my girl and I told her, ‘If Andy’s there and comes over here, don’t make a scene.’ I didn’t want it to get weird if he punched me. So of course I see him and of course I gotta go talk to him. I went over and he looked up at me and — you just never knew what Andy you were gonna get — and he looked at me and said, ‘Ahhhhhh, I don’t care,’ then gave me a big hug. Cool moment for me. He had lots of love.”

Everyone wanted to be around Andy. He had it. He was bigger than the room, the beach, the islands, the ocean. Bigger than even life.

And his greatness was always known. It hung around him like a halo. Reef McIntosh, fellow Kauaian, with Andy since the second grade, knew it.

“I always knew he would be what he grew into,” says Reef. “Even as a little kid, I knew he was gonna be a legend. He never held back and he could do anything. From shitty Huntington to Waimea, he wasn’t a one-trick pony. He could do it all.”

Photo: Sherman

He could do it all. And he did do it. All. Kai Garcia, fellow Kauaian, Wolfpak leader, knew it.

“I remember watching him as a little, little kid surfing Pinetrees,” says Kai. “You could always see that he had it. F--kin’ hood rat ripper. Surfing was different for him. Wasn’t mechanical. F--kin’ Picasso in the water. Einstein. He looked at the ocean different.”

Across that ocean and a continent, CJ Hobgood, world champ, twin of Damien, knew it.

“The very first time I went to Hawaii,” says CJ, “I was 12, and they were holding this contest at Diamond Head. I had heard about Andy Irons but had never seen him before. So I was at the contest site, and he rocks up the hill in a Lincoln, riding shotty with his board hanging out the window, no leash or nothing. He hops out, grabs his contest jersey, and I remember it was breaking way, way out the back, and he cruises right out. When you’re 12, you don’t even think about surfing those kinds of waves without a leash. But that was Andy.”

That was Andy.

He surfed like a man possessed. Like a man not bound by natural law or 12-year-old law or any law. He defied gravity and he did it with ease. Style. Always so much style. Arms behind the back, back arched, glaring at the roof of lurching pits. Punts so high and effortless. Effortless. He surfed with almost too much power, and power is rarely beautiful, but Andy Irons made it thus. When he hit the lip it was like a bulldozer. He destroyed it. He ravished it. He committed to its death with every ounce of his strength but he made it look like a piece of art. Like a dance. Like a tango. The lip became complicit in its own destruction and thrilled at becoming immortal. It was all there and it was all brilliant. He surfed his personality. He surfed without limit.

Photo: DJ Struntz
Photo: Sherman

And he competed the same way. Ever since he first put on a colorful singlet. Freddy Patacchia, Andy’s closest friend and North Shore standout and North Shore legend, remembers: “It was, like, a Junior Pro. It was the first time I thought, ‘This guy is radical.’ I had known Andy and Bruce for a while, but this must have been one of the first events or something. It was at V-Land. And Bruce was beating him in the final and had this little barrel and Andy purposefully tried to get in his way. He, like, bailed his board and tried to hit Bruce in the barrel, but Bruce still made it out and won. And you know Bruce, he rubbed it in.

“Andy chased him around V-Land for a minute and then we all left, and as we were leaving I saw Andy’s trophy jammed in a tree. I thought, ‘Holy shit, this guy’s on another level.’ He wouldn’t take losing. Didn’t accept it. Wasn’t in his vocabulary. To see him get rid of his trophy.... I would have been stoked just to have any trophy, but second place wasn’t good enough for him.”

Andy won an event at Pipeline as a 17-year-old. He won Teahupo’o too, later that year, but of course it took a hot minute for him to really dig into the World Championship Tour format — with the judging and the monotony and the procedural expectations and the blah blah blah. But by 2002 he was there. He arrived, competitively, just in time for Kelly Slater.

King Kelly. Royal hand around the neck of competitive surfing. Too good to stay interested in the other plebes blaséing about the water, too bored of beating them senseless, so he left for three years. And when he became too bored of whatever else he was doing in those three years — Pamela Anderson, acting — he came back. To rule for another thousand years. But blocking the gate to his kingdom was a carved granite jaw and two blue eyes touched with pterygium blazing pure hatred.

CJ Hobgood, world champ during one of Kelly’s three absent years, witnessed the boil. He recalls, “Andy was the first person who came along that hated Slater. He hated everything about him, and I know hate is a strong word, but he really hated Kelly.”

Hate. Rage. Rage. Passion. Brodie Carr, CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals, describes the passion: “He attacked and destroyed waves with an element of flair that only he has. Competitively, he was UFC meets ASP. He attacked every wave of every heat of every contest.”

And those attacks and that hatred and that passion and that style and that flair and that hatred meant victory. Kelly banished. Kelly locked out in the cold. The sexiest moments in competitive surfing’s history, those battles. And three in a row to Andy. The Champ cometh. The Champ cometh. The people’s champ.

Victory meant cocksure swagger. Andy would strut around the parking lot, the club, the award show, the Foodland, and everyone would know he had it. Was it. Barking, chest-pounding. And in an era of humble athlete love, Andy’s “Here the f--k I am” was the greatest show in town. We all enjoyed.

Photo: Jeff Flindt

Reef McIntosh enjoyed. “He was the best, and he beat the best at their best. He was the only one who could, and he let people know it.”

And victory meant victory parties. Celebrations. Mad, burn-it-all-down, down, down-to-the-ground bangers. Tom Dosland, Maui surfer, underground charger, remembers that Andy would party, “because he was always winning. That guy would go the gnarliest. His benders were legendary. He’d party and then charge the next morning. I mean, his whole trip, a real rock star life.”

Kai Garcia adds, “That’s just how we were raised on Kauai. Win and earn your right to have a good time. When you get older, you realize [it’s] better to treat yourself to a Pepsi…but we were young. It’s a reward thing.”

A rock star and young victor’s good time is coke, not Pepsi. And other uppers and also other downers. And drinks and drinks and drinks. The World Tour is not an iniquitous den of damnation and it is not a preschool of saints. It is a good time, a modern good time, and let he who is without sin cast the first stone, for Andy Irons partook in that good time. And there is no need to report on what exactly he took, or in what quantities, but, yes, sometimes Andy went overboard. And sometimes he sat quietly in the corner. But mostly he was in the center because, always, the people wanted him. He was the motherf--king champ. Kai Garcia witnessed: “Everybody was always pulling on him. Everybody always wanted this or that….”

And Freddy Patacchia corroborates: “He’d light it up. He’d light up a room and everyone wanted something. People freakin’ loved him all over the world.”

And Reef McIntosh corroborates: “Nobody could take their eyes off him.”

And I corroborate. He was magical. Magnetic

Photo: Lawrence

Andy Irons was raw, and that is what the people loved. He surfed raw. He partied raw. He was raw. Each nerve and sinew and emotion laid bare, which meant also that he was sensitive, extremely sensitive, and that is devastating when combined with a white-hot spotlight forever burning. CJ Hobgood knew.

“I’ve always said being a professional surfer is sick, but you are definitely signing up for a job where you’re gonna be judged,” CJ says. “You’re judged during your heats, but also outside of the water you’re getting judged. You’re always being judged — which might have been real hard for Andy.”

Kai Garcia adds, “All eyes were on him for his good days and his bad days. People always want the dirt, and that took it out of him. It took it out of all of us. When he was doing good he was on a pedestal, and when he was doing bad people just…it’s real hypocritical. You’ve got to be strong, and Andy…he didn’t roll with the punches.”

And Freddy Patacchia, who was there every step of the way, saw: “People either wanted him to be winning or they wanted a controversy with his lifestyle. That got to him, being judged all the time. He was a pretty insecure guy. He always looked up to Kelly, and he’d seriously ask me, Borg [Kai Garcia] and his brother, ‘F--k, am I a kook?’”

And the wheel kept spinning. With every unpredictable and throaty top turn, with every towering barrel, with every big night out, with every victory and with every loss, with every bit of introspection and every lash-out and every hug, Andy Irons kept spinning. Kai Garcia knew. “Those are the pros and cons of being famous,” he says, “and we both came from a small little island. It was gnarly.”

Andy Irons: raw, sensitive, big-hearted, sucking the marrow out of life, but also medicating against the constant pressure, the constant attention. Dancing with his ghosts.

And then Kelly Slater crashed the gate, winning then winning then winning, and the pressure and the lifestyle and all of it — too much. Just too much. So Andy Irons went off the rails. He had an appetite and he filled that appetite. The stories were everywhere, floating on the trade winds, of massive nights. Nights bigger than big.

Photo: Jeff Flindt
Photo: Pete Frieden

Andrew Doheny, Newport Beach style kid, favored by Andy among the youth, enjoyed almost everything about his Andy Irons. One day he finally travelled with Andy. To Mexico.

“He was one of the only pros to hold a conversation,” says Andrew. “Super rad. He’d still rip on me and stuff, but he was cool. Just…real. And the way he’d surf, all that off-the-top power…everything about him was super-sick.”

But, yes, Andrew Doheny knew the massive-night Andy, too. The bigger-than-life Andy.

Andrew: “I’ve seen him pretty messed up. You hear all the stories, all the rumors, and it was…a bummer. Not a good thing to watch your idol…but he had the heart of a rock star. He was just…yeah.”

Yeah.

Andy went wild. Wilder than wild. He didn’t have an off switch, and he took and he consumed and he lived like he surfed: raw. All the way. He didn’t dabble; he went. All the way.

And then he went off to rehab. Much has been made of the surf industry’s — and particularly of his main sponsor, Billabong’s — handling of Andy’s ghosts. Did they enable bad behavior? Did they turn a blind eye to destruction? Did they lobby and plead and beg for him to get help?

I asked Graham Stapleberg, CEO of Billabong. And asked. I asked and asked. He told me that Billabong did a lot to help Andy, and promised to explain further after clearing this sensitive subject matter with Billabong’s internal PR, but then he disappeared to the Billabong Rio Pro, and so he said nothing. But, really, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Billabong or others did. It doesn’t matter if they partied toe-to-toe with Andy or forced him toward help, for Andy Irons was a grown man, and he did whatever he did and made whatever decisions he made. And one of those decisions was rehab. At Malibu’s Promises Treatment Center.

Photo: Jeff Flindt

Andy didn’t share much about those days with the public or even his closest friends. He didn’t share much with Freddy Patacchia.

“He hid a lot from me with the drug use,” says Freddy. “I didn’t ever know exactly what he was doing because he took a big brother role with me. Sometimes I’d show up somewhere and it was clear he wasn’t acting normal, but he’d never show it to me. He didn’t want me to be a part of it, and so when he went to rehab, I’d never bring it up. I didn’t want to be the friend who was all about his problems in life. I was more like, ‘If you want to surf, let’s surf. Or if you want to go out to dinner with our wives, let’s do that.’ I didn’t want him to have to talk about it, though. I didn’t want to be that guy…”

Freddy wanted him to be free. So many wanted him to be free, but then there would be the people always looking to party, and Andy Irons was only ever raw and he was sensitive and he was raw. He was a force of nature.

So then last year he showed up to Puerto Rico for the Rip Curl Search contest and he didn’t surf. Depending on whom is asked, Andy was either genuinely sick or heavily drugged. And he left the island early, heading home, but stopping in Miami for one last giant night out.

And then stopped at Dallas/Fort Worth.

And he was too genuinely sick or drugged to continue home, so he checked into Room 324 at the airport’s Grand Hyatt, and he dragged his backpack up the elevator and he opened his door.

And he closed his door.

And he got into bed.

And he closed his eyes.

And he broke our heart.

Photo: Sherman

His last moments — his whole life even — have been picked over by tabloids and tabloids posing as men’s magazines, and with the public release of his toxicology report, will be picked over even more. But none of it matters. It never mattered whether his blood was soiled only with innocent disease or soiled with methadone and heroin and Oxycontin and prescription sleep aids and any other wild sort of poison. Because Andy Irons is not a cautionary tale about the dangers of drug consumption. He is not the sum of his parts.

He is a legendary tale.

He crashed this earth and lived completely. He loved his wife. He bore a child. He partied, yes; he surfed powerfully and beautifully, yes; he lived more in one brief lifetime then most ever will. Yes.

And those who argue that his vices should be kept hidden, that his character should be whitewashed into the sea of bland smiles and cutbacks that dwelt in his shadow, rob Andy’s life of its complexity and its power and its beauty. Of his rawness. Andy lived like he surfed, remember, and his living and partying wildly and going mad are as much a part of his legend as his three world titles. As Campaign. As Backdoor.

And those who believe he was a degenerate, and that the whole of his burning life should be shamed for tainted blood, they should go to hell, and on the way there should look in a mirror.

Andy broke our heart, and he made it pound. And that pounding will reverberate on and on and on.

And on.

Photo: SNP 500


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