Beyond Influence: Rodney Smith, Tom Groholski, And Jim Murphy
By: Kyle DuVall
In skateboarding, as in life, influence is cheap, but inspiration is priceless. Moves can be copied from magazines, styles can be imitated, but influence that cuts deeper, influence that goes straight to the soul, is something else.
When Mike Vallely started skating in 1984, influences were a little harder to stumble upon, but even in Edison, New Jersey, influences like the 1984 “Street-Sequence” issue of Thrasher magazine found it’s way into his hands. Seeing that landmark issue of Thrasher ignited a powerful spark in Vallely, but the inspiration needed to stoke that spark into a blaze that would change skateboarding forever couldn’t be shipped in from California. It had to come from closer to home.
3 legendary east coast skaters: Rodney Smith, Tom Groholski, and Jim Murphy, all played a part in stoking that fire. Each impacted Vallely in a distinct way, but each contribution was equally vital. Their influence extends through 3 decades of skating and right up to the present day. It extends beyond tricks and style, and into the intangibles of Vallely’s personality, and world view.
Influence. It’s precious and priceless. But it can also begin with the simplest of things. In the case of Rodney Smith, Vallely’s first skateboarding mentor, lifelong inspiration started with nothing more than a friendly greeting from behind the counter of a skate shop
“In 1984 a new skate shop had opened up in this big mall near me,” Vallely recalls. “It was actually a combination skate shop/bikini shop, and It sounds funny now, but at the time going into this big mall and into a skate shop was very intimidating. I remember being so nervous walking into that shop with my friends but as soon as we stepped in there was the guy behind the counter greeting us in such a friendly way, just asking ‘hey guys, what’s up’, just being cool and welcoming. Welcoming us into skateboarding. That was a big deal. That guy turned out to be Rodney Smith.”
Smith, best known now as co-founder of Shut Skateboards and Zoo York Skateboards, was already a fixture of east coast skateboarding when Vallely met him. For Vallely, Smith’s combination of encouragement, wisdom, and foresight would make him a mentor in the truest sense of that oft-overused word.
“Rodney Smith, was the first person I could tell felt the same way about skateboarding that I did. I determined pretty early on that pro skating was the greatest opportunity, the greatest conduit I could have in terms of getting other people to discover the type of energy and pure love and passion that I felt for skateboarding. Rodney recognized my passion early on and realized it wasn’t at a pedestrian level. It was deeper.”
Spiritual support was not the only thing Smith would end up providing to the young Vallely. In a time when skate parks were virtually non-existent and the aesthetics of street skating were just beginning to exploit the potential of public spaces, a big part of rising to the top was simply having access to inspiring terrain. Even though Vallely’s home town was just a 40 minute train ride from the vast asphalt playground of New York City, without Rodney Smith, Vallely might have never explored it.
“The New York of today is not the New York I grew up with,” Vallely explains. “When I was a kid in the 70’s and 80‘s you didn’t just go to New York to “go” to New York. It was still a pretty gnarly place. I’d go there to see hockey games with my dad or the circus, but when you went to those things you didn’t stay after they were over.”
It was Smith who first took Vallely to skate in Manhattan, introducing him not just to terrain like the legendary, Brooklyn Banks, but to the New York skate community. “The first time I went in to New York with Rodney changed everything.” Vallely explains. “The next day I was a 100% better skater, and it wasn’t just the access to terrain, it was being around other skaters. After that, every week we were hopping on the train, sneaking on, getting into New York however we could.”
Recognizing and encouraging Vallely’s talent was one thing, but Smith was also wise enough to recognize Vallely’s gifts in the context of a future that was just barely beginning to unfold. Smith was one of skateboarding’s true visionaries, a man who not only saw Vallely’s potential, but the potential of street skating as a movement.
“Rodney came up from the bowl and skatepark culture of the 70’s, and, in some ways skateboarding, in terms of the tricks, was already passing him by, but he was still a street skater,” says Vallely. “He understood that the streets were an open playground and that’s where skating could really have freedom and find its own way. The backyard ramps helped keep skating alive, but kids like me, we weren’t going to be ramp skaters. We couldn’t just skate two days a week when we could get to a ramp and then leave the pads in the garage the rest of the time. Rodney saw that. He saw a path that didn’t exist yet.”
Indeed, in 1984, the idea of any sort of professional presence for street skating was brand new, and even that small presence was centered around refugees from the skatepark culture. “There were street skaters out there, but to a lot of the guys doing it it was just something they did when they were kicked out of the skateparks. Even when it became its own thing it was still kind of joke to those guys,” Explains Vallely. “I may be the first pro skateboarder without a direct surfing or skatepark inspired influence. There was not a career path for me when I started. I wanted to be the first east coast pro street skater. Being a professional skater, period, was not even a proven career path, but that’s what I wanted to be, a pro street skater. How could anyone support that? My parents couldn’t. My teachers couldn’t. There was no coach at the recreation center who could. But Rodney Smith could. That’s why his influence on me is so huge. He understood that street skating was the future. He not only had the vision to see what was coming, but also the vision to see that, not only could I be a part of that change, but that I could symbolize it. He saw what I could bring to skateboarding and he reminded me of it over and over. And every time on that journey that I got knocked down he picked me up.”
It’s an influence that has never left, one that extends to approaching dilemmas and thinking ‘what would Rodney do?’. “That way of thinking,” Vallely says, “is so ingrained it’s not even conscious anymore. It’s just part of me. ”
Rodney Smith’s hands-on mentorship may have helped Vallely understand that his dreams were attainable, but it was the quieter, more removed influence of New Jersey legend Tom Groholski that helped Vallely take control of that dream once it started to happen.
As a top vert pro in the 80’s, Groholski wasn’t just a hero to east coast kids, he was a community resource. His backyard ramp was an epicenter for the whole east coast skate community. Unlike the private training facilities of today’s top pros, Groholski’s ramps were open to anybody, but that didn’t mean Groholski was out there cheerleading the local skate rats.
“In the early days, I don’t think I ever skated with Tom Groholski at his ramp,” Vallely explains. “Tom’s dad was always out there supporting the kids skating in his backyard but not so much Tom. Tom never went for the hype. All these new faces running around in his yard. He couldn’t be bothered. He had his ramp and he skated his ramp out of necessity, not to sell skateboards to the new generation. The fact that we rarely ever saw Tom made his skating much more meaningful to me. His absence carried weight for me.”
An internationally known pro for one of the most popular companies in the world, Vision Skateboards, Groholski’s career was as defined by his introversion as it was by his trademark lip tricks. Predictably, Vallely’s personal relationship with Groholski was quite different from his relationship with Rodney Smith.
“Tom’s ramp was open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so after I was sponsored, I started skipping school and going to Tom’s ramp every Wednesday with my friend Kevin for probably 2 months straight before Tom even acknowledged we were there,” Vallely explains. “We were out their skating, and all of the sudden he just came out and was like ‘hey guys, what’s up. You want to go skate the Barn Ramp?’ We just couldn’t believe it. Tom Groholski was going to take us to the infamous Barn Ramp. We’d been there before but not with or as a guest of Tom.”
So, was that the beginning of a close bond? The first step in a tight relationship with Groholski playing Yoda to Vallely’s scabby Skywalker?
Valley laughs recollecting what happened next. “Tom had a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back. We threw our stuff in and my friend hopped in the back of the truck, and I went around the front to sit shotgun. When I opened the door Tom looked at me and said: ‘nah…both you guys ride in back’. It was like we had passed some initial sort of test for Tom, we had gotten to the point where he would take us to the Barn Ramp, but we hadn’t gotten far enough to sit in the cab of the vehicle. ”
After that, Vallely was accepted into regular skating sessions at the Barn Ramp with Groholski and some other locals, but Groholski remained a distant presence. His impact was still considerable, however. “I was in the streets most of the time,” Vallely says, “ but his presence was in my skating even when he wasn’t. On that trip to the Barn Ramp, we stopped at a convenience store, and I remember to this day that Tom bought a Dr. Pepper and some Spree candy. For years after that I had to drink Dr. Pepper and eat Spree whenever I skated.”
Valley certainly emulated Groholski’s lip tricks on curbs and took stylistic cues from Groholski, but it was Groholski’s attitude toward the skate industry and his apathy for the fame that came with being a pro that would wind up making the most enduring impact on Vallely.
“I don’t know that I ever fully understood Groholski’s skating until after I got to California and saw him skating in a contest. I remember seeing him up there skating so hard with all the other pros around him, and it was beautiful but at the same time it was also sad. Here was this guy putting everything he was into his skating, because skating was all he knew — The contests and everything else were not really him but he was out there trying to make it work because he had to skate. He just had to, and the contests and magazines and sponsors were how he could keep doing it.”
Groholski, for all his introversion and general apathy for the business of skateboarding would deeply impact Vallely’s own goals and perspective once he achieved fame and success. Groholski showed Vallely that he could navigate the fame and demands of professionalism without losing his roots or compromising his own nature.
“I remember once when I was with Powell Peralta, Stacy Peralta asked me if I could talk with Tom about possibly joining the team. Lip tricks were getting popular and I think Stacy wanted a “lip trick guy” for The Bones Brigade. So I went up to Tom while we were skating at the Barn Ramp and mentioned it, and Tom just laughed at me. The Bones Brigade? That was a job. Say what you will about Vision, but they let Tom be Tom and left him alone, and that’s what he wanted.”
For Vallely, the casual way Groholski shrugged off an opportunity to hook up with the legendary Bones Brigade wasn’t about ducking success, it was about defining success, and that attitude molded Vallely’s own perspective while riding for Powell Peralta.
“When Powell Peralta sponsored me in 1986 I was like the “Great White-Trash-Hope” — The kid that had the look and ability to communicate street skating to middle-America and beyond. I was what THEY were looking for — A messenger, someone they set out to manufacture and control. I had all of the characteristics to sell street skating naturally, in how I skated and in my passion and my desire to share and express it, and I had the nurturing and encouraging spirit that I learned from Rodney Smith. But I also had all of the defiance and disdain for the business that Tom Groholski had. I was both the right guy in a sense and the WRONG guy. I was going to be no one’s puppet. Not Stacy Peralta’s, not George Powell’s — No one’s.”
Anyone who has followed Vallely’s skating knows how much he has taken Groholski’s inspiration to heart, both in good times and bad, but it took Vallely 20 years before he knew if he himself had left any sort of impression on his distant inspiration.
“In 2002, when people were really just beginning to rediscover and pay respect to older skaters, I got invited to this ‘Old School Skate Jam’ event at the Simi Valley Skate Lab. I didn’t intend to skate at the event, but I went and the one guy I was really hoping to see was Tom Groholski,” Vallely explains. “When I got there Tom was one of the first people to walk up to me. He came up and actually asked me to sign an autograph for him. I couldn’t believe it. Groholski wanted MY autograph. This was back when I started signing my name with the lightning bolt, but I was too self conscious to put that on an autograph for Tom Groholski’ but Tom was like: ‘Where’s the lightning bolt, you got to put the lightning bolt on there…’ I was so stoked that after that I had to skate. It was such a validation to realize after all those years this guy who was so reserved with praise and with his words respected what I had done, respected my contribution. I’ll never forget that.”
Groholski’s actions and attitude gave Vallely an example of an un-compromised path and the importance of roots, but another legend would help keep Vallely’s feet planted on the ground as he walked that path. Jim Murphy gave miles of inspiration by never giving Vallely an inch. Pro models, Thrasher spreads: these were all weight on the scale, but Murphy showed Vallely, sometimes harshly, that the greatest measure of respect has to be earned the hard way.
“The first time I met Jim Murphy, he was extremely nice, very welcoming,” Vallely remembers. “Rodney Smith introduced me to him. Jim was going to college at the time, and I remember just being really impressed by how smart he was, and by the fact that, even though he was riding for Zorlac and could have been out in California and been a part of that scene, he chose to stay in New Jersey and get an education.”
Murphy’s skills as a skater, even when he was removed from the pools and vertical terrain he was most proficient on, were no less impressive to Vallely that night.
“That first night we went to the New Brunswick spot with the stage and the embankment that I skated in Public Domain, Jim was actually the guy who showed me that spot. He skated the bank like it was a quarter pipe, doing all his vert maneuvers on the embankment, and he just ripped — Laybacks, footplants. I remember he did a blunt on the bank and my friends and I couldn’t believe it. He absolutely killed that thing. He was the best skater in the session. He was a great skater all around. Maybe he didn’t have the ollie power, but his ability to adapt, he just ripped.”
Murphy eventually went pro for the storied Alva team, and as Vallely rapidly rose into the professional ranks, Murphy’s relationship with Vallely changed.
“I don’t think it is right to say Jim became ‘standoffish’ exactly,” Vallely recollects. “It was more like: ‘OK kid, you’re a hotshot, but you’ve got to pay your dues. We’re not going to bow down to you because Stacy Peralta gave you the nod. I remember this one time when we were skating the Barn Ramp, Jim went up and did a huge Finger-Flip Lein To Tail, and his tail smacked the coping so hard and just made the loudest, gnarliest, sound and I was so stoked that I just screamed as loud as I could, I couldn’t help it. Next thing I know, Jim rolls up on the deck and gets in my face and tells me: ‘Hey kid, you ever do that again you’re out of here. We don’t do that here. It’s disrespectful.”
A skater who has always stressed openness and acceptance, even in his early days, it seems strange that Vallely would have put up with such treatment without pushing back in some way, but for Vallely, the context made all the difference.
“Part of it was just what Rodney Smith had ingrained in me about respecting professionals and veteran skaters,” Vallely explains. “Jim made things tougher and that kind of stuff, the hazing in a sense, rubbed me the wrong way on one level, but I totally respected and appreciated it on another. No doubt, Murphy and people in his position were extremely threatened not just by me but by what I represented, but the tough love was coming from a good place outside of that threat. They saw value in me and saw that I was going to go somewhere. The tough love was actually the proper sort of attention to help me develop. If you really disregard somebody you’re not going to waste the energy to even be harsh with them, you are just going to be oblivious. I registered with Jim or else he wouldn’t have bothered. It kept me grounded. Beyond that, guys like Jim really did have something to protect. They saw themselves as caretakers of a scene that was changing, they were preserving something in a time when so many new faces, new faces who had not been through the sorts of dead times they had been, were coming into skateboarding. They had every right to be protective”
Murphy provided a great deal of seasoning for the raw street kid from New Jersey, but that wasn’t the only way Murphy inspired Vallely.
“I skated with Jim at the Barn Ramp mostly, but there was another epic session out at Magic Skatepark, which was this 1970’s style asphalt snake run in Pennsylvania. It was just one of those all day skate into the dusk sessions, and just being around Jim that day was a true privilege. Being around people who live and breathe skateboarding, guys like that, you just bask in it, bask in just being in their presence. Jim Murphy couldn’t Ollie? Who cares. He fucking ripped. It was a privilege just skating with him. I always felt I got better just being around him.”
Jim Murphy, Tom Groholski, Rodney Smith: without their presence, Vallely’s legacy in skating would probably look quite different. There’s no doubt his bag of tricks would.
“Look at my skating, my trick selection, my approach and you’ll see it.” Vallely asserts. “I pay homage to the people that mattered to me every time I step on the board.” That holds true for Valley even when paying homage doesn’t line up with what’s ‘acceptable’ to the mainstream. “Back in 2005, I did the Thrasher ‘King Of The Road’ contest as part of the Element team. At the beginning of the contest (Thrasher Editor) Jake Phelps came up to me, looked me in the eye and said “Mike, man, you can’t do layback airs, you shouldn’t be doing that trick, it’s lame, that trick is banned Bro…’. I just laughed. Tom Groholski does layback airs, Jim Murphy does layback airs and I do layback airs. I always keep certain tricks in my skating. I do these tricks with love and respect to my heroes whether they are ‘cool’ or not. The umpires of cool don’t have a say in how I skate, they never have and they never will.”
“Rodney Smith, Tom Groholski, Jim Murphy — All of these guys are still involved in skateboarding. They still skate. These guys were not part-timers. These guys were never going to quit. They were going to adapt and always find a way to skate. That is what you understood they were all about when you were with them. They were heavyweights, they were the real deal. You can be influenced by people, you can try to copy what they do, but heroes, guys like them they didn’t just influence me. They inspired me.”
Inspiration. Close. Personal. Real. For Vallely It’s worth more than a million magazine pages. Worth more than can be measured in video files and board sales. Influence fades. Inspiration lasts forever.