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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Anthony Furlong has been an example for those seeking to emulate him at Skatepark of Tampa.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 3, 2006
Tampa skateboarder Anthony Furlong flew back from Brazil two weeks ago, one of a handful of top pros hired to perform at a popular event called the Rio Vert Jam.
A day later, Furlong boarded a jet to Los Angeles, where the legendary Tony Hawk brought him to be part of a pilot skateboard show at Universal Studios.
So how could life be any better for the Tony Hawk of Tampa Bay?
Simple. He could have what the other best competitors have. A big sponsor.
"A few years ago, I had a bunch, but when 9/11 happened, a lot of companies who were willing to throw their money into skateboarding or BMX all backed out," said Furlong. "It hurt the economy in general, but it hurt our sport, too. A lot of people lost sponsors. I certainly did."
That left him to skate without a safety net.
"It's really tough relying on being healthy every weekend in a sport where you can be wrecked in a heartbeat," added Furlong, who finished fifth overall on the Dew Tour.
Not that the lanky 27-year-old is living hand to mouth these days. He does well enough from the prize money he earns with frequent top-10 (and occasional top-three) finishes on the pro circuit and doing "demos" like the one in L.A. with Hawk. He's a star at the sport's local hotbed, Skatepark of Tampa, which has produced its share of pros over the years and stages its annual Tampa Pro event in March.
"When beginning riders see Anthony, it's a big deal, like, "wow, there's a pro!' " park general manager Ryan Clements said. "For kids new to skateboarding, watching him ride that vert ramp outside is pretty crazy. And having a pro who's a local here at the Skatepark of Tampa adds legitimacy to us."
As a child in Augusta, Ga., Furlong's first passion was riding a dirt bike. His brother, 10 years older, was a sponsored skateboarder in Virginia. "He ended up moving down and I started skating because of him," Furlong said. "He gave me my first board."
A natural athlete, Furlong caught on fast. The sport's free-spiritedness appealed to him. "I was the type who had a problem with authority," he said.
Furlong graduated from high school in 1996, just before the second X Games. He thought about college but followed his heart instead. He had friends who rode at the then-fledgling Skatepark of Tampa. And with the help of his parents, Furlong moved to town.
"I grew up in Georgia but I was really anti-Georgia things - I wasn't into hunting, I wasn't into golf, I wasn't owning a big truck and going muddin'," he said. "I knew I wanted to get out of Georgia."
Three months after arriving in Tampa in '98, Furlong won the Tampa-Am contest at Skatepark. Later in the year, he won both the street and the "vert" events at the Goodwill Games in New York.
There was also a pro doubles event. Buoyed by his two wins, Furlong got up his courage and asked one of the pros on hand, Hawk, if he wanted to team up. To Furlong's surprise, Hawk agreed. "I was like freaking out," Furlong said. Especially when they won.
But the big moment came with a cost. Word got out that Furlong had competed as a pro. He was forced to give up his amateur status well before he had hoped.
"At that time, you kind of wanted to stay amateur because it was good for marketability," he said. "If you were the best amateur, you got way more attention than if you were just one of the many pros."
He competed in several events in '99 that he would have won as an amateur, but barely got 10th place as a pro. Yet he improved, earning a reputation as one of the sport's most consistent contest pros. He won his first big event last year, the Mobile Skatepark Series, in Sacramento.
Then there are test-run shows with pal Hawk, two other skaters, plus BMX and motocross riders.
"I've known Tony eight years," Furlong said. "I feel lucky. Twenty minutes ago, I was eating lunch with everyone. I'm just sitting there with Tony, and he's just one of the guys, laughing and joking. Even though I'm 27, it's still like a dream come true."