Building momentum

Everything is moving in the right direction for TJ Rogers.

Building momentum
Digital collage made using screengrab from "TJ ROGERS WELCOME TO SK8MAFIA PART 2024"

A version of this story originally appeared in Neighbourhood Skate Mag Vol. 6. Follow Neighbourhood online here.

Somewhere in the routine swell of end-of-year skateboarding content, a “Slam of The Year” contest was held. Ran and promoted on Instagram by the A Lost Cause apparel company, its premise was simple: post the worst, most physically deforming, life-threatening fall you incurred and survived in 2023, then upload it to the app with the caption, “Here’s my entry for @alostcauseofficial SLAM OF THE YEAR” along with the hashtag “#slamoftheyear2023.” 

For their trauma, shared publicly and perversely for the promotion of a brand, the winner would earn $10,000 USD. To be asked to showcase and celebrate individual suffering — your own suffering — for monetary gain is a strange proposal but nothing new. What were America’s Funniest Home Videos and MTV’s Scarred if not precursors to what we can now capture, produce, and release ourselves with as little as a smartphone? So why not submit yourself at your worst? Plus, that is a shitload of cash.

All those bruises, scrapes, tweaks, fractures, and whatever other creative shapes and colours our bodies take on when we take their impermanence for granted are a part of the deal anyway. Falling off of your skateboard also doesn’t always mean things went wrong in totality. Most often, a bail is a part of the process. Tumbling and splatting and sacking as a means of building momentum. Gathering energy. Harnessing… something. Focus. Aggrieved determination. An increasing disregard for your personal safety. Whatever it is, it is intrinsic to skateboarding. It’s what helps make riding away feel so sweet. Every trick landed, clip filmed, and video part released is earned. And sometimes, you earn yourself a slam.

Professional skateboarder TJ Rogers, an ambassador for A Lost Cause, shared the flyer for the brand’s #slamoftheyear2023 contest on his Instagram Story. In retrospect, this could be seen as the inciting moment — an ill-advised temptation of the Skate Gods. The next day, while out street skating, he’d attempt to take a nollie kickflip over a hip-high wall and down a sizeable drop. The nollie flip is a trick he’s done over and down countless obstacles before. Throwing himself across chasms of varying length and height is how he made his name, from spinning down the sixteen stairs of Hollywood High to El Toro’s twenty. That day, things had been going according to plan right up until they weren’t. 

He’d pop, flip, catch the nollie flip and almost clear the wall. His front foot would just snag the concrete edge on the way down, flipping his body like a flapjack before slamming to the sidewalk below. In the footage, in the aftermath of the fall, you see Rogers face down on the ground, his head buried into the crook of the arm not trapped under himself. When he looks up, a flash of understanding crosses his face. Then frustration. The real-time realization that this bail wouldn’t contribute to any stoked inertia that day, as he’d detail in a follow-up Instagram post.

Going out of 2023 with a slam 😜. Broke 5 bones on my right hand/wrist.. Funny enough, I posted a flyer on my story regarding a slam contest & then this happened.. so here’s my entry! @alostcauseofficial #slamoftheyear2023

This was a rare setback for Rogers, especially in 2023. Coming into the year, he had treated and beat testicular cancer into remission, filmed and released two video parts, received a signature shoe with éS Footwear, moved on from his longtime sponsor Blind Skateboards to SK8MAFIA, scored an endorsement deal with Champion clothing, and received a significant amount of coverage, including closing the show in a high-profile Thrasher Magazine Canadian tour video.

It was surprising to see Rogers miss at all. During the Vancouver stop of Thrasher’s summer tour, I watched agog from the sidelines of the Britannia Tennis Courts DIY skatepark as the Whitby, Ontario, native got out of the van and proceeded to land nearly every trick he tried, first try. Dressed in his signature look of a white tank top tucked into baggy pants, the latter would struggle to stay on his slender frame during the onslaught.

Switch-backside-tailslide-bigspin-out. Pulls up pants.
Nollie-backside-kickflip-fakie-manual-180-out. Grabs at pants.
Switch-frontside-tailslide-biggerspin-out. Reefs pants up with both hands.     

Us, the crowd — this swelling, increasingly sweaty and sunburnt thing — couldn’t get enough. Even with the likes of Evan Smith, Pedro Delfino, Rick McCrank, and Brandon Westgate flying about, Rogers would get some of the biggest pops of the day. While more reserved than how we usually see him portrayed in skateboarding media — Rogers has something of a reputation for loud explosions of positive affirmations directed at everyone around him, up to and including himself — his toothy grin was still a constant fixture, and he was more than happy to ham it up with his fans. 

This moment, that reaction, and the year of success it was couched in was perhaps not something that could’ve been foreseen three or four years previous. It’s not that Rogers didn’t or doesn’t deserve it — he has a novella-length resume of on-board accomplishments that prove he most certainly does — it’s just that professional skateboarding is such a volatile profession. Careers are made and broken by the whims of brand managers. Marketers. Most of them are either steeped in generations of dogma on what is or isn’t “cool” or are trying to keep up with what the youth are defining it as now. And for Rogers, his once longtime board sponsor, Blind, had been decidedly uncool to most parties for decades. Especially so since its parent company, Dwindle, was purchased by Bravo Sports, a sporting goods conglomerate owned by Transom Capital Group that would, in the style of private equity firms, hollow out Dwindle’s brands, including the firing of longtime Blind brand manager Bill Weiss, the person who helped Rogers get a foothold in the industry.

For the uninitiated, brand affiliation might seem like a ridiculous and petty gauge of professional worth. And, to be sure, it is. But in this sport, where decision-making is guided more by marketing strategy than merit, there is a long history of whatever sponsors a professional or amateur skateboarder acquires acting like a mushy combination of personality, aptitude, and Rorschach test for fans — If so and so rides for X, they must be like Y. Because if you ride for a brand with a particular aesthetic sensibility or attitude, it would only makes sense that you’d also subscribe to it. Over the years, that relationship between person and the branding of for-profit-entities became so baked into the culture that most skateboarders have spent an ungodly amount of time analyzing the logos those athletes get paid to plaster across their person, reading them like an astrology chart and laying out how their career might unfold — If so and so rides for X, then they definitely wouldn’t jump ship to Y. And they definitely can’t win SOTY if they don’t have XY shoe sponsor.

Rogers would tell me that this is something he’s aware of but has never given too much mind. “I noticed over the years [that] riding for certain brands definitely hurt your image… But I always tried to not let that distract me and let my skating do the talking. I don’t care about what others [think about] riding for a ‘not so cool’ brand. We all can’t ride for the cool kid brands. But we all deserve a place in skateboarding. So I stuck with people [who] supported me and did what made me happy at the end of the day.”

Letting his “skating do the talking” feels like an accurate summation of Rogers' recent success, which he also attributes to a shift in priorities. “I’ve definitely filmed a lot over the last four years… there has been a lot more traction towards my career since COVID started as well. I think it’s because I finally put all my focus into what I wanted to do and what made me happy instead of spreading myself thin trying to make it all work.”

What made him happy were projects like his Welcome to éS, TJ video part, which was filmed and edited by Chris Thiessen, and a significant tonal departure from his appearances in the Blind video canon, offerings that are generally highly polished but lack a certain edge. Welcome to éS, TJ leans into the magic of the VX1000 and Thiessen’s distinct, almost manic, wielding of that particular camera. “I definitely take a different approach for filming each part,” Rogers says, “I tried to match his aesthetic with the spots he initially brought me to — and boom. That’s the piece we made. I was gonna film more for it, but… we decided it looked the good way it is.” 

When he says “film more,” he means that the entirety of the video part was filmed in just four separate days, from 7am-2pm on each outing. That’s an astounding level of productivity for a professional skateboarder and explains his high overall output, as that’s just one of six video parts1 he’s put out since the summer of 2021. Most pro skaters don’t realize a catalogue that deep over the course of their entire careers. It also makes him a perfect fit for his new board sponsor, SK8MAFIA, who release, on average, one full-length video a year, another unusually high level of productivity.

Rogers is “hyped to be rocking with a bunch of legends” on the San Diego, California, based outfit. His relationship with the company began when Josh Priebe, one of the company’s co-owners, reached out to offer words of support. “He had the same cancer as me, and when I was going through that, he hit me up and helped me out a lot mentally. Straight G for that.” Eventually, he’d meet up with ‘MAFIA members in Los Angeles before going on a skate trip to Mexico last summer. While there, they’d get arrested “because of skating” and spend 24 hours in jail. During their detention, SK8MAFIA stalwarts Wes Kremer and Brandon Turner would lighten the mood by making it official: Rogers was on the team.

It’s those meaningful connections, ones that feel authentic to who he is as a person and aren't made just to bolster a personal brand, that have guided Rogers throughout his career. The influence of longtime friends like fellow professional skateboarder Ryan Decenzo, who rented Rogers a room in his house when he first committed to living in California full-time nearly a decade ago, has played a significant role. “He showed me the ropes in a lot of ways — how to cook, how to live, how to be respectful in the skate scene.” Rogers shared during a cameo in a Decenzo day-in-the-life-style video published by Street League Skateboarding in 2021. He also makes sure to credit Bill Weiss for giving him a chance as a young upstart and then helping him excel professionally, their bond strong enough that Rogers would stick with him for fifteen years, only leaving Blind after Weiss’ ouster. 

Rogers has remained true to himself by aligning with those who have been true to him, even if it didn't always seem like the most prudent choice for his career. Now, sponsors of all stripes are taking notice, from the “bunch of legends” on SK8MAFIA to his recent deal with Champion. Repping the athletic wear company is almost too on the nose for Rogers, whose white tank top and baggy sweats are akin to a uniform. It’s proof that by Rogers just being Rogers, his orbit has become potent enough to pull in opportunities from outside the traditional skateboarding industry.

Of course, what ties it all together is the skateboarding. In Keep Smiling, the Red Bull-branded video part he’d close out 2023 with, Rogers skates to “BaKardi Slang” by Kardinal Offishall, a celebrated Toronto-area rapper used in a Toronto-centric project for a celebrated Toronto-area skateboarder. It’s another reminder of just how talented Rogers is while doubling as a love letter to the place where he cut his teeth — a very Rogers thing to do and a fitting capper on a year that would see him wind up on the longlist of nominees for Thrasher Magazine’s coveted Skater of The Year award.

Momentum remains in TJ Rogers’ favour, and that’s despite taking another rare “L” heading into 2024. That Slam of The Year contest? He wouldn’t win it. I imagine that’s fine, though. Not long after getting surgery to repair his wrist, he was already posting updates from physiotherapy, doing what he does best: pushing forward, smile wide.

1 TJ ROGERS WELCOME TO SK8MAFIA PART 2024 (March 15, 2024) | Keep Smiling (Nov 21, 2023), éS | TJ ROGERS, Evant Signature Model (August 10, 2023), éS | The unstoppable TJ Rogers (September 16, 2022), T.J.I.F. (May 12, 2022), | Welcome to éS, TJ (July 27, 2021)