Any East Coaster who watched the last two ASP World Tour events in Fiji and Bali would quickly point out that CJ Hobgood has been on fire. At the Volcom Fiji Pro, Ceej fought and clawed his way to an impressive Semifinal result, finishing less than half a point away from meeting Kelly Slater for what would have been an all-Florida final. And although he bowed out of the Oakley Pro Bali in the Quarterfinal, CJ may have actually turned more heads at Keramas, tagging the rippable righthand reefbreak with some ferocious backhand surfing that left none other than Kelly Slater in its wake.
But astute viewers hopefully also noticed how forthcoming CJ was in his post-heat interview from Bali, where he riffed on everything from God to not having a major sponsor to his family to the good fortune of being a 15-year World Tour veteran. After watching the interview, we knew CJ would have a whole lot more to say upon returning home to Central Florida. So we corralled him into the ESM office for another of the revealing conversations that this 2001 ASP World Champion has always been known for.
ESM: During the last two ASP World Tour events, it seems like everyone — other surfers, commentators, surf fans — is starting to call you a “blue-collar hero” and begging some major company to sponsor you. Given what you’ve gone through over the last few years, how does that make you feel?
CJ Hobgood: Sometimes it’s hard to put into words the way you feel [laughs].
ESM: Maybe people are paying more attention since you’re ranked in the Top 10?
CJ: That goes without saying. At the beginning of this year, seeing people who didn’t have sponsors was more of a negative thing. I knew it was going to be hard. But how can I tell people that there’s freedom in not having a sponsor? How I can speak to all the other people who don’t have sponsors? It’s actually gotten me into trouble [laughs]. I was joking around with Granger Larsen once… we’ve since high-fived about it, and I know I was wrong for joking around, but I thought I could speak to his situation. You go through things in life, and when the opportunity comes to talk to someone in a similar situation, you think, “Cool, not only is this guy my friend, but I can help him out and let him know he’s not the only one.” There is freedom in not having a sponsor, but it’s hard to focus on the positives of that. With commentators, it does get stale, though. I’m a fan of surfing, and when I watch, I don’t want to hear, “This guy needs a sponsor.”
ESM: Have you had any offers? You’ve been spotted wearing Volcom baggies a few times now.
CJ: Those are the most comfortable ones! They don’t give me a rash [laughs]. But Volcom doesn’t even make ‘em anymore, so if there were something going on, they wouldn’t want me in those.
ESM: Do you know who started the @SponsorCJ Twitter feed?
CJ: I don’t. I wanted to message the guy and say, “Do you know how great my life is?” Not to throw it in anyone’s face, but everything I’ve ever dreamed of, I’ve been given — and then some. I live the best life in the world. I get to do something I love. Are things a lot tighter now? Sure. So be it. It’s cool that people care about me. But I’d rather see whoever [started @SponsorCJ] use that energy to help somebody who really needs it. I never pictured myself making heats and not having a sponsor. I’m in this position now where I’m 34 years old and still on tour… but I still wonder if I’m relevant. Is it time for someone else to take my place? But when things go good, you have to take advantage of it. Maybe everything that’s happened this year is a stepping stone for Tahiti. If I can just take the momentum into there, who knows? I always try to keep things simple. I just wanted to make a few heats in Fiji and Bali.
ESM: You seem very at peace right now, both in the water and out of it.
CJ: You’re right about that. There’s a lot more peace. It did take a while to adjust, and maybe that’s the reason why I’m achieving some results this year. I’m really at peace. Being on tour is not something that has to happen in my life. I don’t surf to get a pay raise if I make Top 10. I don’t get paid any more if I come into ESM or not. It’s all straight up because I love it. I could quit showing up to any of these events right now. In fact, I’ve had a couple of my sponsors openly say, “Look, we’d rather you not do the tour.” There’s peace in not feeling like you have to do something. I’m just going out there saying, “If I surf good, great.” Whatever place I finish is not the factor. It’s more about challenging myself. There have been so many times that I’ve done not the most educated thing.
ESM: Like when?
CJ: In Brazil, it was onshore and choppy — the worst place to ever ride a quad. And I was like, “I’m gonna ride a quad. Who cares?” It probably wasn’t the best choice. But again, there was peace there. What was the worst that was going to happen? It doesn’t mean I don’t work and try and challenge myself… that I’m not passionate about surfing. But there is peace with the outcome, whatever it is. Before that probably wasn’t the case. I wanted to be there, I wanted to be performing, so when I wasn’t, I was asking myself, “Why?”
ESM: Beating Kelly Slater in Bali must have provided a big confidence boost.
CJ: Things that are out of your control have to go your way sometimes. Honestly, when that hooter blew and I had made that heat, I said, “If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have this opportunity.” But that’s really the only thing that crossed my mind. You gotta buy a ticket to win the lottery. I have to be on tour for moments like those to happen. As far as the actual drug of competing — being in a situation where you’ve really got to rise up within yourself — the feeling of achieving that in Fiji or Bali or Tahiti or whatever, the endorphins go crazy. And the fact that I love to taste that feeling definitely makes me feel the most alive. When you’re in those situations, which you can’t premeditate, the feeling is crazy. THIS is why you do it. Sometimes to get that high, you just gotta show up and give it your all.
ESM: What’s your take on the passion your brother Damien displayed in his close, controversially judged heat against eventual champion Joel Parkinson?
CJ: I thought Damo lost that heat. I remember when we were in Brazil, Damien said, “I really had a lot of fun surfing with you at Bells. I felt like I was emotionally in that heat and I gave it my all. I want to taste that more.” So at the end of the day [in Bali], I told Damo, “You told me you wanted to bring it more — you never said, ‘I just want to win heats.’ You told me you wanted to perform this way. You’re doing what you told me you wanted to do. Keep doing that and it’ll work out.” That’s what I got from his heat with Parko. I’m stoked to watch his heats. I’m stoked to watch him bring it and leave it all out there. It doesn’t take away the sting of losing, which still sucks. But it’s good to see.
ESM: Do you agree with Damien that the judges were just scoring rides too high too early?
CJ: At the end of the day, when all the emotions die down, these judges are doing the best they can. I don’t envy the job they have. I think their quality of life sucks, and I think if we can make that better, then they would be more accountable — stand up and own what they do. But they’re humans just like us. Yes, the carrot that gets dangled in front of their faces is freesurfs at all these locations. But [the ASP] runs ‘em ragged. What’s the use of yelling at someone who maybe doesn’t even like their job? Make their quality of life better by paying ‘em more and giving ‘em more time off, and then maybe you could achieve more accountability and better judging.
ESM: So you don’t think they’re entirely to blame for what many perceived as poor judging in Bali?
CJ: Well, I wanted to give ‘em the benefit of the doubt, but even after they were warned about there being so many ways to skin a cat and get a 9 or 10 at Keramas, they still didn’t pull it back to leave room to hit that mark. You don’t want to give someone like Parko or John John two 10s, because now you’re not asking for anything more from them. You’re deflating them — making ‘em think they’re not in it anymore. Kelly and I were out in our heat thinking, “What is this comparable to? Maybe baseball with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? Are people that hungry for a perfect 10? What did the St. Louis Cardinals or Chicago Cubs finish [the year McGwire and Sosa both broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record]? Did either of them make the playoffs or win the World Series?” I don’t know. But I know that we had two steroided-out guys, and everyone knew exactly how many home runs they had at any given time. Is that what this is like? A perfect 10 fest? You just have to be careful with the home run ball at certain spots like Keramas.
ESM: Forget John John for a minute. Let’s talk about Nat Young, who’s sitting at 6th in the world right now
CJ: Nat’s is a sick story. When I think of blue-collar worker, I think of Nat Young. Mick Lowe used to be that guy on tour. And the sport needs that. I’ve seen rookies come on and achieve what Nat’s achieved, but Nat just doesn’t get fazed. That’s the biggest thing. He’s stone cold. Afterwards, you wouldn’t know if he had made his heat or lost it. You don’t see him punching his board. The guy thinks he can make any heat at any time, no matter what the scenario is. He keeps his emotions in check and always believes that he’s got the tools to succeed. There aren’t too many people like that, and there’s a lot to be said for that. I’ve been trying to figure out how he gets it all to work — his style, his technique He just turns in the perfect spot of the wave every time. His whole package looks so good.
ESM: How about Jordy Smith? The first half of 2013, everybody was raving about how this was his year.
CJ: It was really cool to see him bounce back from getting a 13th at Snapper — and really cool to see him make the Quarters in Fiji. I think it’s a bit of everything. You just figure out ways to win. Look at Joel and Mick; when those guys started making a dent at Pipe and Tahiti, that’s when they won world titles. You have to perform at the places you’re not expected to. Jordy has always had it at other spots. When he checks off a year getting good results at those spots, then he can have a real go. But I’m a huge fan of Jordy. He’s crazy. Not a chink in his armor. I felt for him in Bali, though. He sat there all day looking at perfect waves, and then he went out against Freddy Patacchia and the waves sucked. Freddy looked at good waves all day and then said, “I have a better shot at beating Jordy.” Both guys witnessed a huge day for competitive surfing, and one guy went out thinking he had an advantage while the other guy went out there thinking, “Am I really surfing this crap after watching good waves all day?” You have to get over that really quick. Not saying that’s what Jordy was thinking, but…
ESM: Can you provide any insight into how much things will change next year when ZoSea Media takes over management of the ASP World Tour?
CJ: Not really. The biggest thing is I try and ask people who’ve been with the ASP for a long time: “How’s your job? Do you like going to work? Are you learning a lot from these people?” And I see people excited about their jobs. I see people trying to make surfing the best product it can be. I think everyone believes in that. If everyone on every level is working toward that, surfing will have the best chance to succeed. I look at those things more than a banner, a commentator, or a scaffolding. I remember looking up to Sunny Garcia and Shane Powell and thanking them for leaving the tour better than when they started. And I’ve often thought, “When I get off tour, hopefully the same thing will happen.” But another part of me hopes I’ll still be on tour when it gets better [laughs].
ESM: Obviously you’re safe to requalify for 2014. Do you have any plans beyond that to remain on tour?
CJ: If a great job came along and was thrown in my lap, I could easily take it. And I’ve said that before. I guess that’s good compared to the older interviews I’ve done with ESM — I’m spitting the same rhetoric, just with different people listening. Maybe I’m still in transition. Maybe I’m supposed to be here. The whole faith side of it is important for me. I’ve always said I believe in Jesus and I have a relationship with him. I was given this gift, and if he still wants me here, cool; if he doesn’t, sweet. There’s another whole chapter out there somewhere else. But I have to be faithful. My wife, in a good way, asks me, “Do you think you’re ever going to get a sponsor?” And I tell her that I have to have faith that this is going to work out. I don’t know what the next chapter is. But there’s a lot of freedom in being faithful and knowing it’s going to work out. What if I was going out in heats thinking, “I’m way better than this dude — he’s got a sponsor and I don’t! This guy couldn’t carry my lunch box to work!” Do you think I would be able to function or perform? I know I was given this gift, and I want to give it my best while I’m still here, whether there’s a Walmart sticker or a white spot on the top of my board. I think things are going to work out. I’ve been brought this far — and not just to get dropped on my head. But it’s hard to explain all these dynamics, emotions, and feelings.
ESM: Having a new baby at home certainly makes you think about them more, right?
CJ: Watching my older daughter as she grew up, I always said that if I had another kid, I wanted to be at home more. It’s not like I’m on tour saying I have to win another title. I think Kelly even is in the same boat. But it’s all about being content, having peace, and enjoying where you’re at. Ultimately, I just want to be the same person I’ve always been. Hopefully you get the same CJ every time I talk to you. If someone asked me what achievement I was most proud of, I’d say, “If you met me at the beginning of the tour, and you didn’t see me again for a long time until I was at the end of my tour, I would hope that you’d see the same dude you met a while ago.” You can’t let outside circumstances determine the person that you are. Hopefully that can make sense to other people, no matter what they’re going through.