I first met Danny Way in the early '90s, when his skating career was just taking off and my own was both beginning and ending. At 19, I was a decent skateboarder, good enough to tour the country with a very low-level professional skate team for about half a minute. I'd been scheduled to skate in a demonstration with Way, but an injury kept me sidelined. I made a show of acting despondent and pissed, when really I felt spared. He was an undersized towheaded kid with a concave chest and braces, and he scared the bejesus out of me. He had inhuman focus when he dropped in on a ramp, a kind of desperate and almost violent grace. He skated with an authority and poise and aggression that reminded me of a young Mike Tyson – how he would charge across the ring just as the first bell sounded, gloves tucked under his chin and eyes locked on his poor, unsuspecting opponent. Watching Way skate, I sensed that, like Tyson, he had more at stake than everyone else. Which he did.
When Danny was eight months old, his father was arrested for failing to pay child support to his previous wife, and after just nine days in jail, he was found hanged in his cell (it was ruled a suicide but the Way family remains skeptical). After her husband's death, Way's mother, Mary, plunged into heavy drug use. Coke. Meth. You name it. With the drugs came a long string of boyfriends who physically and emotionally abused her and her two sons, cruel men who bolted once the mirrors were snorted clean. After a couple of chaotic and traumatic years, however, a good and stable man named Tim O'Dea came along. He introduced Danny and his brother, Damon, to surfing and skateboarding, buying them boards and safety gear and memberships at the world-renowned Del Mar Skate Ranch, near their home in San Diego. (At six years old, Danny was too young to skate the facility, but O'Dea lied about his age.) O'Dea married the boys' mother, but within a few years the marriage went bust. Danny and Damon were devastated. The only reliable thing left in their world was skateboarding – in many ways, their stepfather's legacy. "I felt this connection with my board that I've never felt with anything else in my life," Danny says. "Skateboarding is like therapy for me."
"I remember him as this tiny, tiny kid rolling into these huge bowls at Del Mar," recalls Damon Way, now 38. "The rest of us were scared, but he'd just go for it. That's the blueprint for who he became."
By age eight, Danny's innate talent and obsession with skateboarding became a source of friction. He'd gotten so good so quickly that he intimidated everyone, including famous pros. Older skaters ridiculed him, ostracized him; one soon-to-be-famous pro actually beat him up. At 13, he trounced Tony Hawk in a skater version of the game Horse. (Even in the mid-'80s, Hawk was considered unbeatable, the Michael Jordan of skateboarding, but Way's repertoire – executing complex street tricks while soaring above the ramp, spinning and flipping his board in ways no one else had yet conceived – blew everyone's mind, including Hawk's.) Danny always wanted to be the first to try a trick, even if it meant getting hurt, and he was starting to develop an edge in his personality, a cockiness born of youth and loneliness and physical ability. When older skaters taunted him, Danny refused to back down. "I had to stand up for myself," he says, "because I didn't feel like there was anyone around to do that for me." Even Damon started bullying Danny when he could no longer keep up with his younger brother's rapid progression. "[Damon] was always taking swings at me," Danny says. "It was just typical older-brother stuff, but my only weapon against the physical and mental abuse was to be better than him at what he loved: skateboarding."
At a time when Way felt "lost, confused, sad, unloved," he entered his first two contests on the same day – and won both. Industry sponsors immediately glommed on, offering endorsement deals and a version of the acceptance he'd long craved from his family. He signed with Powell Peralta, which was then something of a corporate empire and, not coincidentally, Tony Hawk's sponsor.
Meanwhile, his brother had started skating with a rougher crew. When Damon was 15, during a scuffle in the school parking lot, he was sucker punched in the temple, leaving him with a career-ending hematoma, and the family had to file lawsuits against his assailants and the school district to cover his medical expenses. Eventually a settlement came through and Damon bought the Rainbow, California, home that he, Danny, and their mother were living in. But Mary's habit threw the household back into chaos. "My mother had so many boyfriends," Danny recalls, "dealers who'd beat the shit out of her and my brother and me." By the time his mother finally moved out, Danny himself had begun drinking and experimenting with drugs (Mary has been clean for the past two years). He was also starting to make real money and was able to buy dirt bikes and four-wheelers and guns – pistols, rifles, shotguns – that he and Damon would shoot when they hosted parties. And they hosted a lot of parties. "My friends at the time were on a pretty destructive path, and I was a sponge," Danny says. "The easiest thing to do was to emulate the things that were going on around me. I stepped out of my own skin because I didn't have anywhere else to step." Although inherently shy, Danny noticed that the more recklessly he behaved, the more attention people paid him. He'd jump from the second-story roof and land on the trampoline. He'd ride a motorcycle on his backyard halfpipe, full tilt. One afternoon, with nothing more exciting to do, he yanked his braces off with a pair of pliers.