Tampa Bay skateboard culture has famous history. Rays highlight it.

TAMPA — The crew meets Tuesday evenings at The Dream Driveway, a private skatepark at a Seminole Heights home. There’s a bowl, a quarter pipe and ramps all built into the front of the property, where a dozen dudes call themselves The Seminole Heights MF’ers — an R-rated homage to a rebellious past. They range in age from their 20s to Gen Xers.

The older members still wear skateboarding fashion, still tear off their shirts in public to show off tattoos. And though they are in their 40s and 50s, they still skateboard.

“It hurts a little more to fall, but we get up,” said Ryan Clements, who owns the property.

Clements has watched Tampa’s skateboarding scene evolve from a fringe pastime to a mainstream business. He started three companies that influence the sport’s international scene.

Tampa Bay is a global hub for the skateboarding industry. It’s where the modern skateboard was designed, where a historic skatepark is located, where a major skateboard competition is held every year.

In April, the Tampa Bay Rays introduced City Connect uniforms inspired by the area’s skateboard culture.

This is the story of how skateboards became a piece of Tampa Bay’s identity, from the beginning until today.

Skateboarders Branden Gyulay, left, Scott Bentley, Joey Fisk and Chris Miller meet for a skateboarding session at Ryan Clements’ home, with a private skatepark built into the driveway. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The origins

Skateboarding seems to have first arrived in Tampa Bay at the University of South Florida.

“The origin of the new fad is attributed to Harry Dickinson, a sophomore from Jacksonville,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1962. “Dickinson, an avid surfboard enthusiast, found the roller skating version a healthy pastime and a good way to stay in shape for regular surfboarding.”

In those early years, skateboards were mostly used as transportation around campus, according to news archives, with occasional downhill races.

Early skateboarding in Tampa did not depict the extreme sport that it later became, as seen in this 1962 photograph of a University of South Florida student trying it out. ( Times (1962) )

By 1975, locals had embraced the extreme sport side of skateboarding. That’s also when Paul Schmitt arrived in Tampa from Wisconsin as a 12-year-old skateboarder.

“Everybody wants to credit skateboards as a California thing,” said Schmitt, 60, who now lives in California. “The reality is that the skateboard was born on a roller rink and roller rinks are actually a Midwest thing.”

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His father built sets for theater companies, which inspired Schmitt to get into woodworking. That’s how he revolutionized the skateboard industry.

Skateboards then were flatter.

“There wasn’t much curve or concaves,” said Schmitt, known in the industry as “The Professor.” “There wasn’t a kick tail on the nose.”

While a student at Tampa Bay Technical High School, he worked for a company that built sailboats.

“The boats have these organic curves,” Schmitt said. “That was my influence.”

From his parents’ Tampa garage, Schmitt designed a skateboard with a curve from the tail to an upward bent tip.

“That was a game changer,” said John Montesi, 52, owner of Tarpon Springs’ Westside Skate Shop and a former X Games competitor and judge. “When you ollie, the tip is something to grab your foot on.”

Schmitt’s skateboards were introduced at competitions and the popularity of the design spread nationwide.

Schmitt relocated to California in the mid-’80s to produce skateboards full time — more than 19 million to date. His early years here helped put Tampa Bay’s skateboard scene on the map.

An aerial drone view of the Bro Bowl at Perry Harvey Sr. Park in Tampa. ( LUIS SANTANA | Times )

The early local hubs

Troy Durrett’s favorite childhood skateboarding spot was on Fowler Avenue, at a concrete drainage ditch with curved walls.

Most kids had a similar makeshift skatepark in their neighborhoods, said Durrett, 51. “We made what we had work” before public skateparks were available throughout Tampa Bay.

Tampa’s Perry Harvey Sr. Park Skateboard Bowl, also known as the Bro Bowl, was conceived in 1975 by urban planner Joel Jackson, who had seen skateboarders zigzagging around traffic cones on a Sulphur Springs hill. Four years later, it opened as Florida’s first public skatepark.

“My dad first took me down there in around 1983,” said Durrett, who made a documentary on the skatepark. “The weird thing to me at the time was he brought a handgun.”

That’s because the park had a reputation as a rough spot — there were occasional fights between the visiting suburbanites and the people who lived in the neighboring Central Park Village housing project, who considered the skatepark to be an invasion of their neighborhood. There’s even an urban legend that a neighbor once threw a Molotov cocktail at a skateboarder.

“The kids would get mad at us and say they’re going to go get their big brother,” Durrett said.

Is that how it got the name Bro Bowl?

“That’s at least my take, Durrett said.

Troy Durrett skateboards the original Bro Bowl in 1997. ( Courtesy of Troy Durrett )

But skateboarders kept coming because the Bro Bowl was the spot where the area’s best went to show off their skills. As that reputation grew, out-of-town skateboarders made pilgrimages there.

Mainstream renown came to the Bro Bowl in 2003, when it was featured in the “Tony Hawk’s Underground” video game.

Then, in 2013, it earned a listing on the National Registry of Historic Places for being one of the oldest public skateparks in the country. It was demolished in 2015, but a near replica was built a year later on the neighboring lot as part of the renovation of Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

“I think it’s great that they built a more modern park,” Durrett said. “I don’t know why they had to get rid of the original, but at least they kept a Bro Bowl there.”

Meanwhile, across the bridge, the early scene revolved around a St. Petersburg backyard, Schmitt said.

It began in 1983 when John Grigley built ramps behind his house. Schmitt and others traveled to skateparks around the state to recruit competitors for contests there. One winner was a visiting Tony Hawk, well before he was world famous.

“I think he got $50,” Schmitt said.

Grigley left for California with Schmitt.

John Montesi helps customer Tyler Mason shop for a skateboard deck at Westside Skate Shop in Tarpon Springs. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The scene in Pinellas moved to Astro Skate of Tarpon Springs, which is still there. The roller skating destination added a mini skateboarding ramp that was placed in a corner every Saturday night. When that caught on, quarter pipes and other ramps were added.

“Everyone, from all around the state of Florida, would come down for it,” Montesi said. At least 10 regulars went on to professional careers. “Mike Frazier, Lance and Scott Conklin, Bo Turner … Astro was just pumping. It pretty much ran the skate scene in all of Tampa Bay from 1985 until ’93,″ when the Skatepark of Tampa opened.

Brian Schaefer stands on the half pipe at Skatepark of Tampa, which he owns. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The SPoT

The owner of one of the nation’s premiere indoor skateparks got started at home.

“My dad was blue collar’s finest,” said Brian Schaefer, 53, owner of the Skatepark of Tampa. “He dug a hole in our backyard when I was 13 and poured cement to make a mini version of a bowl. Then later we added a ramp. So, we had this playland in Brandon where all the kids came and hung out.”

By the early 1990s, Schaefer was a sponsored skateboarder with an inner circle that included Paul Zitzer, who was later a commentator for Olympic skateboarding.

Zitzer rented a Tampa warehouse, where he brought a vert ramp, which is a form of a half pipe, and charged for admission. But he shut it down after a year, struggling to pay the bills.

That’s when Schaefer came up with a new plan. In 1993, he rented a different warehouse, took Zitzer’s ramp with him, lived there and paid for the endeavor by leasing living space to other skateboarders. He named it the Skatepark of Tampa, otherwise known as the SPoT.

“The warehouse had four or five offices that became apartments,” he said. “We had a sketchy kitchen sink, oven, fridge, bathroom and shower, so it worked just enough.”

With his industry connections, skateboarders from around Florida descended on Tampa to party, skate and then sleep at the warehouse at 4215 E. Columbus Drive.

“I’d sleep on a dirty warehouse couch,” said Neal Mims, 52, then a Jacksonville-based skateboarder who today trains Olympic competitors. “Because Brian was so welcoming to every skater, it just grew.”

The logo for Skatepark of Tampa decorates a stand of lockers at the Tampa facility. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

“The location helps,” Schaefer said. “We have beaches, good weather, clubs, bars, the hotels. Who wouldn’t want to come?”

The apartments became a retail shop. Shaefer bought the property, expanded into neighboring warehouses and brought in more ramps and courses.

He also started regular competitions, most notably the annual Tampa Pro for professionals and Tampa Am for amateurs. Today, both are considered among the premiere contests in the country. Musicians Lil Wayne and De La Soul have made appearances there.

“I’ve traveled the world and I’ve been around many different cultures skateboarding, and everybody wants to go to Tampa to be part of the Pro,” Mims said. “You tell someone you skated it, and their eyes get big.”

Peter Kryger performs a frontside air at the Skatepark of Tampa. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The video

As a Gaither High School student in 1994, Ed Selego sought out friends by what shoes they wore.

“I noticed this kid wearing Vans,” the 45-year-old said. “I knew he had to be a skater.”

The kid was Josh Stewart.

A year later, Selego decided to attempt to jump a gap in a rickety downtown Tampa bridge. Stewart would film it.

“It was probably a 15-foot gap of just water,” said Stewart, 47. “He stuck it right off the bat, but his impact was so great that he fell forward and hit his face. The whole right side of his face was skidded to a pulp. He looked crazy for six months.”

Selego later returned and landed clean, which Stewart filmed.

This was before social media, back when filmmakers around the country shot local skateboarders and then worked with distribution companies to place the VHS tapes in skate shops nationwide.

Stewart made his first such tape in 1996. Titled “Cigar City,” the 24 minutes of footage featured more than two dozen skateboarders, mostly Floridians, including Selego, Mims and Montesi. They did tricks on Tampa Bay’s streets and at the Skatepark of Tampa.

The video’s talent, backdrops and editing made it stand out nationally.

Muralist Tony Krol, 43, said it helped show skateboarders everywhere what was going on in Tampa Bay. “I got it from my skate shop in South Bend, Indiana. When I was looking for somewhere to study art, one reason I chose Tampa was because I knew about the skating from ‘Cigar City.’”

Nick Winters enjoys a sunset skate session at the Bro Bowl at Perry Harvey Sr. Park in Tampa. ( LUIS SANTANA | Times )

Stewart’s follow-up video, “Rising,” included Selego’s successful bridge jump.

“Josh and his videos were sort of my launching point to going pro,” Selego said.

Stewart went on to become a prolific creator of skateboard videos, often featuring area residents, before moving to New York in 2006 and founding his Theories of Atlantis company, which distributes skateboards and apparel.

“Josh Stewart is an iconic asset,” Schaefer said. “He shared our scene with the world.”

Scott Bentley pops an ollie while skateboarding at a private skatepark at the Seminole Heights house of Ryan Clements, who is looking on. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The agent

Clements, who has that private front-yard skatepark in Seminole Heights, got his start in the skateboarding industry as a volunteer at the Tampa Pro in 1997. A year later, he was one of Skatepark of Tampa’s general managers, making deals with sponsors.

“A skater would realize I’d done a deal with Red Bull and ask if I could help with theirs,” he said. “That’s how we parlayed into what we’ve been doing for 12 years.”

He founded Excel Management, which represents around 30 professional skateboarders. Clients include Mark Gonzales, the 55-year-old considered to be one of the sport’s all-time greats, and Jamie Foy, who has a line of skateboard sneakers with New Balance.

Jorge Angel helps his son Apollo while skateboarding at a skatepark at Ryan Clements’ Tampa home. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

Clements founded two more companies, all of which are run from an office in Tampa’s Drew Park.

The Platform Group designs and builds skateparks around the country. They’ve completed nine so far. And The Boardr helps organize skateboard competitions for companies looking to use the events to promote their brands.

“We’ll bring in and pay the skateboarders, plan the obstacles, do all the scheduling,” Clements said. “Whatever is needed.”

Clients have included Red Bull and Skullcandy. This year, Boardr is helping with events in China and Denmark.

“Skateboarding is international,” Clements said. “We do our part from Tampa.”

Michael Blanford, executive director of Boards for Bros, stands among stacks of skateboard decks and completed skateboards at the Skatepark of Tampa, where he stores an inventory of equipment that is donated to underprivileged communities. ( DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times )

The ambassador

In 2006, Bro Bowl skateboarders wanted to broker peace with residents of the neighborhood.

“Kids were getting their skateboards stolen,” said Michael Blanford, 54. “So, they thought, what if we gave away skateboards to get the neighborhood kids skating? Everyone who skates has a house full of old equipment lying around.”

When that seemed to work, Skatepark of Tampa embraced the idea by asking for old equipment, which was refurbished and redistributed to low-income communities throughout Tampa Bay. The effort was named Boards for Bros.

In 2014, the endeavor was established as a nonprofit headquartered out of the skatepark. While they still collect used stuff, Boards for Bros mostly gives away new equipment donated from companies and has expanded efforts beyond the area.

“Peru, Cuba, Honduras, Costa Rica, South Africa, Uganda,” said Blanford, executive director of Boards for Bros. “We give away around 4,000 boards a year.”

It’s their way of growing the skateboarding community, Blanford said, by introducing kids to the sport.

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Taylor Walls, center, poses with the Rays mascot, Raymond, while team president Brian Auld looks on during a special reveal of the Rays’ City Connect uniform at Tropicana Field on April 29 in St. Petersburg. ( MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times )

That’s why the Rays reached out to the nonprofit to serve as a volunteer consultant on the City Connect uniforms.

“They already had the designs,” Blanford said. “They invited me out to the ballpark for my opinion.”

The jerseys include a patch featuring a skating ray doing a trick and another with the three palms of the marker sign at Tampa’s Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

“I looked at it and thought it was perfect,” Blanford said from the retail shop at the Skatepark of Tampa.

Moments later, a little kid and his mother hurried past him, with the son exclaiming that they’d just landed Rays tickets for that night.

“I haven’t seen people here this excited about baseball in a long time,” Blanford said. “But I also haven’t seen Tampa Bay this excited about skateboarding in a long time. It’s another step for us.”

If you go

Astro Skate of Tarpon Springs

875 Cypress St., Tarpon Springs

Bro Bowl

1471 N. Lamar Ave., Tampa

Skatepark of Tampa

4215 E. Columbus Drive, Tampa

Westside Skate Shop

39334 U.S. 19 North, Tarpon Springs

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