His goals having outdistanced his reach, San Diegan child-pro David Eggers fell from the surf world limelight before his 18th birthday. To the arena born, Eggers was a contest surfer above all else, and when that went away…so did he. Some years before his death from a heart attack at 45-years-of-age, writer Dean LaTourette asked Eggers to tell him his story. —Scott Hulet
David Eggers is anxious. Just yards from the water, longboard in hand, he stops short and gazes out at the lineup at WindanSea in La Jolla, his old stomping grounds. It’s been years since he’s surfed here, surfed at all for that matter, and decades since he tore the place apart as a young grom.
I look over at him and ask him if he’s ready, but he isn’t listening—he’s too consumed by the surreal nature of the moment. I jump in the water and begin paddling, but Eggers doesn’t follow. About 20 yards offshore, I look back to see him still standing on the beach with the board under his arm, staring out at the ocean, a look of trepidation on his face. He doesn’t want to go into the water.
Reluctantly, he finally drags the 9’0″ Stewart into the shallows (a longboard, he must be thinking, what has it come to?) and wades through the shorebreak, as though afraid to get wet. He eases himself onto the board and begins paddling methodically out toward the peak. I’m no longer sure that bringing him back here was a good idea.
Whatever is going through Eggers’ head—and it is likely a lot—suddenly gets pushed aside as a wide swinging right rolls past me and directly at him. He whips the board around and forcefully paddles into the sloping wall. His aggressiveness startles me; what hesitation there was has been replaced by pure instinct, and just like that, Eggers is up and riding in perfect trim, backside, and he milks the wave all the way to the beach before kicking out.
You remember David Eggers: child surfing prodigy in the 80s, freakish talent, one of the greatest amateur surfing records ever, turned pro at age 16, touted as the next world champion, and so forth. He was truly The Golden Child, as he was then dubbed, The Grom Who Would Be King. But by age 17, he had already dropped off the pro tour and begun a downward spiral of drug abuse, mental illness, and chaos that he wouldn’t emerge from for over 15 years. Once the poster child of the modern pro surfing movement, Eggers quickly became the symbol of the pitfalls of child surf stardom.
Today, at age 37, Eggers lives a bizarre sort of existence that might be described as Peter Pan meets Alice in Wonderland, eternal youth corrupted by the excesses of modern living, with a dose of anarchy thrown in. His young life has taken more unusual twists and turns than most see in an entire lifetime, from child prodigy to substance abuser to religious zealot to middle-aged recovering addict just trying to get by. “I’m clean and sober now, have been for three-and-a-half years,” he says today. “I want people to know that. I’m just living my life now.”
But Eggers’ story is much more than simply one of a high-flying star celebrating in excess. It’s a complex tale of psychological struggles combined with the hard-partying surf culture of La Jolla, all wrapped within surfing’s obsession with the cult of youth: too much, too fast, too young, too fragile.
Eggers was born in Mountain View, California, in 1970, but his parents, Jim and Patti, moved the family back to San Diego a year later, where they both had gone to high school. They settled in Clairemont, then a mostly blue-collar neighborhood about three miles inland from Pacific Beach. Jim was a self-proclaimed greaser, into cars and motorcycles, while his wife, Patti, was a beach girl, having grown up along the shores of Pacific Beach.
Jim Eggers, a.k.a. Captain Jim, was a tuna boat captain who spent the better part of four months a year out at sea, which left David’s mom, Patti, who worked full time as a beautician, at home with their three kids, Scott, Tim, and David. While Tim took after their father and his interests in motorsports, Scott and his little brother, David, gravitated toward the ocean. “The beach was our day care,” says Scott today. “My mom used to drop us off early in the morning and pick us up at dusk.”
Patti wasn’t much of a disciplinarian (and a bit of an anarchist according to the kids), which left Scott and David to run wild around the neighborhood. The Clairemont Surf Shop was down the street from their house, and the two used to ride their skateboards there and hang out. “I remember when Scott first walked into my shop with his skateboard,” says Jeff Le Maitre, then the shop manager, who would become a seminal figure in both Scott and David’s lives. “I think he was 10 or 11 years old, and his eyes were all red—he was stoned out of his mind. I was like, ‘You kids need something else to do.’”
That something else became surfing, as Le Maitre started taking the two brothers to the beach, first getting Scott into the water. David, four years Scott’s junior, would soon follow. “David would tag along with Scott,” says Le Maitre, “always trying to keep up with his older brother. That influenced a lot of what he did.” In typical sibling fashion, Scott didn’t make things easy for his younger brother. “I think surfing was really good for David’s self esteem,” says Le Maitre. “Scott and his friends were pretty hard on him. I think it really fueled David, that was how he got back at Scott, by surfing better.”
It didn’t take long for his extraordinary talent to emerge. Le Maitre recalls an early day at Torrey Pines: “We watched David take off late on this wave and then disappear as the wave went inside us. We were sure he ate it. Then out of nowhere his board comes flying up, and he does this huge lip carve and throws spray. He’d only been surfing for maybe a month at that point. As soon as I saw that I thought, ‘This kid is a natural.’”
Everything accelerated quickly from there. David surfed his first contest at age 10, a WSA contest at Blacks. He made the finals and placed sixth in the 15-and-under bracket, which began a five-year amateur contest tear that to this day has rarely been rivaled.
A then little-known shaper for Canyon Surfboards named Rusty Preisendorfer picked up David and his older brother Scott. “David was just this skinny, freckly little surf rat,” says Rusty today. “But I could see he had a lot of potential as a 10-year-old.”
David’s father, who had grown up in Tennessee and North Carolina, wasn’t originally a big fan of his two sons surfing. He was more inclined to hot rods, hunting, and fishing and thought surfers were mostly bums. When David began doing well in contests, however, Jim and the Eggers family took interest. “My dad became the original Little League dad for surfing,” says Scott.
The family would travel up and down the coast by motorhome, going from contest site to contest site, where David and Scott would compete in WSA and NSSA competitions. “We wore that Winnebago out taking him to contests,” Jim says today. “We really got involved.”
Some have accused the family of pushing David too hard at an early age. “I think his parents’ intentions were good, but in my opinion it wasn’t the right environment,” says Peter Townend, who along with Ian Cairns was then coach of the NSSA. “Also, we just didn’t have that in surfing yet, it hadn’t evolved to that point. You see a lot more of it today, there’s a big Little League syndrome in surfing now because kids are making lots of money at a really young age.”
Others disagree on the family involvement. “That whole contest thing I think that was what really united the Eggers family,” says Le Maitre. “They would pack up in the Winnebago and all go camp out at the contest sites, so I think it was a great thing for them.”
Eggers was a competitive machine in the amateur ranks, regularly disposing of surfers many years his senior. In one particularly memorable contest in 1981, the G&S San Diego Surf Classic, Eggers placed third, the only amateur to make the finals. To get there he trounced former world champ Rabbit Bartholomew, who, at age 27, was still in the top five in the world at the time. “That was really something,” Eggers says today. “Rabbit and Chappy [Jennings] turning to me on the beach afterward—I was an 11-year-old kid —and yelling, ‘F*** you.’”
In 1982, at just 12 years old, he shocked the surfing world by winning the menehunes division at the U.S. Amateur Surfing Championships and then placing fifth overall against a slew of older surfers. He quickly became known as the Giant Killer. In addition to his exceptional talent, he was also fiercely competitive in the water, an attitude that rubbed some of his fellow surfers the wrong way. “He was vicious, man,” recalls Dino Andino, who competed often against Eggers. “There was a point when he was younger when he just beat everybody and everything.”
“I was a hassler,” Eggers says in response to his competitive nature. “I had some natural ability, but I also fought to get waves. Guys like Tom Curren, Kelly Slater, and some others were naturals who more or less free surfed their heats. I wasn’t like that. I had to hassle.”
By 1985, Eggers had amassed a staggering competitive record. At the amateur level, he was virtually unbeatable. He had defeated surfers at all levels and at all age groups, from Rabbit Bartholomew to Kelly Slater. Eggers’ amateur career peaked that year when he won the overall U.S. Amateur Surfing Championships from within the boys’ division, defeating both Slater and Jeff Booth. “I think when he became the U.S. Champion, that’s when his ego got huge,” says Le Maitre. “From then on David was putting on a show every time he paddled out.”
Eggers’ attitude shocked and angered fellow competitors. They weren’t thrilled to have some cocky Southern California kid get in their face, not to mention beat them in heats. He also at times exhibited bizarre behavior. “He was almost evil, he was so weird about how he competed,” says Andino, who was good friends with Eggers. “He’d paddle out past us like a hundred yards, put his arms up in the air, and yell and scream at the sky, and then all of a sudden a wave would come to him. Really weird shit.”
While David’s intensity fueled his competitive surfing success, it also drove him toward extreme behavior. He was a wild child by all counts, and as a young San Diego grom without much parental supervision, he was exposed to a lot at an early age. Scott remembers his brother getting caught at school with pot as early as the first grade. “David was the ultimate grom,” says Scott. “He always hung out with guys who were much older than him. He always had something to prove.”
“I was exposed to a lot at a very early age,” says David today. “I was with a much older crowd, and I was always the grom they were beating on and abusing. But I also made conscious decisions; I was accountable.” Just how accountable, however, was open to question.
At the beginning of 1986, having just turned 16, Eggers made the decision to turn professional. His parents backed his decision. “When he got into high school, we couldn’t keep him in school,” says his father, Jim. “He was surfing all the time, that’s all he wanted to do. He wanted to turn pro.”
His father had been serving as his pseudo manager and negotiated sponsorship deals with Gotcha, Body Glove, and Rusty, among others. Gotcha agreed to pay Eggers a salary while he was on tour. His parents went to the courts and had him emancipated, essentially giving him the authority to make decisions as an adult.
“I think his parents were so wrapped up in him winning all these contests that they got caught up in it all,” says Jeff Le Maitre. “The sponsors started waving all this money at them and they forgot that he was only a sophomore in high school.”
In a manner of months, Eggers was off and running on the pro tour, initially with good results. His sponsors featured him in full-page ads, hyping him at every turn. Competitors feared him in heats. Almost overnight The Golden Child was a star. But underneath all the hype, Eggers’ life had already begun unraveling.
At age 16, and emotionally immature, he had problems coping with the rigors of tour life. “Back then it [the pro tour] was far less organized. I think people were left to their own devices to get around,” says Rusty. “I’m not sure David ever had a mentor. I don’t think there was ever a voice of reason.”
It was a wild time, the go-go days of the 80s. The surf industry and pro tour were a bit of a free-for-all, and rebellious upstart Gotcha was at the forefront. Led by Martin Potter, known then simply as “the animal,” and featuring young rebels like Matt Archbold and David Eggers, the Gotcha surf team pushed the envelope. This was Eggers’ new family while on tour. “Back then, the whole tour was partying and having a good time,” says Garth Tarlow, who traveled with Eggers that year and now serves as marketing director for O’Neill. “He was just this young kid right in the middle of it all.”
“I think he got a great opportunity when Gotcha signed him, but the infrastructure wasn’t in place to protect him from the environment,” says Peter Townend. “You’re at a time when it was all still evolving. Now there’s more of a road map in place for that sort of thing. It’s more structured.”
Eggers’ attitude as an amateur hadn’t won him any friends. Both teammates and rivals alike regularly hazed him. By the second half of his first year on tour, he had commenced a downward slide, and at the end of the year Eggers quit despite ranking as high as 17th in the world halfway through the season.
“He didn’t really like the tour, the travel was really demanding for him,” says his father, Jim. “He was too young. He got too much money, too much notoriety, and he was too immature to handle it.”
Eggers returned home to San Diego and, by his own account, partied the better part of the next several years in La Jolla. “A limo would pull up, and he and his friends would go out all night,” says Jim. “The drugs and the alcohol started to take their toll. At a certain point, he thought he was good enough to get away with all that stuff.”
Big Rock, Partying
Back at home, Eggers went about the job of destroying the local waves in the water and destroying the town out of the water. Drinking and freebasing binges became common, as he partied with a fast crowd. “I terrorized La Jolla with the boys; we tore up that town,” he says. “Driving down Nautilus at 3 a.m., going 100 mph, throwing beer bottles out of the car, smashing mailboxes. It was full on.”
“You have to understand, when he came back to San Diego from a year on the pro tour, he was a god. He was the man,” says Jeff Le Maitre. “He had the surf world by the cajones, so everyone was throwing all kinds of shit at him wanting to be his friend.”
La Jolla surf prodigy Richard Kenvin, who at the time was right in the thick of things, remembers the antics both in and out of the water. “When David came back, it was pretty bad. I mean, I knew what I was up to was bad, and hanging out with me for 48 hours getting loaded was not good.”
While Eggers was partying hard, he was also putting on performances in the water. His aggressive, reckless style during that period remains the stuff of La Jolla legend. “He was doing some amazing things at that time [from around 1989 to 1994] at Big Rock, at least when he’d get it together to surf,” says Kenvin. “David was taking off behind the rock, under the ledge and doing these crazy airdrops—and making it. I didn’t really see that kind of surfing, even in the pro ranks, until many years later.”
Eggers’ behavior in the water though became increasingly aggressive, almost manic at times. “David was so full-on back then,” says John Bowling, who grew up surfing the La Jolla reefs. “He’d be out in the water just screaming, his face beet red. He’d paddle out, and guys would paddle in, they couldn’t deal with it. But he could walk on water; an amazing surfer.”
Eggers showed glimpses of wanting off the drugs, oscillating between periods of hard-core partying and brief stints of sobriety. He also went through a religious phase that saw him seek help from friends, including fellow WindanSea son Peter King. “I just found solace in some of the people and the environment at that time,” Eggers says about his involvement with the church: “I made friends there, there were a lot of good people.”
But it didn’t stick, and every time he went off the wagon things seemed to get worse. Eggers says the low point came in his late 20s, during a six-month stint that saw him smoking heroin daily, along with continued freebasing. “At one point, it was like yesterday was gone, we didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow, and all my friends and I cared about was the here and now. We went as hard as we possibly could, and we didn’t care if we lived or died.”
Eggers’ behavior, going back to when he was an amateur competitor, had always bordered on the bizarre. While some claimed it was simply a product of his hyper-competitive nature, others sensed there were deeper problems.
Although his drug and alcohol abuse was getting worse, something else was lurking deep within the Eggers psyche. His behavior became increasingly erratic, both on and off the substances. His brother Scott recalls times when they and their friends would party all night, and David would get increasingly paranoid as the night went on. In one particular episode he remembers David hiding under the bed, thinking there were helicopters coming to get him. From within their already altered states, Scott and his friends dismissed the paranoia as nothing more than a reaction to the heavy drug use.
That would change one day in the mid 90s when Jim Eggers came home to find his son lying on top of the washing machine in the garage. He had tennis shoes running in the dryer, and they were making an incredible racket. David was trying to drown out the voices that were inside his head.
Eggers was diagnosed as schizophrenic and initially spent a month in the hospital. While at first he was in denial and refused to stay on his medication, he eventually settled into a regimen that got his mental illness in check, one that he continues today. “I think if it wasn’t for the schizophrenia, David would be living in La Jolla, working some normal job, and surfing,” says his father. “The mental health issues are probably why he’s not surfing today.”
Eggers’ eventual recovery happened in stages. Getting his mental illness under control was key. As for substance abuse, first he kicked the heroin via methadone, calling it the hardest thing he’s ever done. “That’s when I truly knew what pain was,” he says. When his father moved from San Diego to the Salton Sea, Eggers began spending more time there, away from the temptations of La Jolla. The seminal moment, however, came in 2003 when his mother passed away due to alcoholism.
“We were pretty close when I was younger,” he says. “She was an enduring mom, and we put her through a lot, but she never gave up on us.” Eggers sought to honor his mother and change his life. At the same time, his father also gave him an ultimatum: Sober up and come live with him, or hit the road.
In many ways David Eggers helped pave the way for today’s child surf stars. With no clear path to follow, he went out and suffered the pitfalls and exploitation that can befall a young athlete without much support. “He was an anomaly for his age then,” says Peter Townend, who now coaches the USA Junior Surf Team. “Back then it wasn’t like it is now. In those days there was him and that was it. I was just at the NSSA westerns last weekend. You should see the under 10 division. My god! I hadn’t even thought of surfing at that age, and these kids are just unbelievable already.”
Two teenage surfers today who epitomize this phenomenon are 13-year-old Kolohe Andino and 15-year-old John John Florence, both of whom have been heavily marketed by their respective sponsors, Billabong and O’Neill since their pre-teen years. “Some of these kids are making nearly six figures already,” says Townend. “It’s crazy.”
Dino Andino, Kolohe’s father, serves double duty as both parent and Billabong employee and worries about his son. “Kolohe is a fanatic, he thinks about surfing so much,” he says. “That’s the part that concerns me, that he doesn’t have that balance. I think that’s my job, to try to create more balance. I make sure I always keep that in mind.”
Garth Tarlow, marketing director at O’Neill, claims they normally assign a chaperone to the younger surfers when traveling, and that the emphasis today is on keeping surfers amateurs until they’re age 18. In John John’s case, his mother travels with him everywhere. But Tarlow admits that there are no hard and fast rules in place to enforce any of that. “If Kolohe Andino so chose,” says Townend, one of his coaches, “he could go out today at age 13 and compete in the WQS and try to qualify for the WCT.”
Eggers lives with his father and stepmother, Barbara, at the Salton Sea, in the middle of the Sonoran desert, over 100 miles inland from San Diego. He doesn’t own a driver’s license—he never has. Instead, he rides an electric bike to his father’s bar, Capt’n Jim’s, where he works each day. While the environment might seem an odd choice for a recovering addict, he’s kept it on the straight and narrow going on four years now. It’s hard to imagine a life that could be further away from surfing, both literally and metaphorically. This is by design. “I’m over the whole surf scene,” he says solemnly. “I’ve finally grown up. It’s taken me awhile, but I’m more mature now.”
In many ways Eggers does seem more mature. Recognizing his shortcomings, speaking with humility, he deconstructs his life with a critical eye. “I disappointed a lot of people who were trying to help me,” he laments. “I got caught up in the whole Southern California party scene, and for that I’m sorry.”
Speaking with him, watching him interact with others here, it’s difficult to imagine the brash young hellion he once was. “Everybody likes him here,” says his father. “He goes and shoots pool and just hangs out with everyone.” It’s as if he’s become the sweet little kid he was never able to be—or perhaps never allowed to be. “I feel like happy little David again,” he says, “and I’m not going to screw that up.”
Occasionally, Eggers shows glimpses of his old self, speaking as though in the present. “The reefs from Big Rock to Blacks, I own them,” he says. “Nobody takes off as deep as I do at Big Rock—nobody.” Just as quickly, he catches himself. “I mean, I used to own them,” he says sheepishly. His associations with the sport are clearly still painful. “I don’t really care about surfing or if I ever do it again,” he says. “I’m just glad to be happy again.”
For the most part, Eggers is living his life one day at a time. But he does have plans for the future. His goal is to reach five years of sobriety and then “flip the script”—help others avoid what he went through. “I’ve been through an incredible amount of pain, really endured a lot,” he says emotionally, through tears. “But there is no shame or guilt anymore. My life can be used as a tool to save another. If it saves one little 13-year-old kid, then I’m happy. That’s my whole trip.”