I first encountered Rabbit in the pages of Surfer in 1978. Clad in an Everlast robe, clenched fists pumped triumphantly overhead, he looked fierce and kingly. And he was. That year he won the world title.
In 1982, when the Op Pro came to Huntington Beach in California, Rabbit’s sponsor, Quiksilver, arranged for him to stay with a local team rider, Bobby Knickerbocker, a sixteen-year-old kid who lived with his single mother in an oceanfront home in Newport Beach. Bobby did what good friends do in moments like these: he called my brother and me and told us to get our arses over there immediately. ‘Just don’t tell anyone Rabbit’s staying here,’ he made us promise. In our little world, Rabbit may as well have been Michael Jackson.
My brother and I stayed for a week. I had no memorable conversations with Rabbit—I was reduced to stutters in his presence—but I observed him closely. His diet consisted primarily of what today we call ‘super foods’: brewer’s yeast, bee pollen, soy milk, sprouts, avocado. When he wasn’t surfing he locked himself away in his room, as if preserving his energy. But when he slipped into his blue, red and white Rip Curl spring suit and made his way to the water, the showman came out. He didn’t walk across the hot sand he trotted, as if being chased by a swarm of screaming groupies. In the water he sprint-paddled and caught four times as many waves as anyone else. He surfed as if he were in the finals of the Op Pro. You could almost see him picturing his fellow surfers as opponents, the wooden lifeguard tower as a grandstand.
Rabbit was never my favourite surfer. He was unbelievably good, but his style didn’t caress me in the gut the way others did. But his charisma and flamboyance shaped the way I thought about pro surfing. In the 1977 surf movie Free Ride he hops from one pinball machine to another, playing both at once with cool and command (this is how he earned his nickname). In the playground of a Coolangatta park he rides a swing-set as if it’s a surfboard, cross-stepping, ducking, weaving, crouching low into an imaginary barrel with a face full of stoke. Rabbit was a spur. He made me want to drop to the popcorn-scattered floor and knock out 200 push-ups right then and there.