I profiled Sunny Garcia twice for SURFER, and for 30-some-odd years brought his name up whenever the topic was powerful turns, or anger, or gold-standard charisma. “Sunny Garcia comes off like no other 17-year-old in surfing,” I said in 1988. "He does not have a high school diploma, a driver’s license, or a bank account. He does have presence.”
Sunny and I were friends, or close to it. I caddied for him at the Hard Rock Pro one year at Sunset in the late ’80s, and we’d have dinner when he was in town for the summer contests in California, and he was always sweet, quiet, easy to talk with. A way better sense of humor than he was ever credited for. But the other side of Sunny was awful. All the slaps and cracks and punches he handed out—that was the side I never saw, and basically tried not to think about. This could have easily gone the other way. Sunny threatened to smack me after I wrote that he’d never win a world title, and I took it seriously enough to avoid him at that year’s US Open. (He became champ in 2000 and never issued me a beatdown, so win-win.) We fell out of touch in the late ’90s, then reconnected in 2013, first on Facebook, then by phone. I did a blog post on Sunny for his 44th birthday, and wrote this:
The Westside was hard. It made Sunny hard. His parents split up when he was five. He got kicked out of school for the first time at age six. In 9th grade, a huge older kid walked into Sunny’s photography class and, while the teacher stood by too scared to do a thing, pushed Sunny up against a corner and beat the shit out him for some minor schoolyard infraction. Broken nose, two black eyes. Sunny, 15, walked out of the class and never went back to school. Surfing, he told me, was the only thing that kept him from jail. So do I wish that Sunny, today, at 44, had gotten past all that anger? I do, sure. Do I have any real understanding of what it would actually make that happen? No. Not even close. Childhood didn’t break Sunny, but it bent him, and I can’t even imagine how to unbend that shit, or if it’s even possible. Even with a world title and a big close-knit family to your advantage. My guess is that just keeping himself in check to the degree Sunny does takes some work.
After Sunny went public about his struggle with mood disorder, I assumed he’d get on top of that the way he’d gotten on top of his world title. Except there isn’t a final win against depression. To one degree or another, you are always in negotiation, always throwing countermoves, and at times it just wears you down. And if you’re worn down far enough, and long enough, killing yourself goes from a distant and rejected notion to the planning stages. I don’t know much more than about what happened last week with Sunny in Portland beyond what I’ve read online, same as all of you. But he’s been in ICU now for nearly a week.
Because I don’t pray, and because my thoughts about Sunny’s future, if he has a future, are gloomy, I avoided thinking about the whole thing, and simply kept my hands busy making a video clip of him. My way of lighting a small candle. I hope Sunny comes through and proves me wrong, the way he did in 2000.
Mike Doyle died last week at age 78. That was coming for a while, and Sunny’s deal has monopolized my grief, so I’m only going to say that Doyle was in many respects the ideal surfer; the model to which all surfers should aspire. The wave-riding, of course, but even more so the open-mindedness, the passion, the dirty jokes. Surfers in the late ’50s and ’60s wanted to surf like Miki, or Strauch, or Nat (except Nat wanted to surf like Mike), but Doyle is the one you’d want to split a six-pack with or have sitting shotgun on a long drive. The last time I spoke with Mike was just a few weeks after the last time I spoke with Sunny.
Finally, just to pile on, surf photographer and photo editor Lee Pegus died last week as well, of lung cancer. Lee was involved with most of the Aussie surf mags at one point or another during his decades-long career and was appreciated, even treasured, by those we worked with for his enthusiasm, his humor, and his bottomless decency. One of the nicest guys in the game.
What a shitty week. No two ways about it.
Best to all of you, stay well, and thanks for reading.
[Photos: John Severson, LeRoy Grannis, Jeff Divine]