Billy Ruff was one of the best vert skateboarders of the 1980s. And he puts it down to hard work.

Billy Ruff was one of the best vert skateboarders of the 1980s. And he puts it down to hard work.

March, 1983. The cover of Thrasher Magazine depicts an eighteen-year-old Billy Ruff launching a backside air high above the lip of a bowl at SkateCity skatepark in Whittier, California. His kneepads are scuffed and his white socks pulled up high and proud. Onlookers lean on railings from which banners hang for the likes of Independent, Gullwing and Variflex. With his G&S pro model deck under his feet, Billy stares down at the landing. There is a calm smile on his face.

Inside the magazine, a young Neil Blender advertises Tracker Trucks. Glen E. Friedman looks back on the history of skateboard photography. The likes of Santa Cruz, Powell Peralta and SIMS showcase their latest products. And Billy Ruff, the polite and clued-up San Diego local is interviewed. He is asked to name some things he doesn’t like. “I don’t like people that don’t really try,” he replies. “They should keep trying and not just get stuck on one setback. If something gets in your way or you get stuck, you should leave it and come back to it.”

Billy Ruff was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 1964 and nothing in his childhood suggested he might grow up to become one of the best skateboarders in the world. His father was in the military, which meant Billy spent no more than a month in Fitchburg before the young family began moving all over the country and beyond. In 1976, at the age of twelve, Billy and his family finally settled in San Diego – an, “Overgrown surf town,” he says affectionately. It was here that Billy became infatuated with skateboarding. “I got to junior high and out of all the different cliques, the guys that skated just made me think, ‘That is cool,‘” reminisces the forty-eight-year-old from San Diego, where he still lives. “I don’t remember the date, but I remember seeing a demo somewhere and telling myself that that’s what I was going to do forever. So I got my dad to get me a board and off I went. After that, I was on a board every day.”

Billy got an annual pass to San Diego’s Oasis Skatepark and would regularly skate for the twelve hours the park was open. It was there that the then fourteen-year-old was spotted by Steve Cathey, an older skateboarder who rode for G&S. “If we didn’t move to San Diego and live where we did, which was literally less than a mile from the G&S factory, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “He pulled me aside and gave me a set of YOYO wheels. I remember thinking that if he’s giving me a set of wheels; I better skate really well to promote his product.”

Despite considering a medical career in his teens, Billy decided to focus solely on skateboarding and turned pro at the age of fifteen, riding for G&S Skateboards for the next nine years – his whole career. He regularly competed against the likes of Christian Hosoi, G&S teammate Neil Blender, Chris Miller and other legendary skateboarders. And he regularly won. At one point, Billy was ranked number one in the pool and vert category, and between 1983 and 1985, he bagged over fifteen contest wins. He also invented ‘The Unit’ – an early-grab precursor to the modern 540, which Tony Hawk later took above the coping.

From the early-to-mid-80s, Billy was also known to be a formidable force at San Diego’s legendary Del Mar Skate Ranch, which closed down in 1987. “It kind of became a Mecca for skateboarders,” he says. “That’s where everyone wanted to go. When a contest was coming up, guys would turn up from all over the world a month ahead and literally live there. In hindsight it’s surreal. If you were a skateboarder, Del Mar was Mecca, and you needed to make your pilgrimage and perhaps even move there for the rest of your life.”

Billy’s style and prowess influenced a new generation of street skaters too. “We always looked up to Billy Ruff,” said Gonz in an interview. “Ruff was smooth. We wanted to be smooth like Ruff.” By the mid-80s the new guard of shredders were stealing the show and after a cocktail of injuries Billy sidestepped into the business side of the industry as a sales rep for Airwalk. “Mark’s been a huge influence on the sport,” says Billy in retrospect. “What I remember most about him, and what still holds true today, is how much respect and attention he received from everyone I looked up to. I couldn’t figure out half the stuff he was doing, but I knew it was really hard and really cool. […] Mark always seemed like he was having a blast and thoroughly enjoying whatever he was doing. He’s a really creative guy and he made everything he did look easy. The sport needed someone like Mark to show up when he did. Things were getting a little boring and he gave it some much needed energy.”

It was an old friend, however, that made Billy realise he couldn’t keep up anymore. “It was maybe ‘85 or ’86,” he says, looking back. “Mike McGill had just got back from Sweden and there were rumours that he had a new trick. I remember standing in the mouth of the Del Mar keyhole when I saw him do the McTwist. That was the tipping point for me. I knew that I either had to skate 100 per cent of the time, or not bother. I rolled the tape forward and knew that I had to go with the business side because at the time, it had more longevity than the career of a professional skateboarder. Skate careers then weren’t what they are now.”

Today, Billy still kicks back in San Diego with his wife and two daughters. Just last year he launched Ruffcase, a mobile phone-case company with some Dogtown-inspired graphics. Through all the ups and downs, Billy navigated his career as a skate pro with total grace – an ethic that stayed with him since that first Thrasher cover. “I remember when my skating began affecting my college work, I talked to my dad for some guidance on what I should do,” he says. “I said, ‘I think I’m good at this skating thing, I think I can make a career out of it, but if I keep up college I’m just going to end up beige. I’m not going to please anyone.’ He just said, ‘OK. I don’t like it, but I’ll back you as long as you’re not lazy. You’ve got to give it every last effort.’”