As these things so often go, the man who doesn’t miss a trick was once the boy who couldn’t stay on a board.
“One of my neighbors when we moved into a new house, I just saw him riding a skateboard and I wanted to try it,” said 23-year-old Cody Cepeda, of Croswell. “I couldn’t keep my balance, and that motivated me to get better.
“From there, my parents got me a skateboard from Walmart on my ninth birthday. I never really thought I could make anything out of skateboarding. I loved to do it, and I wanted to get better at it.”
Cepeda has made a lot out of skateboarding, and this summer he has risen to the point of becoming one of the hottest names in the sport, thanks to a win in the Battle at the Berrics 7, Pros vs. Joes, in June. He was the first “Joe,” as the amateurs are called, to win the competition, and he not only won it, he dominated it, defeating professional skateboarder Luan Oliveira in a game of SKATE without missing a trick.
“It’s like the Super Bowl for football,” Neaver Hill, who was skateboarding Tuesday afternoon in Pine Grove Park, said to explain what Battle at the Berrics means to the world of flat-ground skating.
For Cepeda, all of his new social media followers — he’s up over 53,000 on Instagram — the adoration from fans and the invitations to skate on some hallowed ground are still surreal. He’s still technically an amateur, but it appears to be only a matter of time before he officially reaches professional status.
“I’m not a professional by traditional standards,” he said. “I don’t have my name on a skateboard … yet. I definitely want to make that happen. I would hope to turn pro more in the near future, but I still have more work to do.”
Cepeda’s journey to this point started with that skateboard on his ninth birthday. It became his passion, even if it was often being taken away by police officers.
“They’d take it away for 30 days,” said his mother, Sally Cepeda. “So we’d buy him a new one.”
Sally admits she wasn’t all that happy initially that her son had dropped all of his other athletic endeavors — soccer, baseball and basketball — as a sixth grader in order to focus solely on skating. And she admits she was nervous when he was traveling with his older friends to Port Huron to skate at Pine Grove Park.
“Most of the kids that he skated with were older than him,” she said. “He was always a tall kid, so I don’t think they thought about the fact he was like three or four years younger than them.
“It was kind of nerve-racking when his friends were getting their licenses and he was only 12.”
Croswell and Lexington might have been where Cepeda learned to skate, but it was in Port Huron that he started to take his game to the next level. Pine Grove Park was not built for skateboarders, but if you ask those who skate it daily, it might as well have been.
“We all think this is kind of like our training spot, basically,” said Hill, 18, of Port Huron. “We come here, we learn stuff and then we can take it to other spots around town, or to other spots in different cities.”
When Cepeda got his own driver’s license, the trips to Port Huron became even more frequent.
“If it was summertime, I would stay on my friends’ couches and just stay in Port Huron,” he said. “There’s not as many things to skate in Croswell. Pine Grove Park is pretty much the root of everything. That was our sanctuary to produce all the things we did.”
By that time, Cepeda was a member of a skating team called The Crew, asked to join at 15 by Eric and Marquis King. Their skating videos, which can be seen on the YouTube channel TCMIXTAPETV, gained them recognition from places well outside of Port Huron. It was at that point Cepeda started to realize a future in skateboarding was a possibility. The videos also started leading to new opportunities.
“I won a contest through the Berrics on their website in 2009, that was my senior year (at Croswell-Lexington),” Cepeda said. “That was a worldwide contest and I won that. That’s what really kicked things off.”
In between making videos, members of The Crew and other skaters in Port Huron would play SKATE, skateboarding’s version of the basketball game HORSE, and the game Cepeda dominated in the Battle at the Berrics.
A humble Cepeda said there are skaters in the area who could beat him, specifically mentioning Eric King, before admitting that nobody has “in recent years.”
“I got him to ‘A’ once,” Hill said.
“It was funny, when I was younger, I had quite a few flip tricks already,” Cepeda said. “I was one of the younger guys, and the older guys would challenge me, and it was kind of funny.”
It’s not just Port Huron skaters who can’t beat Cepeda; apparently, it’s the entire world.
His precision during the Battle at the Berrics competition not only earned him a championship, but it earned him a cult following before he had even won. Internet memes, or viral images, featuring him started popping up early in the competition, and he was featured in an article on Fittish, an offshoot of the Gawker sports website http://www.Deaspin.com.
The article, titled “The cold, dead eyes of Cody Cepeda,” was written by Jon Gugala midway through the competition. Gugala opened with the following line: “Cody Cepeda does not celebrate as he embarrasses professional skateboarders.”
One by one, skaters fell at Cepeda’s feet in the competition. First it was Trent McClung, then Shane O’Neill, Tom Asta, Sewa Kroetkova and finally Oliveira.
He went through it with a focus befitting the title of the Fittish article, as if he had a plan for the destruction, because he did.
“I’m familiar with all the pros in the contest,” he said. “I’ve been following it for six or seven years, so I tried to strategize. I did try and go about it strategically.
“I like really, truly wanted it really bad. From the whole beginning, I really did take it pretty seriously. I figured it was an opportunity that could change my situation, and I wanted to go about it with that hunger.”
In the final, Cepeda won the Rochambeau, giving him the chance to go first, and he took Oliveira all the way to E without missing a trick. When Oliveira missed a switch frontside biggerspin for the second time to get his final letter, the crowd at the Berrics, which included Cepeda’s friends and family, rushed the court, surrounding Cepeda in a moment of pure joy.
“It was just crazy; the place was just packed,” Sally Cepeda said. “It was so exciting, but nerve-racking. He doesn’t never miss, but I think he probably could have beat anybody in the world that night. He was just totally on. I don’t know if there was anybody that could have beat him.
“It just seems crazy. When he won that competition, they took our whole family into the back room, and I said, ‘You don’t understand, we came from a one-stop-light town with no skate parks or anywhere to skate.’ It’s just crazy.”
That was only the beginning of the crazy for Cepeda. He stayed out for a while after winning in California, where the competition was held. He flew back home and was part of the Lexington parade, but his stay was short-lived as he took off for Florida within a week of coming home.
He’s currently in Pennsylvania as an invited guest at Camp Woodward, a sports camp, and the people in charge have invited The Crew, as well, to film a new mixtape.
“This is like a camp where all summer long kids come for a week or two at a time, and it’s basically a skateboard playground with multiple skate parks,” Cepeda said. “Pros will come out for weeks at a time and make appearances.
“It’s definitely surreal. I’m still trying to adjust to it. It’s opened a lot of doors.”
Cepeda plans to move to the Los Angeles area, where he can further pursue a professional career in skateboarding. While his name isn’t currently on a skateboard, his profile has risen to the point where it likely could sell them.
He’s aware of that opportunity, and what it means, and of the work he still has ahead of him. Work that he’ll continue to approach with the motivation a 9-year-old once had to simply keep his balance on a board, because he knows there are plenty of kids in that position who now look at him as inspiration.
“I’m definitely aware that it’s been going on since (the Battle at the Berrics), and it feels good,” he said. “I feel it comes with responsibility, and if you’re going to lead, you have to make sure you do it in a positive way.
“A huge part of it was you have to try to get better and have the right support system. If you do that, you can achieve things.”