Rodney Rids His Body Of Scar Tissue
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Almost round 3 premiered in London in 2002. Rodney Mullen sat with Ryan Sheckler and his teammates, watching his footage and harboring a hard, dark secret: Skateboarding was over for him, yet again. Halfway through filming, Mullen’s right leg—his ollie leg—began to work improperly. First it was aches and cramping, followed by full-time seizure and near-constant pain. Rolling out of falls became difficult, and he found it hard to sleep through the night. Due to temperature change he couldn’t sit in the window seat of the plane while the team flew from the United States to Australia to Europe to promote the video.
From Tony Hawk’s sports medicine doctor and the man’s brother, an East Coast radiologist, Mullen learned that years of skating, specifically years of his back foot slipping off the tail, had built up scar tissue that over the decades had wound through his right leg and was now pulling his femur into his pelvis. He started feeling a grinding sensation every time he stepped out of his car. Doctors explained that the ceaseless grinding was due to his bones producing calcium, and that as the condition worsened, the head of his femur would be ground off completely, and the bone would eventually fuse to his pelvis. This would shorten his right leg; he would walk with a cane. Doctors said the unremovable scar tissue resembled that of frontend- collision victims whose legs had been driven back up into their hips.
“I couldn’t tell anyone because I knew this was it,” Rodney remembers. “And my skating, very much like we talked about with Ryan, it defined who I was, and it’s pretty scary—even being as old as I am—I mean I’m a grown man, and I shouldn’t have to rely on my skateboard like it’s Linus’s blanket, carrying it around for security. But that’s all I’ve ever known. And that’s been me so long—to take that away … there’s a lot of unknown in that.”
Mullen knew he couldn’t top what he’d done in Round 3 to his satisfaction, and he could never be “that ugly old guy people feel sorry for because he’s holding on to a dream. So let it go. Just be a man and let it go and disappear. Essentially that’s what I tried to do.”
Mullen told his sponsors and coworkers he was going to take some time off, but soon found himself stretching and “prying myself apart,” trying to rid his leg of the binding tissue he could feel inside of it. “You get a sense of what’s foreign in you, holding you. And you know it’s in your muscles—and when you’re stretching it that far, you do sense that foreign thing.” Mullen wrapped himself around fire hydrants so their stems would dig into his tissue. He twisted his leg into the wheel well of his car, and used screwdrivers or knobs atop chain-link fence poles to apply pressure to the scar tissue before he’d stretch against a shelf or shopping rack. It was the chemotherapeutic idea of destroying a little of the person and a lot of the toxin. Little by little, he began to remove the scar tissue.
“It tears out like chewing gum that’s kinda old, dry, and it’ll stretch and stretch and stretch and that’s when you’re just giving up—and then [there’s] a ‘pop.’ If you’ve ever broken bones you get a heat sensation, then a little nausea, then you get this crazy high.” Every time he tore out a piece of scar tissue, Mullen says he would find himself a bit more free. He went on for three years, pressurizing, stretching, tearing, then trying out his balance on his board. Sessions were always at night and lasted up to six or eight hours. The process improved his flexibility but also freed his leg of scar tissue, which Mullen refers to as “material.” As the material was flushed from his body, he would wake up sick and dehydrated with chapped lips. He urinated frequently, and it always smelled terrible.
His flexibility was improving, but he says his hip still felt like a stick shift instead of a ball and socket. A turning point came one night in the valley around 1 a.m. Mullen was under his car with his leg in the wheel well, twisting so hard that he was up off the ground, “bouncing,” he says, on a specific area of pain in his hip. “You have to get to that stage where you don’t care. And that’s when you make it. And guys like Ryan and Jamie Thomas and Jeremy Wray and Bryan Herman, they’re all ninjas at that stuff.”
Suddenly Mullen heard a loud POP. “It was like when I broke my ankle,” he remembers. “Like a tree branch. And my body hit the ground—not all of it, because I’m stuck in the wheel well, but the rest of it. And I looked up, and there was snot and tears on my hand. And I got that crazy high and I pulled myself out the best I could, lying on the ground going, ‘God, what’d I do, what’d I do, what’d I do,’ and I got up. The pain goes away in twenty to forty seconds because you’re numb. So I get up slowly, and for the first time in four years, three years, I felt it move like a ball and socket.” He’d broken the bit of calcium that had formed between his pelvis and femur, which was keeping the two from moving like a ball and socket. “I got on my skateboard and was like ‘I did it! I did it! I did it!’ I went home, slept for fourteen hours. I vomited. And at that stage, I kept going.”
Mullen tore out the remaining scar tissue, and by 2007 was skating at his “normal level” again. But by then he’d lost interest in adding to the dizzying, unique lines exhibited in Round 3. Flipping a different way out of a primo slide (when the board’s sideways and the rider’s on the wheels), he said, was just diminishing returns. “Polishing a turd.” But the past three years had given him a revelation: So much scar tissue had grown in his right leg because of the asymmetrical nature of the sport. His stance is regular, and so he was disproportionately using his right leg, where the injury occurred.
Now that he’d undone the nature of his stance and was starting clean, he planned to approach skateboarding not with a new stance, but with no stance at all. “We’re flesh and bone, and the flesh wraps around your bones like a thick wetsuit,” he explained. “And if I can rotate or change the way my flesh is around the bones by manhandling it—again, I’m not a tough guy, but I’ve got my pain threshold—then I can change my stance.”
Mullen began only skating switch, goofy-footed, doing hundreds of thousands of switch tic-tacs, and he says, forming two right legs. After the plateau there was, again, a spike, and Mullen found himself doing things in his switch stance he could never do regular, “because my center was at a new place.” CW
Reprinted from The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Scheckler, and the Fantastic History of Skateboarding ©2011 by Cole Louison. Published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, CT.