Gone Too Soon: How CJ Tambornino's OD May Be a Window into Larger Issue

Cole LouisonContributor ISeptember 28, 2017

Image via Bleacher Report

Occasionally, a skateboarding genius or two could land something like an ollie inward 360 heelflip, but not off the drops (“hucking”) or high hips that Christopher “CJ” Tambornino favored. And never with the same hard grace as the red-bearded kid from the Twin Cities, a kid whose bright sneakers, big smile and lax posture seemed in tune with the pride and pleasure he and his audience felt as he rolled away, once again, from the impossible.

His unseen melding of tech chops, creativity and raw power was mesmerizing. His tricks were beautiful and often had a perplexing wait-a-second impact. Most people needed repeated and many-paused viewings just to start figuring out WTF they were even looking at.

“He had a wildness to his skating that somehow didn’t go with how technical his tricks were,”  Rodney Mullen tells Bleacher Report. One of sport’s founding fathers, Mullen invented the flat-ground ollie, kickflip and numerous other fundamentals. “The combination is what made him so special, along with how genuinely hard his tricks were.”

But this special skater, like so many young men—even young athletes—reached a common end.

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Early one morning this summer, CJ’s father, John Tambornino, reportedly found him unresponsive on the sofa at the home they shared in Minneapolis. John called paramedics and the police at 5:32 a.m., and CJ was pronounced dead on arrival.

Two months later, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office in Minneapolis ruled his death an overdose of prescription drugs. Tambornino’s death certificate lists the manner of death as an accident and the cause as “mixed tramadol, alprazolam, and methadone toxicity.”

An opioid OD.

The crisis sweeping the U.S., from West Virginia to Florida to Washington, is, too, in the skateparks of Minnesota.

It’s unclear if Tambornino had a prescription for any or all of these drugs. Tramadol and methadone are both opioid narcotics (painkillers). Alprazolam is a benzodiazepine (sedative) often used to treat anxiety. The Minneapolis Police Department and the medical examiner’s office declined further comment.

Deaths from opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, and more than half involve prescription drugs, according to the most recent full-year data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The highest death rate is among people ages 25-54.

CJ was 30.

He was born in Minneapolis on January 10, 1987, and started skating around age seven. It’s unclear when he got really good, or when his skating became his skating—a style all its own, with no-complies and flip tricks executed in and out of already hard stuff done at gritty street spots. Here came together the power and technical chops of guys like Mike Vallely, Stevie Williams and Lewis Marnell with the balletic creativity of skaters like Richie Jackson and Chris Haslam.

One early sectional clip features a crew-cutted redhead, rolling up, into and then away from an apparent no-comply into a one-footed bluntslide. A waterfall of comments followed the clip:

Well that was f--ked . . .

Is he from the future . . .

Who is that guy?

That guy was 21 in 2008, when an independent video called Boondoggle featured a full part of Tambornino ripping in the way only he could and introduced the world to a new young talent. More videos followed, and sponsors came calling. Soon he was riding for institutions like The Hundreds and Team Nike, with tech gurus like P-Rod and Marnell.

By then his skating had also caught the eye of Mullen, who invented the flat-ground ollie, kickflip, 360 flip and virtually every staple in the modern skateboarding arsenal. In 2003, he founded Almost Skateboards, whose small team of riders are the sport’s Navy SEALs. Soon, Tambornino was one of them.

“Over nearly 30 years, there are only a handful of skaters whose sponsor-me videos were so powerful that I called them personally,” Mullen says. “CJ was one of them.”

He was proving himself to be both a powerful tech skater and a creative force. A rare hybrid, his skating was growing harder, higher and faster, and all the while edging its way up to a level no one else could touch.

Then came 5-Incher. In 2012, Almost Skateboards dropped its first video in nearly 10 years. Not since 1992’s Questionable had a collection been so ahead of its time. And like that video, 5-Incher featured a level of skating so advanced that even people in the know seemed to have missed it. But for 34 minutes, those who didn’t saw the future of skateboarding.

One of those minutes belonged to Tambornino. His high-tech street lines set viewers up, but it was the flip tricks that knocked them down. To watch him skate was to rethink what was possible. Posters went wild. A video of highlights with extra tricks surfaced, along with a Facebook group dedicated to those 16 seconds. Debate went back and forth as to what the six maneuvers even were:

Nollie shuv-it 180 hardflip??? wrote one poster.

Fakie BS triple kickflip 360 (Cab Triple Kickflip only on Fakie), said another.

I’d say Nollie Cab, wrote another. But according to the Berrics there’s no such thing.

For the Berrics, the world’s most popular skate website, Tambornino filmed a tutorial for a nollie 360 inward heelflip. In skateboarding, it’s a maneuver comparable to the laser flip circa 1990; rumors aside, no one thought it really existed. And yet here it was, over and over, made to look maddeningly natural by the one kid who could do it, then do it again.

“Some of [his tricks] were years ahead of their time, which are now becoming part of the arsenals of top guys. He was that far ahead,” Mullen says.

In 2014, Tambornino was invited to participate in the Battle at the Berrics (BATB), the most famous competition in skateboarding, at the Berrics’ indoor park in downtown L.A., where skaters face off in the sport’s version of H.O.R.S.E. Past winners include P-Rod and East Coast wizard PJ Ladd.

There, Tambornino pulled ahead of Deathwish pro Moose, then lost on a fakie bigflip.

Almost Skateboards celebrated their 10-year anniversary at the Berrics. Tambornino showed up again, flowing the park with teammates Daewon Song, the newly pro Youness Amrani and Chris Haslam, the greatest all-around skateboarder in the world.

But soon after, his bright new star began to fade. Something started to feel different. Casual skating clips surfaced on his Instagram account, but over the last three years, at an age when so many skaters begin to peak, no full or even partial videos came to light.

One of his later Instagram posts featured three boxes of new sneakers—black Janoskis by Nike SB.

I like the dunks for the impact support, he wrote, responding to a poster. I just haven’t been huckin lately lol

Four weeks before he died, Tambornino sent an email to Mullen, titled “I’m sorry.”

It read:

I tried so hard. I fell of[f] a 30ft bridge and I'm finally at 85 percent. I just want to film s--t I have been thinking about 90% of my time. I don't need anything except a few decks to tide me over for summer.. I miss you guy! I get min wage 10 bucks a hour then taxes taken out. Do you have a shop or farm I can work on fields and just bac back on skating. I fell of[f].


Sent from my iPhone

Those who know what happened aren’t saying. In a single anonymous post on Reddit, someone claiming to be his cousin says Tambornino was in a car accident on June 23, but neither of Tambornino’s parents mentioned this when they talked to local press. Neither returned calls from Bleacher Report.

On June 24, John Tambornino found his son at home, dead.

Whether Tambornino's death was a freak accident or the product of an ongoing abuse issue we don't know for sure, but skateboarding as a sport is no stranger to loss and disaster. Steve-O, Guy Mariano, Andrew Reynolds and Pastor Christian Hosoi all suffered and emerged from the depths of abuse.

Some are still trying, like Antwuan Dixon and Mike Plumb (aka Lizard King), who marked two years in August.

Some just keep going, hauling the weight.

And then there are Jay Adams, Ben Pappas and Harold Hunter on the roster of talented skaters who never made it out from under those clouds.

“Of all skaters I wanted to see thrive, CJ was one of the most deserving of them all,” Mullen says. “He had a rare gift in his skating, and a rare goodness to him, that spilled into his skating, which is part of what made it so unique, so special and unmistakably true.

“He had everything it took in terms of talent—more, actually— to achieve his dreams. Or perhaps ‘our’ dreams, as skaters: to be with the guys we respect most, to travel, to not have to worry about money, and to get paid to thrive in what we love. Somehow, it remained just outside, as it does for so many.”