POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 3, 2010
He was the world champion with the blue collar and the black hat.
Andy Irons, who died yesterday at age 32, was fearless and aggressive ... on the waves, too.
We don't necessarily think of elite pro surfers as working class heroes, but that's what Irons was to legions of fans worldwide and at home in Hanalei.
To them, he was the everyday surfer's surfer. He was the one who seemed like a regular guy, but with the outrageous skill and guts to take on any wave and any other surfer, in any situation. And he had the willingness to say what he wanted to say, regardless of what competitors and sponsors might think or do.
As a surfer, he could do it all. Small waves, big waves, it didn't matter. He attacked them all. Growing up on Kauai's North Shore, he and his brother Bruce gained respect by surfing waves other kids would not. And they learned to deal with the tricky beach break at Pinetrees as well as the world-class waves that bombard Hanalei Bay every winter. That would serve them well in future years on tour.
Andy was considered a phenom by the locals even then, a kid with ridiculous natural talent and a competitive fire even veteran watermen had rarely seen.
Best known as a three-time consecutive world champion, Irons' career was also defined by comebacks. And he was in the midst of one when he died, returning to the world tour this year after taking time off in 2009.
"The saddest thing, after his wife being 7 1/2 months pregnant, is that we're not going to see what Andy was going to do next," says Daniel Ikaika Ito, who covers surfing for the Star-Advertiser and other publications. "I think he had something special coming."
It probably wouldn't have entailed blocking Kelly Slater from his 10th world title, but perhaps pushing him toward it.
It's impossible to tell Irons' story without talking about Slater, and vice versa. Their rivalry is legendary, fueled not just by their brilliance on the waves but also their difference in styles off of it.
"He was a stark contrast to Kelly Slater, the golden boy, the nice guy. Andy wasn't afraid to play the villain," Ito says.
While it made for great drama, it was by no means contrived. Irons made that clear for anyone who didn't already know in the 2003 surf documentary "Blue Horizon." That's when Irons said, "My whole driving force right now is to take his little pretty picture and just crush it."
If not for Irons, Slater probably would have remained retired from competitive surfing and continued on his merry way as the sport's biggest crossover celebrity. But their war of words and on the waves pushed each other to their best surfing.
The 2006 Pipeline Masters was a highlight of their rivalry, at least for Irons; Slater took a big lead early in the final heat, but Irons pulled it out with a 9.87 and a perfect 10 with time running out to win it.
It was the most intense personal rivalry in sports since Magic and Bird, representing Hawaii and Florida instead of L.A. and Boston, on the water instead of the hardwood.
And, like the basketball players, they eventually became friends. It was documented in last year's, "A Fly in the Champagne." They realized they were the only two people in the world who could truly know what the other had experienced.
He was wild as a young guy, and it cost him his spot on the tour his first go-round. But Irons made it back and reached the top of the world in his chosen field.
He might have had more championships to come. But his place among Hawaii's greatest all-time athletes is secure as it is.
We hope the Irons Brothers Pinetrees Classic, which has featured Kauai's best young surfers the past nine years, will continue. The contest on the waves he and Bruce surfed as keiki is a fitting legacy.