Have you ever spoken to God? Brian Sumner claims that early in his life he had a run-in with the big man after a hard slam, via God’s rumored son, Jesus. At the time, he didn’t realize that the experience would shape his worldview, but somewhere down the line God and Jesus spoke to Brian once more and he was born again.
By the time Brian was reborn he had already dropped one of the most memorable shoes on Adio, lived in the infamous Warner Ave. apartment, and had footage in iconic videos like The End and Baker Bootleg.
Today, Brian is a successful pastor, podcast host, and family man who ended his pursuit of a full-blown skate career to be a minister.
You may not agree with Brian—I certainly didn’t while talking to him—but I think there is some importance in us breaking out of our own ideological bubble and hearing different opinions, especially from another skateboarder. My mind has not been changed on religion, but I appreciate Brian’s willingness to talk through the polarizing topics that many in his shoes would just avoid.
Back in the day how did you get in with the Baker / Piss Drunx crew?
Funny you ask, I’m driving past Warner Avenue [birthplace of Baker & Piss Drunx] right now.
So I’m born in Liverpool, just like Geoff Rowley. I came over to America around 1992 to stay with Geoff, Tom Penny, and the Flip guys. I had an Airwalk ad come out in a magazine, switch 180 5-0 a 10 stair rail. Jeremy Klein was like, “Is this that kid Brian?” So Birdhouse called me, “Come to America, we’re going to get an apartment for a bunch of the riders.”
Was that while you were working on The End?
Yeah, so now we’ve filmed The End and they brought on artist and videographer Jay Strickland. He started working on graphics, messing with graffiti, drawing little Baker ideas. This is when we moved to Warner Ave.
The apartment was me, Andrew Reynolds, Jay Strickland, Jim Greco. Then Dustin Dollin was riding for Stereo and Erik Ellington was riding for Zero. We were all rail and stair skaters, so we connected.
I was never the big drinker of the group but we would all party and barbeque and hang out. There were always five to ten of us going skating so we just created this community. For like four or five years, we all hung out and it was just a beautiful thing. Brad Hayes, Ed Templeton, Geoff, Tom Penny, and all the Warner Crew. That’s kind of a golden era for us.
At the time did you guys know you were in a golden era?
No, because we were just these ams who were following in the footsteps of all these pros like Chad Muska, who was blowing up, Tom Penny was the golden child, Geoff Rowley, Jamie Thomas were huge.
Warner Ave. wouldn’t have been as iconic if Baker didn’t come out of that. It would’ve just been a flash in a pan and no one would’ve said, “This was iconic.” You had four or five amazing videos where there are Baker and Shake Junt dudes from Warner Ave. We didn’t know, but we loved it and we loved one another.
There was a rumor about you hitting your head and seeing God. Is that true?
It’s not a rumor, I lived it [laughs]. I was 15 living in England and it was before I was even sponsored. I had never read a Bible, I never went to church, and at that time I put God in the same category as Bigfoot, UFOs, and the Spaghetti Monster.
We were skating a handrail and I was doing a bunch of throw-on boardslides. I fell and hit between my legs and flipped over the rail, hit my head, and sat up. Nobody knew I’d been knocked out and I started throwing up. Afterward, I kept repeating the same three things – I had an encounter with God, I’m going to ride for Airwalk, I’m going to move to America.
I was barely in any place where I was getting boards and I didn’t know I could even go to America yet. So for two weeks, I tried to read the Bible and I kept talking about Jesus. This feeling was so surreal to me but it changed the way I viewed life. At the time, I couldn’t make sense of the Bible so I stopped thinking about the Bible until I was 24.
I had an interview in Thrasher, and someone asked me what I thought about God. I told them about this experience and my encounter with God. Then, Josh Harmony told me, “Brian, I read that and I was praying for you.” People like Lance Mountain and Ray Barbee told me they read it and were like, “Lord save this guy!”
What people don’t realize is that between 15 and 24, I married my wife, we had a kid, were together for two years, and then we got divorced. I was depressed and angry. I mean, if I lived in a place like Texas or something, I probably would’ve killed myself.
Then, I came to faith, my wife and I got remarried, our son is now 21, we had two more children, and I’m going into my house we bought back then. I know we’re jumping way ahead, but to me, that’s what changed my life.
When you first started talking openly about religion in skating, what was the reaction from industry people, your friends, and sponsors?
By then, most of these people were close to me and they cared about me. There are people who are opportunists, who view the world more through a business lens, which is not how you want to view someone, but my boards were selling. I sold more boards than ever with faith-based boards. My shoe on Adio was killing it. When I rode for Analog, I was on a reality show that would get 100 million views all over the Christian world.
Were you let go by your sponsors or did you leave them?
I quit Birdhouse because I wanted to go do ministry, travel, share my faith and teach people. Then I left Adio because the brand was getting sold and I told them that I didn’t want to sign the new contract they offered. I was just in a different place with skating and my faith. I don’t think there was a strong aversion to me, but it was like, “Brian is a serious man, he’s doing bible studies. He’s more serious about that than skating.”
Trolls online weren’t as accepting though, right?
When you talk about trolls, that means nothing to me. Those are keyboard warriors. I’m a 43-year-old man. Guys could get in my face today but until you swing on me, it doesn’t even matter. I’ve fallen down 15 stair handrails, I’ve been in fights, I’ve almost died. I don’t care about some dude online who worships John Cardiel having a problem with me because of faith.
And here’s the other thing: when I came to faith, I sat and talked with Cardiel. I sat with Phelps and had amazing conversations. I witnessed all of these people—we could do a five-hour interview about all of the times I’ve gotten to sit with skaters and talk to them about what they believe. And you know what’s sad? There are skaters who believe exactly what I believe but they’re afraid to say it. That’s scary to me.
“I don’t care about some dude online who worships John Cardiel having a problem with me because of faith.”
How many other skaters, pro and industry people, are religious like yourself?
If I told you the number of skaters in my phone who I get messages from, you’d be shocked. That’s not to throw rocks at them by any means. There is also a healthy group of about 50 very consistent pro skaters who are outgoing believers. There are hundreds within the industry.
Do you know what else is funny? When someone dies, all of these people who make fun of religion and who believe that we evolved from apes and believe that nothing really matters, say, “Oh they’re in heaven.” Are they? Or, “Rest in peace.” Where are they resting? Some people just say these things and don’t think about it or plan this out.
Are you a skeptic of evolution?
Do you believe in evolution? Have you read Darwin’s The Origin of Species?
Yes and no.
But you believe that for millions of years we evolved?
Yes. I don’t believe that we were just created by a God. But I’m not a scientist or theologian, which is why I’m asking you.
So you have a belief in something that some book told you, but you might disbelieve the Bible because you’re skeptical about who wrote it or whatever? What is the missing link there? That’s called faith.
Lucy the Gorilla, it was the jawbone of a boar. The Neanderthal man… research that. If you believe in evolution, you have to be able to show me that some species ever became another species. I read Darwin’s Origins of Species and he said, “In 50 years, evolution will be proven.” Most scientists don’t believe Darwin anymore, and they don’t have a scientific theory. It’s constantly changing.
I believe that we’re made in God’s image. You are Homo sapien. Your dog is a canine. Your cat feline. You will never find any evidence that a canine became a feline or vice versa. You’ll only ever have variations like in the Galapagos.
I personally know leading professors at Harvard and Princeton—very serious people with millions of dollars—who can’t teach creation because they’ll lose their seats. So for me, I believe what the Bible teaches us is that God created us and put us on the Earth.
You believe that there is a missing link somewhere in some book and that we evolved from this or that. If that’s the case it really doesn’t matter that you care about this article, or Warner Ave. because you’re just roadkill that started skating. The roadkill in front of my house, that’s you and me.
Here’s the thing, tomorrow I’ll wake up and hop on a Zoom call with Lance Mountain, Ray Barbee, Richard Mulder, Josh Harmony, Jamie Thomas, Donny Barley, and probably 30 different pros and they’re all believers. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday these guys get on there and they believe and confess the Bible. They believe that they’re created in God’s image. They believe what I believe.
I want to switch it up and talk about your shoe with Adio. What hand did you have in designing that?
So, basically, I worked with Jose Gomez, the head designer at Adio, and Chris Miller. I had one or two shoes that were sleek and simple, all black, which I liked. Then when we were doing the basic outline for the new shoe, Chris Miller said, “What if I put a flag on it?” And I think we released a black one, a white one, and a red one, which I thought was absolutely crazy.
Suddenly that shoe was everywhere. That was one of the top-selling shoes on Adio. I actually have a load of pairs in my garage that I’m going to put on eBay to make some room. That shoe is probably the most famous thing about my career [laughs]. It’s a standard skate shoe though. Don’t get me wrong Jose, Chris and I put a lot of work into the design, but it’s like a buffed-up Dunk or éS. It was standard for then, but if you look today it’s huge.
“That shoe is probably the most famous thing about my career [laughs]”
How much money were you making at your peak in skating?
I don’t remember the exact amount, but I can break it down. When I was riding for Birdhouse if you were one of the pros, you might have a minimum of $2,000 or $3,000 guaranteed. Then your board sales would have to meet that amount or go beyond for royalties. Most of the time it wouldn’t go beyond that.
On Adio, someone could be getting $2,000 to $5,000 a month, so that’s like $60,000 from those two sponsors. You also have your shoe royalties, and that could be like $120,000 a year. I was making somewhere near $5,000 to $7,000 from Analog, so that’s like $10,000 to $15,000 a month.
Then you have Tech Decks, trucks, photo incentives… I mean sometimes you could make $100,000-$300,000 a year. I’m standing in front of the house I bought back then and I’ve lived here for 20 years. I put money aside, and I made great money for a lot of those years.
Do you have any tips for any younger skaters now who are making money?
For the young skaters, you’re compromising your body and you’re compromising your career because you’re not going to school for something else. This is the money you’re going to make for right now so just be smart with it. There are loads of businesspeople in the skate industry today. Go sit with Richard Mulder or Mikey Taylor, or even people in the brands. Start putting money away. A nice car over a house makes no sense to me.
Do you think skaters have become more or less religious during the pandemic?
I think there are a lot of exciting and wild things happening in the world. So as a 30-year-old you start to think, “Huh, life’s a little crazy.” Generally, as you get older you get more conservative, you have a family and kids, you open your eyes.
I think in the pandemic people went, “This is how fragile life really is.” Yeah, it is. Skating is a piece of wood that we just enjoyed, but now people are seeing things they know and love falling apart. Death is the only thing that is 100%. The pandemic brought us to that place where people begin to ask and read and look and I think a lot of people responded.
What would you say to the skaters who aren’t religious?
As a Christian, I am put here to be loving to my neighbor, but that doesn’t always mean to be affirming to everything they believe either. I would say to skaters, Christians or not, everyone should be getting along. People are going to hate you for different stupid reasons, but people shouldn’t be divided over the faith.
When I was suicidal and dead in my sin, I would’ve needed Christians to come along and encourage me or I might not be here. For skaters, I hope they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus and where you one day tell me, “Brian, I get it.”
“Death is the only thing that is 100%.”
As a minister, what would you say to a gay skateboarder?
I grew up in Liverpool. It’s an eclectic city. I had a lot of gay friends and a lot of whatever is going on today. Trans this, binary that, all these sayings… it’s hyper-politicized in America. But as a Christian, their lives should be better because I’m in it, but God tells us all of us are going to die one day. No one dies of old age, we die because of sin. Have you ever told a lie?
All the time.
So you’re a liar. You’re human like me. We’ve committed a sin. So what I would tell someone is that all of us need to be forgiven for our sins whether that’s the most religious holy thinking person or a person who hates everyone’s guts. We all need to be reborn. I needed to be forgiven.
I might be hated because of what God’s word says, but God is God, I’m not. At the end of the day I’m not going to stand before you, or skateboarders, I’m going to stand before God and he’s the one who gave us his word.
So is it cool that they’re gay or not?
To answer your question, a Christian is someone who wants to follow Jesus and follow what he says. It’s someone who views Jesus as a rabbi, not someone who just does whatever they want. So it’s a controversial issue, but Christians get persecuted for this belief. Muslims and other religions don’t.
If the God of the Bible made all of us and we have a sinful nature, do we want to have lived our own way or not? We’re born in this world in a fallen nature and God says you need to be born again. So for you, you might have multiple relationships with men and that’s your choice but God’s Word is God’s Word.
Are you ever afraid of being “canceled” for your strong beliefs?
No. It should be like this: If someone says “Oh, Brian said this about this.” I would hope people close enough could call me to understand what I actually meant. And that’s the same for you. I want to be able to call you if someone tells me something that you did or said. We have our pedigree.
At the end of the day, we have to be respectful of each other. People always think they have conviction over what is right and wrong over shaming people for what they don’t agree with. I’m never going to shame someone, I’m going to listen and then tell them here’s what I stand by and how I live my life. I’m going to respect you as you respect me.
How do you feel about skating spots at churches?
First of all, before I was a believer, I was skating everywhere. I remember getting tickets with the Flip guys, always going to court, police were always driving me crazy, I was paying hundreds in tickets. Eventually, if the sign said, “No skating” I wasn’t going to jump the fence to skate.
Now, when I see a video or clips of someone from a church kicking skaters out and cursing it literally makes me cringe. There’s a church here in Long Beach and they have the best red curbs, and I remember sitting with one of the church leaders and I said, “Let the kids skate here, let them paint the curbs, and just go out and hang out with them.” How many skaters just need somewhere to skate? If they’re not breaking stuff and vandalizing then let them skate.
I’m not jumping down any stairs anymore, but if I was going to skate a spot at a church I would go into the office and just ask someone. There are some respectful skaters who want to skate, but there are others who are going to smash windows or run into cars, and if you’re going to do that be ready to get a ticket. If it was my window or my daughter’s car I would want you to get dealt with. Just be respectful. I think that’s the same for everything in this interview – be respectful.
“I think that’s the same for everything in this interview – be respectful.”
What would’ve happened if you had never came to America?
I honestly believe If I had just been raised in Liverpool, and didn’t ever find skating, I would probably be in jail like most of my friends prior to skateboarding; very passive-aggressive, crazy temper. Liverpool is violent, it’s crazy.
Would I have remarried my wife? No. Would I have wanted more kids? No. Would I have gone after business and wealth and a need for that satisfaction every day? Yeah, probably.