71-year-old rolls into golden years on a skateboard

Ron Cofall, 71, of Hilton Head Island, works on a skateboarding move Thursday at Crossings Park on Hilton Head.
Ron Cofall, 71, of Hilton Head Island, works on a skateboarding move Thursday at Crossings Park on Hilton Head. Jay Karr/The Island Packet

Ron Cofall first came to the Bristol Skate Park about a year ago with his grandson, Hunter. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the 71-year-old hopped on a borrowed board and started to roll. About 10 feet later, he was flat on his back. But in that moment, something took hold inside him. He watched the kids around him, most of them far from their golden years, and thought to himself, "I can do this."

As 6-year-old Hunter has progressed as a skateboarder, so has his grandfather. The Hilton Head Island resident comes about five days a week to the skate park, takes his board to the quarterpipes that are about as tall as him and drops in.

"Everybody thinks I'm nuts," said Cofall, a retired timeshare salesman. "But when I want to do something, I got to do it. I just can't sit and watch."

To everyone else, he might be crazy. To him, it makes perfect sense. He's always had an appetite for the extreme. He got into motocross in his 40s. He became a competitive windsurfer in his 50s. A skateboarder in his 70s? That's not so unusual.

Cofall came one recent afternoon to the park wearing cargo shorts and a black T-shirt advertising local skate shop, Fuel. He wore a helmet and pads for his wrists, elbows, knees and thighs, protecting just about everything that's worth protecting. If he's crazy, he's a sensible type of crazy.

He tells the novices he meets at the park the best pads to buy and the best place to get a board. Cofall has a $150 Kenny Anderson skateboard from Fuel, a good investment, he says, because those $50 boards from Walmart just don't hold up.

It took him a few months to get the feel of the board. Now he glides up and down ramps with balance and ease. He hops from ramp to ramp with the energy of a 16-year-old. He's good at dropping in, where the skater balances on the edge of a steep ramp then skates down it. He can't do an ollie, the trick where a boarder vaults himself into the air on his board, and -- with his dexterity, he says -- he probably never will. There are limits to what a 71-year-old can do, after all.

He's learned from his mistakes, the only catch being his mistakes happen with a hard fall on the concrete. He's broken his wrist, knocked his head so hard it damaged a retina, hurt his neck to the point he needed a brace, and done other damage that has required overnight stays in a hospital.

Getting hurt isn't a deterrent. It's just an impediment to doing what he wants. He's had spills in motocross and wipeouts windsurfing. It hasn't stopped him before. So this comes as no surprise to his family.

"We do worry about him getting hurt," said his daughter-in-law, Jackie. "But he doesn't want to quit. And we respect that."

He now skateboards in the morning most days. He knows some of the kids by name, complimenting tricks and occasionally telling them to watch the language. He gives lessons to the tourists who bring their children.

Once, an old man stopped to watch the fellow senior grind. Ron gave him a lesson, taking his hands as he guided him on the board across the concrete. He's willing to pass on his knowledge. He doesn't turn down anyone who asks for help.

Cofall and his grandson frequently team up at the skate park. They make an unlikely pair -- the senior citizen and the elementary schooler, each decked out in head-to-toe padding -- among the floppy-haired teenagers in baggy pants. Like his grandpa, Hunter has no fear on his board. He easily drops in off the six-foot quarter pipe. That's no surprise to his mother.

On her cellphone, Jackie has a photo of her son on the motocross track. Behind him is her husband, Hunter's father, Ron Jr. And behind Ron Jr. is Ron Sr.

Like father, like son, like grandson.

On one afternoon, Hunter met his grandfather on the top of one of the ramps. Hunter had figured out a new secret handshake. This one involved touching the ends of the boards together. It took a second, but Cofall figured it out. They bumped the ends of their boards, a bond born between generations.