SANTA CRUZ — Some people get God. Bud Freitas got a head injury.
On the evening of the Fourth of July, Freitas was flying down the hill on a rusty old cruiser bike on East Cliff Drive near 26th Avenue, not far from his home in Pleasure Point, when someone stepped out in front of him in the darkness. He crashed into the pedestrian and went flying.
His head hit the pavement hard. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Freitas, 21, was one of Santa Cruz’s brightest up-and-coming pro surfers, a kid with the raw talent to make it far. He was known as a fierce competitor in contests, but also the guy who cheerfully and mercilessly heckled his buddies while freesurfing at Pleasure Point. He once was an NSSA Western champion. With sponsors on board, photos in the magazines and many of the right connections already made, Freitas’s pro surfing career was just beginning.
After the accident, Freitas’s doctors said he couldn’t surf for a year.
Wake up and party
On the Fourth, Freitas was partying all day, the traditional mode of celebration in the time-warp surf grotto of Pleasure Point. He was drinking “everything,” he says. After dark, while countless illegal home fireworks shows screeched into the night and turned the beach neighborhoods into a smoke-filled war zone, he got on a bike to roll through the streets with his friends.
He was so drunk, he doesn’t remember any of it, doesn’t remember most of the day, for that matter.
The pedestrian he hit walked away OK, according to his friends. He hasn’t been able to find out who it was.
“I feel pretty bad,” he says.
But though the accident and the head trauma it caused plunged Freitas into dark weeks where he couldn’t walk, couldn’t remember the names of his friends and was sleeping through most days, he says it’s the best thing that could have happened to him.
“It’s definitely the biggest wakeup call I’ve ever had,” he says.
Before the accident, he was having a blast, drinking a lot, smoking and hanging out with all his pals. He wasn’t applying himself much to his surfing career, and, in his words, he was “not the nicest person in the water.”
The accident, and his subsequent recovery, have given Freitas new direction. He’s dedicated to making the World Championship Tour — something only two local surfers have accomplished — and being the best surfer to come out of Santa Cruz. And with a newfound wisdom, he’s put the incident into a broader context of revelation and second chance.
“Some people need it,” says Freitas. “I needed it.”
“We got woke up in the middle of the night by the police, who told us Bud was on the way to hospital,” says John Freitas, Bud’s father, who raised Bud and his sisters, Katelyn, 16, and Evelyn, 24, as a single parent.
John Freitas has been in quite a few clinical settings with the boyishly rambunctious, and injury-prone, Bud. Usually, he said, they just tell him what booth his son is in and to go right in.
“This time the doctor took me into a waiting room and talked to me before I saw him, which was serious at the time,” said the senior Freitas.
It turned out Freitas had fractured the right side of his skull, leading to swelling of the brain.
“It was pretty sketchy, I guess, pretty close to me dying,” says the stubble-bearded Freitas, who before the accident had won innumerable surf contests, had a roomful of trophies and a handful of shots in the magazines, just this year getting photo spreads in Surfing magazine and Transworld Surf.
He rides for Santa Cruz Skateboards and is also sponsored by Rusty, Dragon Sunglasses, No Control Surf & Sport, On a Mission and Osiris shoes.
He spent five days in the hospital, with four of those in the intensive care unit. Most of his memory was gone, he couldn’t walk and he was blind in one eye. He was dazed, angry at the memory loss and unable to function for weeks.
The news of the accident was devastating, said Matt Lochner, Santa Cruz Surfboards team manager (Freitas until recently rode for the Santa Cruz Surfboards team) and a close friend of Freitas’s.
“It hit me so hard,” he said. “I thought I was gonna lose my friend.”
Freitas held on, though, and slowly, the memories of his past life, his friends’ names and his physical abilities began to filter back.
A month and a half after the accident, Freitas ventured out at first peak on a longboard, wearing a surf helmet. He was weak, could barely stand up and couldn’t get his balance, but he was surfing.
In September, Freitas placed second in a Volcom contest at Pleasure Point. And in the O’Neill Cold Water Classic at Steamer Lane in October, a fully recovered Freitas was in a competitive fire, bouncing off the walls to get in the water. He dominated his heats, taking first place almost effortlessly until the contest moved to a north coast beach break during a couple days of waveless conditions at the Lane.
“In the Cold Water, he was surfing really, really good,” said Adam Replogle, one of the two Santa Cruz surfers ever to make the WCT and a longtime friend of Freitas. “To see him surfing that well after his accident, to see him surfing that well in front of the industry — that was really cool.”
Of Portuguese descent, Freitas moved with his dad to Santa Cruz from California’s Central Valley when he was 6.
He was named John at birth but “Bud,” the nickname given to him by his uncles, was the one that stuck.
A natural athlete, he played lots of sports as a kid, including baseball and soccer, but when the point boys got him to surf, “it hit me hard,” he said. “It’s all I wanted.”
Lochner, now 30, saw Freitas’s ability early on.
“He was riding a hybrid, a shorter longboard, and I said, ‘You’ve got to get on a shortboard, grom,’ because I could see the potential in him,” said Lochner. Lochner subsequently gave Freitas his first shortboard.
Freitas couldn’t muster up much interest in school, preferring to go surfing, and eventually transferred to an alternative high school that allowed him the time to surf and start building up magazine shots.
With thick, sandy hair and California-surfer blue eyes, Freitas speaks in the rapid-fire surf-lingo drawl of the Pleasure Point crew. One of his friends says he’s got some ADD going. He’s definitely full of energy, but he speaks easily with a reporter, has no apparent shyness and laughs frequently. Before the accident, he was living it up.
“I think he was partying a little much, you know, he was having a good time,” says Replogle.
Santa Cruz “is a high-energy town,” Replogle says. And at the end of the day, “partying comes at the top of the list.”
Freitas got especially wound up with best friend and fellow pro surfer Jesse Colombo.
“Both of us were getting out of control, partying too much and having too much fun,” says Colombo, who came to a personal decision to quit carousing right before Freitas’s accident.
Since Freitas’s wreck “he’s been really focused,” said Replogle. “I think he hit his head for a good reason.”
Lochner thinks Freitas has it in him to be one of surfing’s elite.
If he had the positive attitude he had at the Cold Water and put it together in every single heat, he could do it, he says.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, it will take a couple years,” says Lochner. “But if he gets the backing, I think he can make the top 45.”
In early November, Freitas scored a three-year deal with Rusty. The company sent him to the North Shore for a month two days after he signed the contract.
Freitas’s new focus has been in evidence for quite a few months now, and his dad thinks it’ll stick. He eats right and takes care of himself. He’s kept off the weight he lost while he was recovering, which dropped away because he couldn’t eat much then.
“He’s a different kid,” says John Freitas.
If he’d known this is all it would have taken, jokes his dad, “I would have hit him in the head a long time ago.”
Editor’s Note: Gwen Mickelson is the surf columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.