Several years ago, Greg Noll gave two wide-eyed surf journalists a tour of his riverfront compound near the California-Oregon border. The visitors spent a happy afternoon listening to Noll spin vulgar, self-effacing tales of his pioneering escapades in Hawaii. Like so many before, they grilled him about the day in 1957 when he’d led the first charge on Waimea Bay, and about the 35-footer he rode at Makaha in 1969—a wave that still holds a place in surf lore as the biggest ever ridden without gas-powered assist. He showed them a giant taxidermied steelhead trout that he’d hooked and then bear-hugged into submission on a Smith River sandbar within view of his porch. Then he took them into the inner sanctum—a backyard shed where he crafted talismanic replicas of ancient Hawaiian olo surfboards from koa wood he’d harvested himself.
As the giddy journalists packed up their notepads and said their goodbyes, Noll lingered a moment at their car. This was a few years before the film Riding Giants rekindled his fame, when he still felt detached from surfing’s throbbing SoCal core, and he clearly was sad to see the visit end.
“I love it when guys like you come out to talk surf shit,” Noll said. “It makes me feel like I’m 22 all over again. But then I wake up in the morning and go to brush my teeth and look in the mirror and there’s some old f-cker staring back at me.”
It’s probably safe to say that no other living person on this 50 Greatest list has been out of the water as long as Noll has. He last laid his belly on a surfboard more than 30 years ago, in the wake of his historic near-death ride at Makaha, when he alone dared to face down the “swell of the century,” while a gallery of his big-sack peers watched from shore. For Noll, that ride was the culmination of 25 years of Hawaiian trailblazing—of prankish skullduggery on land and hellish sumo-stance drops in the water—and the fact that he walked away from surfing just as he peaked only solidifies his status as a first-ballot hall-of-famer.
Surfers young and old revere Noll, not only because of the bravado he displayed 50 years ago, but also for the face he continues to present to the world on our behalf. He somehow manages to come across as simultaneously cocky and humble, sarcastic and deferential, salty and sweet. His talking-head performance in Riding Giants was, for many viewers, the best part of the movie, more memorable even than Laird’s thermonuclear Teahupoo bomb. It gave the unstoked multitudes a glimpse of the surfer we want them to see—sage enough to call bullshit on all the exploitive nonsense that befouls the sport that defines us, but also unafraid to stand before a crowd and declare how much he still loves it.—Steve Hawk