Matt Archbold never wanted followers. He just wanted to surf—and he still surfs incredibly well. Yet for a brief time during the mid-’80s he was widely considered the best freesurfer in the world. With his power, flair, and radical turns, he was the sport’s bright red Ferrari, the envy of his peers. What Dora did for style, what Lopez did for tube-riding, what Bertlemann did for mid-face carving, that’s what Archy did for smashing, bashing, and launching beyond the lip line. It was vicious and powerful one second, zero-gravity the next, but always a natural extension of his vertical assault—and fans hell bent on progression couldn’t get enough of it.
During the mid-’80s, Archbold’s appeal was undeniable to a fledgling surf industry developing a voracious appetite for growth. It threw money at a 15-year-old and sent him out into the world. Never mind that he went on tour without family, a coach, or even a chaperone. The new kid on the block, armed with a tenth-grade education, was left to make life decisions while looking to a wild pack of older surfers reveling in sex, drugs, and celebrity. With mind-boggling talent and a pair of deep pockets, Archy was welcomed to the party with open arms.
By 20, Archbold was headed for jail, the poster boy of too much too soon, and only a list of issues to show for it. Bouncing between meth labs and rehabs, a nightmare ride consumed what remained of his youth. Yet sponsors saw market value in his badass behavior, and kept fueling the flameouts. In retrospect, his arc was a predictable one. He went from wide-eyed observer, to life of the party, to uncomfortable sideshow at the party, to the guy who disappeared for weeks straight while partying alone in some seedy motel. The act of surfing, however, managed to save him time and again.
In mid-life Archbold has finally made sense of his lost years and a potential never reached. He knows those times are as much a part of his legacy as the surfing that inspired our current generation of high-impact freaks. In fact, he hopes more than anything that others learn from his errors. Though he could and probably should aim some resentment at the surf establishment, Archbold takes full responsibility for his trajectory. Forgiving himself was the absolute hardest part. But now that he has, life’s challenges are tolerable once again. He’s still remarkably fit. On most days, his wife still loves him. And having his beloved Off the Wall just on the other side of his porch doesn’t suck either. —Chris Mauro