Whether aware of it or not, everyone has mentors. Most have mentors in the workplace, school or generally in life. Oprah Winfrey had heart-to-heart talks with Maya Angelou, J.J. Abrams got intergalactic advice from Steven Spielberg and even the X-Men had to deal with Professor Xavier always nagging them.
Robert (“Rob”) Ferguson, a Bay Area native and skateboarder who was born in Castro Valley, has been mentoring since he was a young and skinny teenager. It wasn’t until a city official familiar with Ferguson asked him to start a program while he was at San Francisco State University, that he began teaching students how to skateboard.
The sport of skateboarding has long been viewed as an alternative pastime, dominated by free spirits and rebels. But, as with any discipline, skateboarding takes persistence, dedication and guidance. In the annals of skateboard history, mentors have played pivotal roles in nurturing talents and steering novices. The mutual respect between mentor and protégé is evident in the relationship shared between Ferguson and his charges.
Skateboarding, inherently, is about more than tricks and competitions. It’s a medium for self-expression, a way to navigate one’s environment and a means to challenge traditional norms. It’s always been an embodiment of grassroots counterculture. But with figures like Ferguson, it’s also becoming a structured, educational pursuit. His approach, combining the physical rigors of skating with mindfulness, encapsulates the essence of modern skateboarding: It’s both a sport and a state of mind.
The Bay Area has spawned skateboarding legends for decades, including Mike Carroll, Jake Phelps and Steve Caballero, who was one of my favorite playable skaters in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
Ferguson was a finalist coach before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the events and then limited the participants in the last Olympics. During the pandemic, Ferguson taught others through social distancing videos and instructed his students while wearing masks.
“I began coaching kids who lived down the street and earned a few bucks from that,” said Ferguson. “I continued teaching kids when I was in college. It had always been a dream to have my own indoor skate park and a space to teach kids to skateboard.”
In 2002, a 15-year-old Ferguson went door-to-door with a sheet of paper offering services like babysitting, dog walking or lawn maintenance. One of those people who lived six houses down turned out to be the general manager of Orbit Skate Shop, Sal Sadd.
“We became friends from there, and since then he has been involved in every event I’ve done here at the shop since 2003,” said Sadd. “He has great energy with the microphone and knows how to interact with the kids. Rob is a pillar in the community.”
For almost 30 years, San Leandro has been home to the Orbit Skate Shop. Since 1995, Orbit’s skate team has included Travis Sparaco, JT Miller, Matty Jessee, Curtis Ocampo, Daris Marshall and Ferguson.
For six years, Ferguson has been the creator and owner of Rob’s Skate Academy—like a skateboarding Hogwarts—which started in Oakland and then relocated across the street from the Coca-Cola factory in San Leandro. A second location opened at the Sunvalley Mall in Concord this past July.
Ferguson has coached numerous skateboarders, including Minna Stess, a 17-year-old professional skateboarder who made her X-Games debut in 2019 at the age of 13.
Ferguson’s motto for mentoring is “mindfulness through skateboarding,” which teaches people how to cope with failure and disappointment, channeling that disappointment into further progress in both their skating and personal lives.
“The hypermasculinity that’s instilled in men today from role models like Andrew Tate is absolutely devastating,” said Ferguson. “It’s killing our men. That’s why men have the highest incarceration rate. It’s teaching men not to talk about their feelings or communicate in a healthy way.”
Ferguson’s staff visits schools every weekday. They serve the Oakland Unified School District, West Contra Costa Unified and San Leandro Unified districts, and work with schools in San Francisco, Hayward, San Mateo, Pleasanton Hill and Concord.
“We have contact with the after-school directors,” said Nathaniel David Stark, general manager of RobSkate in Concord. “So we’ll set up clubs, bring out ramps and teach kids how to skate. They love it. I always say skateboarding is 30% physical and 70% mental. It’s about breaking through that barrier in your mind. You have to commit.”
Raised in Danville, Stark met Ferguson 10 years ago at the age of 16 when he worked for Ferguson as a skate instructor at a summer skate camp. Like Stark, Ferguson has become close with numerous skaters in the community, including author Karl Watson, who recently wrote a children’s book about learning the basics of skateboarding called, My First Skateboard.
“Watson is like an older brother to me and a true pillar within our skate community,” said Ferguson. “I could write a novel on all the reasons why I love the guy. I’m beyond stoked he wrote My First Skateboard. I make sure every kid that crosses our path reads that book!”
While Ferguson didn’t have a book to teach him how to skateboard, he did have his own “Mr. Miyagi” (Karate Kid) role model, who was one of his neighbors.
“It was a guy who believed in me,” Ferguson said. “Ultimately, he would always ask me to learn a new trick, and then he would make sure I did it over and over again until I landed it for him.”
The skateboarding community has changed rapidly since the ’70s and ’80s, from teaching methods to the skateboarders themselves.
“It’s really cool to see how much it has changed over the last 15 years—the explosion of female skaters, LGBTQ and trans skaters emerging in the fold in the vernacular, being seen, and being recognized as skilled skaters and a part of the misfits’ pantheon of our society,” said Tion Torrence, a skateboarder and former manager of hip-hop artists. Ferguson traveled across Canada as Torrence’s tour manager.
“I’ve been able to watch him grow from having a handful of skate camps around from Walnut Creek to San Ramon and beyond, to becoming good friends,” said Torrence, who’s been friends with Ferguson since 2005.
One of Ferguson’s many future goals is to have five indoor skate parks in the Bay Area. They are even discussing the potential for franchising and looking to travel across the U.S. and internationally. Ferguson’s team wants to provide more career opportunities for skaters to work full-time within the industry on a competitive salary.
They also have a long-term vision of opening the first extreme sports and science community center in the Bay Area or anywhere they can. Ferguson and the academy would like to elevate the sport of skateboarding to the same level as traditional sports within schools and create district leagues. The hope is that schools will begin offering scholarships for skateboarding.
The growth of skateboarding, from the streets of the East Bay to becoming an Olympic sport, has been a testament to its appeal and adaptability. With mentors like Ferguson and Torrence, the future not only looks bright but also inclusive, structured and immensely promising. Skateboarding has always been about pushing limits. And with its current trajectory, it seems the boundaries are endless.