Darryl "Flea" Virostko was 21 when his first paychecks started coming down the pipe, and it was a really good time to come up in the surf industry. Flea had always dreamed of one day being a pro surfer, something his grandma always scoffed at.
It was later in his career he would fondly remember “hooking” grandma up with red Oakleys that she would wear while riding around in her Chevy Impala.
Along with his friends, Rat and Barney, this Westside trio of surfers would change the face of surfing forever and firmly plant Santa Cruz on the map. They were the first to take on waves the size of big buildings, 50 feet in the air.
Their lives are documented in the film The Westsiders, which will have its last big screen showing 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Rio Theatre.
The Santa Cruz surfers dominated huge airs and moved big-wave riding to a level never before seen.
“I was not a three to the beach guy," said Flea, 39, who got the nickname because at 12 he was pint-sized but still scaling mammoth waves.
"I loved to do tricks and ramp out," he said. "What we did in that era opened the eyes of pro surfing in so many ways. People were, like, you can make money doing airs, big wave surfing and just ramping out? They changed the whole criteria on the WCT/WQS tours (minor/major leagues of surfing), and now airs and progressive maneuvers are part of the deal.”
In 1999, Flea was crowned the champion of Maverick’s, and again in 2002 and 2004—a "FleaPeat" many joked. Darryl landed the cover of Surfer Magazine for his wipeout on a 50-foot wave at Waimea during the Eddie Aikau, declared the wipeout of the decade.
Major motion pictures, Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid, put him on the big screen. However, the side people didn’t see of Darryl was beginning to formulate, his hard-charging ways of any size surf were crossing over into his personal life.
Partying became the norm. Anytime Flea would win a contest, he would share it with his boys and throw huge parties replete with the roulette of drugs and alcohol reserved for rock stars. Darryl had it all: huge sponsorship dollars, endorsements and endless amounts of industry and mainstream press.
Flea was on top of the world.
Then the darkness came creeping in. Travelling the world and making "stupid money," as Darryl will say, led him down a path many tried to warn him about. Flea would sit around bonfires tossing $100 bills and watch people jump in and grovel. Since he began drinking and smoking weed at the age of 12, it was common for the binges to last for days, if not weeks.
The drugs had some crazy effects, the kinds of things only people who have been there understand. He would collect driftwood at all hours of the day and night. He fell off a 50-foot cliff in Davenport. His lifestyle left his family and friends wondering if he was going to die.
Flea fought off those accusations, and while intoxicated or under the influence of any number of drugs (meth, acid, coke were all readily available), he continued to self-destruct.
“I was just BS’ing all my sponsors, my family and friends,” he remembers today. He adjusts in his chair as he gets more focused. “I am not pissed on anyone cutting me or whatever, and if you have to do that then I understand.”
He goes on to say, ”Expectations on pro surfers encourage malicious behavior. I have no regrets on anything, but when you are making crazy money every month and you are getting paid to be a surfer—well, you can see what happens, right?”
It was his fall from the cliff that led to the end of the road. He figured since he couldn’t surf, he would just drink and do drugs while he was healing. Surfing was once his life but now had become a distant object of affection. Injured and strung out, he drove himself to a rehab facility.
It wasn’t until after one of the numerous Narcotics Anonymous meetings that someone asked him, “You done yet? I mean, are you finished destroying yourself?”
Flea realized right then, yeah, he was done.
What had started out as a dream to be a pro surfer had become a nightmare in reality of life. Darryl was at a cross roads, one that meant life or death. He realized he could no longer hang out with the same set of friends.
But instead of just trying to repair himself, Flea decided he wanted to go one step further and help others. “People are lonely,” he says. “Sometimes people just need someone to hang out with.”
His recovery has been well documented, and his new venture FleaHab is up and running. It is a sober living house with a focus on getting exercise and having something healthy replace the drugs and alcohol.
He takes his clients surfing, to play tennis or basketball, basically anything that creates an active lifestyle.
He has navigated the nonprofit status application (FleaHab is officially a 501c3), established a board of directors and has plans to create this new family business, one of helping others through his experiences and lifting people back up when they fall.
The Flea of old is gone. The one who didn’t care about life, just charging it all the time, partying, waves, chicks whatever, not thinking about the effects on him or people in general, has left the beach.
Now it’s a different Flea who cares about life, about others, and make sure he can lead people down the right path and maybe save a few people from having to go through what he did.
“You have to take care of things and appreciate that. I clean the house and mow the lawns, and responsibilities are part of life."
Sober for a number of years now, Darryl is a family man anxiously expecting the birth of his first child with his partner. "If you don’t have responsibilities, then you are not living. You are basically just getting by."
Flea squints when he looks at me. “I want to help the kids of Santa Cruz and beyond and know that I can wake up and have an even keel life while showing someone the right way.”
Darryl “Flea” Virostko makes it clear that when he was in rehab, he would have jumped at the chance to be active every day and re-engage his mind through exercise.
Join Flea and crew as the critically acclaimed movie, The Westsiders, will show for the final time at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Rio Theatre. Tickets are a $10 donation. Free products will be given out from surf companies that support FleaHab. There will also be a question-and-answer opportunity during the event.
Every ticket purchased automatically enters you to win a SURFBOARD! Visit the FleaHab event page HERE to be reminded.
Visit fleahab.com for more information on Darryl “Flea” Virostko’s nonprofit FleaHab.