LOOKBACK #15: Neil Semar
“Some kids never get to do anything their whole lives… Some never experience happiness. It’s not their fault.” — Neil Semar
Neil “Sweet Chuck” Semar passed away late last month. For many in our sport, the moment passed with little reflection. His name doesn’t carry they same weight as other early pros who’ve passed before (Brian Bell, for instance). But in his own way, and to a certain group of Midwesterners who didn’t see many ways to escape the anonymity of middle-America, Semar was a pioneer in our sport. A member of the infamous Sendokon crew and a pro for Medium, he made a name for himself as a master transition skater who was able to translate his skills to the street.
Semar first came on the scene at SCRAP, the legendary skatepark in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. SCRAP was one of the first skateparks in the Midwest and was a regular destination for pro teams visiting from the booming coastal scenes on demo tours in the 1990s. It was also home to a number of regional contests that got significant coverage in blading media at the time. If you’ve ever watched skate videos from the early VideoGroove days, you’ve no doubt seen the park.
“Before Eisenberg’s (Hoedown) SCRAP was the biggest regional, if not national, park comp,” fellow Sendokon member Dan O’Connor told me. “Honestly, he was so good. Back when there were mini(ramp) comps he always won pro. I remember the first time I met Champion and Roadhouse. He schooled them on the mini.”
“Neil was a perfectionist. His attention to detail bordered on insane, but his insanity made him the best at whatever he decided to do.” Pat Pellegrini, a close friend and fellow Sendokon alum, agreed. “I can remember sitting in his room for hours and hours watching skate videos. We would watch the same trick over and over again so Neil could burn it into his brain. When we went skating again he already knew how to do the trick without practice.”
His meticulous nature could also make him appear standoffish. In a sport dominated by unreserved personalities like Arlo, Latimer and Roadhouse, Semar’s brand of individualism could come off as guarded. “He was good to a point of perceived cockiness, but he was really just quiet and weird” Dan O’Connor told me.
I personally never met Sweet Chuck, but he was a major influence on the crew I came up skating with. We both grew up a few miles from each other in Cary, Illinois, a suburb so far northwest of Chicago that the word “suburb” becomes a bit of a stretch. In a town like Cary it’s difficult to imagine having an impact on the world at large, but when you can buy a set of wheels labeled with the name of a guy who was in the same Spanish class as your older sister, or who’ve you’ve seen on television, the world seems a little bit more within reach. As kids, skating around with the old crew in his old neighborhood of Bright Oaks, we would occasionally roll past his moms and she would give us stickers and old wheels. I think Matt Strobot got one of his Pro-Tec helmets once. After word of his death got out, Eddie Dombrowski texted me the words “Cary pride” and mentioned he might be in need of a new tattoo.
“At one point we filmed a Nickelodeon commercial together” Collin Martin, who came up in the Mercenaries crew west of Chicago mentioned to me. “I don’t even think he really wanted to associate with me. Maybe he was an introvert? I think he was truly his own being. Very talented and unique.”
This idea of Semar as “his own being” came up repeatedly as I reached out to members of the crew he grew up with, and it makes sense. At a time when blading was dominated by GAP and Levi sponsorships, not to mention extensive ESPN ad MTV coverage, Neil was given a feature in Daily Bread despite the fact that he’d recently been dropped by his most famous sponsor, Medium. In the interview he accused the industry of exploiting kids. “They use them for their talent and trade them like baseball cards,” he said. “When kids are no longer making them money, they throw them out. Skating once was underground and it was cool. Now it’s all corporate and stupid. Who cares about ESPN? They all need to go.”
Later in the interview he also railed against factory-farming and advocated for a vegan lifestyle. “Veganism is the essence of compassion and peaceful living,” he said. “Animals are not ours to abuse or dominate… Animal’s lives are their own and must be given respect.” This was two decades before the slacktivism of Facebook and Twitter.
This is what interests me the most about Semar. He didn’t stick with rollerblading (he didn’t even stick with veganism according to at least one person I spoke to working on this). He wasn’t a true believer in the sense that many expect our fellow rollerbladers to be in 2016. But for a period of time he truly found happiness in this sport, and he pursued it aggressively enough, and with enough passion, to not only become famous for it, but also to recognize that the fame was ephemeral and a distraction from what really mattered: the love of what you’re doing in the moment.
“Neil was the only actual individual I have ever met,” Pellegrini told me, his love for his friend coming out the way it only can after a sudden, shocking loss. “It’s hard for me to talk about the good stuff right now because I’m still so fucking mad at him. Either way, I loved him and so did everyone who met him. He was a good soul.”
Neil is survived by his sister, Jessica. — John Adams
Photos by Keith Wilson.
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A Midwest legend for sure!
He killed that scrap mini ramp… Little ripper back in the glory days of rolling.
WAS A FRIEND ..THE KID WITH A SMILE.. PAT AND I ALWAYS GOT A GOOD LAUGH WHEN THE THREE OF US KICKED IT WHERE EVER WE WERE..HE WILL TRULY BE MISSED …YOU ARE LOVE BY THE BLADE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD..
THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING…
ZACH WEBBY MURPHY HARD LINE..
Back in the day..96′ maybe…we put together a local skate jam…no advertising..just word of mouth sort of thing. Some how Neil found out about it (maybe he heard John Schmit was going to be there ;)) and traveled the 100+ miles north to be apart of it….he ripped of course…he always ripped…
I just stumbled across this, and it’s the first I’m hearing of the news…
A couple things to share for the interested:
Neil put the biggest emphasis on style. You can clearly see that in his skating. As important as the trick, his concern would be which foot to have forward when landing fakie, depending on the spin. Or what his arms should or shouldn’t be doing. I remember trying to get his approval on the “perfect soul grind”… Not actually grinding – just fucking standing there on a ledge, and he goes “now bow your knee out a little…” Who does that? Tries to coach style, haha.
He was definitely his own dude. I get the “perceived cockiness”. But he genuinely enjoyed watching people land tricks and get better. He’d critique or help out anyone who asked him. But he’d also laugh if you did something stupid looking, like any 16-year old would.
It was a several-month period when I was with him at SCRAP, the Pit in Rockford, downtown Chicago, or by his place in Cary (the brown beast!)… I don’t know how either of us made it to school. But my skating accelerated a ton. And it was fun as shit. And I’m really sad to hear he’s gone.
Rest In Peace Buddy … I had a lot of fun with you ever time we met up. I still have some raw unedited video footage from our glory days with all the boys from our skate crew. Gonna have to bust it out in remembrance for you. You defiantly were helping us all push ourselves just a little bit harder. You will be missed and always remembered.
You’ll be missed man. Sendokon was a great group to be a part of and help push the sport.
Neil was bladings creative director , we watched him at SCRAP work the double mini like no bodies business . On the street his flow was smooth and he owned NBC clock with lines that not many people could follow . He was a pioneer and a friend . If Eric Repack created Sendokon then Neil was its star player. Being part of that history and part of that crew will always remind me of great blader and friend . You will be missed brother .
I can we remember the first time I really met Neil. I was at scrap and Neil was ripping it up on the mini ramp of course. I was with my best friends Nate an older brother Tatum, an Neil asked us if we wanted go skating downtown. Of course we said yes, I mean sweetchuck just asked us to go street skating. So Tatum, Nate, Eric Repack, Neil and I headed to the city. I was so pumped to go street skating because thats were I shined myself, an to go with Neal. It changed everything for myself. I backslide some kinked rail at Navy Pier, and got sponsored by a company called Jink that later turned into Hexx Mfg where I met more people that I would call friends an skate with everyday. Neil is a big reason why I will always love the sport an will always have mad respect for it. Because of that day, I got to met my crew of fellow rollerbladers that I would skate with everyday, an many remain friends. Sweetchuck started all for me, some of the best years of my life! Thanks friend!
I remember trying to mimic a lot of his mini ramp tricks. Amazing skater.
Neil and I didn’t become friends until years after we both quit skating. He was brought into my circle of friends by E.J. Semple. Those two were best friends for sure. We became fast friends after hanging out probably only two times. He would often call me out of the blue to go to shows because we had similar taste in music and I was always down to go. Neil had a dark streak though, often going on multi-day binges and many times I was right there with him. Those were the only times he would talk about rollerblading and only to me. It definitely made me feel special. He had good stories. He and another friend of ours actually got jobs as carnies with a traveling fair one summer. He had a lot of pictures on his wall from that. Wild times just working for beer money and picking up random chicks. I started to get caught up in my own bullshit and he tried to look out for me but I withdrew from my friends. I hadn’t seen him in years when I heard about him passing a year ago from the time I’m writing this. It was cool reading what the other guys from Chicago’s skate scene wrote about. I wonder about E.J. Semple because I know he’s the person how would be hid hardest by this. I will miss you. I actually would brag to my other friends about how I was friends with you. I got to put an end to this so Peace Neil luv ya