From Prison to a Professional BMX Rider:
Tony Hoffman is Using His Bike to Bring Ultimate Change
Racing is what professional BMX riders do best. But in a race against the destruction of drugs and living on the street, can racers pedal fast enough on their own accord? Professional BMX rider, Tony Hoffman, shares with Risen how he ultimately found himself alive and inspired. Here he shares his story from the raw details of the drugs he used, to the eye-opening lessons he’s learned about his higher calling.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: BMX riding is a huge part of your daily life now. How did you get started at a young age?
Tony Hoffman: If you ask any of the professionals, I was a late bloomer beginning to ride around age 12. I started off with rollerblades and was really into the whole aggressive inline thing – riding on the handrails and stuff. I was so focused on my rollerblading and getting better, that I didn’t feel like that crowd was influencing me; but my parents thought otherwise. I was being a punk kid at the time and even though I never did drugs, a kid in my guitar class introduced me to marijuana and I got busted for selling it.
My brother was already BMX racing so they said, “You’re going to have to start coming with us.” I went to a race outside of Fresno, and my dad said, “There’s your classroom right there. You don’t think you can beat those guys? I said, “Yeah, I can beat those guys.” I’ve always been one to take on challenges and BMX riding was something that seemed like a good challenge. I started riding and next thing you know, I’m riding all the time. My brother and I were racing locally three to four times a week.
RM: The BMX lifestyle can be dangerous physically, emotionally and spiritually. How do you think you perceived that culture as a 12 year old?
TH: I don’t think I was really able to manifest what was going on other than I saw a guy on the track and I liked the way he rode, and he was somebody I wanted to be like. I wanted to go over a jump like he did or take a gauge start like he could. Yeah, there were those who were blatant about drinking in the tent, but for the most part at 12, I don’t think I could make sense of any of it. I don’t think that matters because if you look up to somebody and their image, and you don’t know what they’re doing, you’re still following through that tunnel to whatever message they’re carrying. You’re on your way to that image, good or bad.
RM: That lifestyle seems to be a contrast with what’s on your website. There’s the motto: Truth. Inspiration. BMX. Those aren’t traits one would naturally associate together, so how did you come to embrace this?
TH: It was a long process. Even at 12 years old, I looked up to Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley. In front of the media they were cocky, over confident, and I was already taking on that persona of just me, me, me, me-selfish. The bike kept me on the straight and narrow, but as I got older, my will not to drink and use drugs got set aside. I was 18, hadn’t been drunk or smoked up until that time, but then started associating myself with the wrong crowd. Eventually, I used drugs for five to six years, had been to rehab, and had been to jail once. I was on probation and at that point, was injecting methamphetamines, heroine, smoking crack, and abusing oxycontin… which ultimately led to the street. When you’re sleeping on the street and walking the streets alone, it’s a place where you can’t share the pain, because you know why you’re there. You’re engulfed in guilt, shame, self-pity, all of these negative energies that choke you – kind of like a snake, a boa constrictor that would constrict you until you would explode.
At that point, I figured I was going to die. That my life was over and there was nothing else that was going to come; and you almost accept it. I didn’t ask for a second chance, but I knew I was alive and I shouldn’t be. More people have overdosed than have gotten clean. Yet here I am, the worst of all the users I knew, and I’m alive. There was that inspiration of finding myself and who I was within my relationship with God. I was realizing that I had a bike that I was more than talented on. I’d done great things in a short period of time from intermediate through high school, and that’s when Truth, Inspiration, BMX came about.
I need direction. If you just point your finger, where to go, I’ll go there and I’ll never look back. From that point on, it was letting God rebuild everything that I had destroyed on my own.
RM: Wow, that’s amazing, and what an awesome 180-degree turn! Who introduced you to God?
TH: The day before I was arrested, I was invited to church from a drug connection from the west side of town. I tell people that God revealed himself to Moses through a bush, so why couldn’t he use a drug dealer to help reveal himself to me? And that’s exactly what he did. I was invited to church and I needed that person to invite me because I hung out and bought my drugs on that side of town. I felt comfortable with those people and felt like I could trust those people more than the people in the area of more money where I came from. So when he invited me I was willing to go and I was ready because [I was] homeless and didn’t have clothes [at that time.] The pastor laid his hands on me and told me that God had favored me my whole life and everything I had done. A lot of emotion came over me because he didn’t know who I was and the guy from the west side didn’t know anything about me either, just that I brought money over and exchanged hands. [The pastor] told me that I didn’t have to worry anymore, that God would remove me from my addiction. Twenty-four hours later, I was arrested and yet my heart was saying, “I believe, I believe, I believe, this is real, this is real.”
RM: How did your relationship with God grow while you were in prison?
TH: In my first day of prison I was really scared. I had a skinhead cellmate – swastikas, white power – he was an alright guy. He had shown me this shank and said that if there was a problem, he was going to stick me with it. And if I had a problem, I would do the same. But I had already started reading through my Bible and I asked [God], “I need direction. If you just point your finger, where to go, I’ll go there and I’ll never look back.” From that point on, it was letting God rebuild everything that I had destroyed on my own.
A few weeks into my prison sentence at Avenal State Prison, I also met Toby Wade. At that point in my walk with God I was very new to the Bible and spent a lot of time reading, but always had questions. I noticed this gentleman who always sat at the front of the chairs inside the dorm, with headphones on, smiling and dancing, and reading the Bible. After about two weeks I figured, “Shoot, this guy seems to be reading all the time, surely he can answer the questions I have.” So I started asking him question after question. One day, I was lying on my bunk and Toby came over and told me, “Hey, come on let’s go.” I asked him, “Where are we going? He replied, “To study.” From that day forward, we studied everyday for 11 months. He became my spiritual mentor by guiding me through God’s word, teaching me to rightfully divide it. He did everything in his power to make sure that when I exited prison I understood the importance of God’s calling in my life. He used to say, “Young Timothy, you must be prepared! You are about to take on the weight of children around your community on your shoulders.”
Toby and I still talk on a weekly basis. He is serving a life sentence, but has the possibility of parole and I believe with all my heart he will be set free shortly. I’ve never met a man that went to the lengths that he has to help me. He is someone I consider more than a friend.
RM: How did your bike fit into the picture of what you were learning from God?
TH: A couple of days into [prison], it was like, Boom. Light switch. Bike. I never wanted to be on the bike. But my dad said when I got out, why don’t I ride my bike? I said no, but it was totally a divine idea of what I needed to do. I spent 23-and-a-half months in prison and seven years off the bike. Four months later, in my first race, I won third place and went pro. Four months in [back to riding] I went pro to the highest level.
Moses had a stick. Samson had his hair. John the Baptist had his sandals. I have my bike. It’s going to be there until God calls me out of the bike; and eventually he will. I can’t ride a bike at 70, and probably not even at 40. He’ll call me out of that. But I know that if I go this direction now, things are going to open up and I’m going to be taken care of.
RM: In what ways are you continuing in that direction?
TH: On a bike, the free wheel is the part that allows the wheel to spin freely when you stop pedaling. As human beings, we also have free will to make the right decision or wrong decision. In the beginning, I always thought the bike thing was going to be about me crossing the finish line first, holding big checks, and winning the Olympics. I started going to church [in prison] and God started speaking to me through the pastor, “It’s about the kids.”
So the Freewheel Project is something designed to guide kids to make the right choice with their free will. We get these kids who come out with me on a weekly basis, some who’ve never been on a BMX track. One of my great sponsors, Haro Bikes, stepped up to donate bikes to me for the kids so we supply them with bikes and helmets. I get to speak and interact with them and then teach them how to drive. The kids love it. It was a God idea that came to me in prison and directed me in my purpose.
RM: Where do you feel like you’re at now, at this stage in life?
TH: You can really figure out who you are in God when you get rid of the building, the cell phone, the Internet, and everything else that distracts you from understanding this realm of energy that God has created. I’m training my mind, constantly praying and talking to God – that’s my strength. I don’t know why God wanted to choose me, but I’m one of the fortunate ones that God wants to use to help other people. I’ve had best friends who have passed away.
[In BMX] there are a lot of parents and professionals who smoke and party. I’m not speaking against them. I don’t judge anybody. I’ve done what they’ve done times one hundred. I’m in the right spot because I’ve been there and God’s given me a powerful message to go in the midst of something that these kids are looking up to… images that they may not understand until later in life. I’m trying to win the hearts of kids so that they’ll take on positive messages and make positive decisions.