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BMX pro uses bikes to steer kids away from drugs

Tony Hoffman teaches kids of all ages how to ride BMX bikes at his free summer camp called the Freewheel Project.
Tony Hoffman teaches kids of all ages how to ride BMX bikes at his free summer camp called the Freewheel Project.
Alice Daniel/KQED

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BMX pro racer Tony Hoffman lost his way not long ago when he stopped racing and started using drugs. Finally, he ended up homeless. But he recovered, got back into biking and turned his experience into a learning experience for kids. 

Now Hoffman teaches more than riding bikes on rough terrain, he also preaches character development and staying off drugs. As reporter Alice Daniel explains, the lessons come right from Hoffman's past.  

Kids on BMX bikes speed around a dirt track -- racing along rolling hills and veering up steep embankments. They’re at Woodward Park in Fresno learning how to ride motocross style. The sport teaches discipline and self-confidence, says Tony Hoffman -- traits that might keep kids from doing drugs such as painkillers, which are a growing problem in the Central Valley.

“You’ve got to stay away from these key things if you want to be successful in life, if you want to avoid the wreckage of my past,” says Hoffman.

For five years Hoffman was addicted to OxyContin, then heroin. He doesn’t want others to make the same choices, so he started a nonprofit two years ago called the Freewheel Project. He gives anti-drug talks at high schools all over the Central Valley and says his camp provides at-risk youngsters, like 15-year-old Angelica Haskin, with a positive physical outlet. Haskin says she smoked weed for several years, tried meth and was suicidal.

“It was kind of like a Band-Aid,” says Haskin. “I can just smoke weed and be high and kind of just be in that state where I didn’t have to worry about anything.”

She says that she’s been clean for four months and that the camp is an opportunity to improve her life.

“When my week may not be going well, on Monday, I always get to look forward to coming here and just hanging out,” she says.

Hoffman’s high school years were vastly different. He was a nationally ranked BMXer. He had endorsements from Spy sunglasses and Airwalk shoes. He was great with computers. When he graduated, he got a tech job in San Diego – and stopped racing. He started partying and gave into peer pressure to try marijuana, a choice that led quickly to using other drugs.   

“I never knew four years later I would be sleeping on the street, sticking needles in my arms, living in hotels,” says Hoffman.  

Karen Hoffman, Tony’s mother, is one of 30 volunteers at the camp. She says she’s proud to help her son run his nonprofit. 

“If we look at today, where he’s come, Tony’s a miracle,” she says. Her son’s drug addiction was devastating, she says, something she couldn’t stop. 

“Tony has been hospitalized numerous times,” she recalls. “Once he almost lost his arm. Once he was stabbed and he had a lung collapse from a drug deal that’s gone bad.

“My husband and I in our darkest moments, in the weakest points, we would just lay in bed and hold hands each night and weep quietly for our child in the streets.”

One Christmas, when Tony was living on the streets, he called and asked to see her, she says. When she drove to the location, it took her a minute to recognize the homeless man with the cart staring into her car window.

“I asked him, I said, ‘What’s in the cart, son?’ ” she says. “And he said, ‘Mother I may be hooked on heroin. I may be living in the streets, but I’m not stupid. I still have my computer!’”

Hoffman went from the streets to prison in 2007 for armed robbery. He says he was so desperate for a fix, he held a gun to a woman who had OxyContin in her home. But prison turned out to be a lifesaver.

“Walking the streets alone with a drug addiction, waiting to die, is the most torment you’ll ever experience in your whole life,” says Hoffman. “Not prison. Prison was the first step to the top for me.”   

Inmates were doing heroin all around him, he says, but he got clean. He had a newfound faith in Christianity and an unlikely goal: to train hard in prison and return to BMX as an elite pro.  

“For me, coming back to BMX was kind of a redemption from my past,” he said. And an amazing feat, say other pro athletes who didn’t think Hoffman had a chance.  

“So I reached the Olympic level,” he says. “I made main events with Olympians.”

And then he decided to start his nonprofit. “I just had to say, ‘You know what? I think it’s time to set it aside and start helping kids.’ ”  

And that’s what he’s doing. At the camp, he tells the older kids drugs will kill you or haunt you for the rest of your life. He even tests them to make sure they are listening.

Hoffman says about 65 percent of the camp kids who are 12 and older admit to trying marijuana.

“These kids are able to connect with me,” he says. “They understand that I’m not here to be the police and I let them know that. I just want to know where these kids are at, what are we dealing with? You know.” 

Hoffman is now fundraising for his next project – to intensively train and tutor a small group of at-risk students interested in competitive BMX racing.