A somber teenage boy lies in an oversized hospital bed. An overcast afternoon at a local
skateboard park has gone horribly wrong. The child is saddened more by the doctor’s report that
he is out of commission for six months than he is by the physical pain of the fractured tibia and
torn patella tendon in his left leg. To Mike McNabb, six months without skating might as well be
a death sentence.
Among the well-wishers that would crowd McNabb’s bedside that July evening would be
Mike’s older brother Stan. McNabb had received magazines and baseball cards as get-well gifts
already, but Stan arrived with this ordeal’s silver lining. Stan gave his kid brother a fingerboard.
A fingerboard is merely a skateboard in miniature. Whereas a skateboard is manipulated with
feet, a fingerboard is controlled entirely with the middle and index fingers of one hand. Stan too
had once been an aspiring skateboarder before moving on to the more traditional high school
athletic endeavors of baseball and football. Stan’s $4 gift, purchased at gas station and given
halfway in jest, would have a big impact on his little brother.
Six years removed from that fatefully unsuccessful landing at the skateboard park, Mike
McNabb, now 19, could not tell you how many hours he has spent fingerboarding in the interim.
"More than 2,500 and less than 10,000" he says without giving the question much
thought. "It (the fingerboard) is essentially an extension of my hand at this point. If I go to the
movies, I board on the armrest. In school, I board on the desks, railings, books, basically
anything that’s in front of me."
The wiry 6-foot-2 McNabb looks the part. Calf-length black denim shorts with a
seemingly endless array of pockets. A belt around his waist that was once a car seatbelt, barely
holding up his shorts. A nondescript grey T-shirt under a beige camouflage vest. A sandy blond
mustache that adds a decade to his visage. Upon first glance, his presence makes you think he
has seen too much in this world and eaten too little. McNabb looks ill-prepared for anything
outside a cameo in a Nirvana music video. Looks can be deceiving.
The man widely credited with inventing the fingerboard was Cam Fox Bryant in the late
1970s. The original versions consisted of little more than cardboard, coffee stirring straws, and
axles from deconstructed Hot Wheels toy cars. The 96 millimeter board started out as a
keychain and remained a novelty item until the mid-1990s when skateboard companies began to
see the marketability and profitability of product branding on the miniature boards.
According to TechDeck.com, a leading manufacturer of fingerboards and related gear,
the industry broke the $100 million mark in revenue for the first time in 1999. It is difficult to
estimate the number of people who have joined McNabb in the fingerboard revolution, but the
consensus is, whatever the number, it is growing. There is even an iPhone app, Touchgrind, that
caters to the digital fingerboarder. A YouTube search for fingerboarding videos returns over
9,500 results. Mike McNabb is not alone.
Among McNabb’s newest converts, Yovani Reyes may be the most fervent. Both young
men work at an The Geisha House restaurant at Atlantic Station in downtown Atlanta. That is
where McNabb introduced Gio (as he is known to his friends) to fingerboarding. The two would
pass the down time at the restaurant in a back storage room fingerboarding. Reyes fell in love
with the activity immediately.
"The first time I picked up the board, I was hooked. I always wanted to skate, but it is so
intimidating. With your fingers, it is so much less risk," Reyes said.
The two have a mutually beneficial relationship. McNabb teaches Reyes the
idiosyncracies of the craft, and Reyes, whose father is a carpenter, supplies McNabb with
handmade obstacle courses. Reyes explains, "It’s fun either way, but when you have built the
pieces yourself, it is just that much cooler."
Corey Custer, the restaurant’s manager, has a surprising take on his employees and their
unusual hobby. "Ordinarily, we wouldn’t want our team members doing anything other than
work when they are on site, but with Mike’s fingerboarding, it seems to be a morale booster for
the employees. Everybody gathers around and there’s a lot of oohing and ahhing. We want our
employees to have fun and they seem to have fun with this. Plus, they are mature enough to
realize that you have to put the board down when it’s time to work. So I don’t think a little
fingerboarding is hurting anyone. The only drawback is when Mike needs a weekend off to
‘follow the board’."
McNabb has "followed the board" throughout the Southeast.
"I have been to Charleston, Knoxville, and New Orleans for competitions and shows. The
prize money sucks, if there even is any, but it is fun to go on road trips with my boys."
McNabb also professes to the tangential benefits of increased dexterity that
"I’ve always loved to mess around with cars. When I get done with school I want to be a
mechanic and I really believe that fingerboarding makes me better with my hands. At least when
you do it as much as I do."
McNabb still occasionally rides his skateboard.
"Now I can ride with reckless abandon, because if I get hurt, I can still board with my
fingers. That’s the beauty of it. It’s like golf. Me, I hate golf, but they always say you can golf
for your whole life, you never have to give it up. I have that same security with my fingerboard."
McNabb and his friends have recently started a rock band called Beast The Line. The
phrase refers to a particularly good run at an obstacle course on the fingerboard. McNabb is the
group’s songwriter and drummer. Between songs McNabb has been known to navigate his
fingerboard across and around his drums. And yes, they do have a song called Follow The .