Tas Pappas is a character for whom it’s worth using the idiom larger than life. Honest is an understatement to describe him – he is raw. And if you are not scared to reveal yourself, as Tas isn’t, he is polarising. Both his life story – too incredible and far too tragic to believe – and his dark humour will bring you to tears.
And there are things in Tas’ life he could hide.
But he decided to open up and tell it all in a documentary on his life, All This Mayhem, screening in limited cinemas from 10 July.
He didn’t want the Pappas brothers to be remembered as ‘maniacs’.
“There are three sides to every story – my side, your side and the truth,” Tas says in the movie.
This is Tas’ truth.
Once world champion in skateboarding, it took Tas Pappas years and the loss of a father, brother and his kids to learn.
After a years long break from the vertical ramp and skateboarding, and three years in prison, he now lives a quiet lifestyle with his wife Helen and five year old son Billy. And he is back on board.
The documentary All this Mayhem is his and his brother’s story, of a raw talent and extreme personalities, of rivalry and brotherly love, of a rise and a headlong fall; one of those highly likely to make you cry.
Brought up in Melbourne’s tough suburb of St Albans, Tasou Micah Pappas and his brother Benjamin Ben Pappas grew up in a household that didn’t offer much peace.
Born to an Egypt-born Greek Australian father Bill and an Aussie mother, Kerry, it was a dysfunctional household and a field of fights and yelling, until the couple separated.
“It was pretty hectic as far as mum and dad were concerned. Mum was hard core,” says Tas.
“Of course, the Greek heritage always played a big role in my upbringing. Though I never learned to speak it, I mainly hung with my Greek side of the family.
Mum gave us up, my dad looked after me and my brother. Mum was young, she was a party girl and that’s what all the fights were about.
“She would be into drinkin’ and partyin’ and dad just wanted to have a normal home life, that’s where the dramas came in. He didn’t agree with what she was doing,” Tas tells Neos Kosmos.
From all that madness, Tas found an outlet in skateboarding. He fell in love with it in the late 1980s, aged 12, while he watched American professional skaters demonstrate their tricks at the Prahran ramp. And in ’80s Melbourne, there was no better place to be than Prahran if you were a skateboarder.
It didn’t take long for a nine-year-old Ben to follow in his footsteps.
From what their skating friends recall in the movie, Tas and Ben were young but rough blokes, mad for skateboarding. At the age of 14, Tas decided that he was going to become the next World Number 1. It was ‘only’ American champion Tony Hawk that he had to defeat.
At 17 he was living in the US with other skaters, while training for the professional skateboarding circuit. Ben joined him after completing year 10.
The complicated tricks and mid-air acrobatics of the wild and fearless Pappas brothers brought new energy to ‘vert’ – vertical skating.
Their performances were high risk and made them big money. The two boys from the neighbourhood of St Albans, from the Prahran skate park, reached the top of the world and competed with skateboarding elite.
It was in 1996, at the Hard Rock Cafe World Championships of Skateboarding finals in LA, that the brothers were crowned International World Champions.
Tas, then 21, became a champion, defeating Hawk with a broken rib, and Ben, 18, was a few points behind him.
With success after success and the money coming in, Tas least resembled a pro skater.
“What are you going to do when you are young, and on top of the world – mushrooms, ice, cocaine…” he tells in the movie.
With foundations in a dysfunctional family and with undiagnosed borderline personality disorders, the brothers were as unprepared as it gets to deal with success. The nightmare had begun, and then came the fall.
“We were just unprepared, full stop. We had a lot of issues we dealt with … it didn’t matter what was going to happen anyway. Some things happened beforehand – like I was sexually abused as a child by some bloke on my mother’s side, she was hanging out with a lot of blokes…
“I just had a mad chip on my shoulder so it didn’t matter, I just wasn’t ready full stop. I wanted to get out of all of it.
“It’s just now – JUST NOW,” he emphasises “that I’m being able to learn how to control myself, try to be a better person, ’cause it’s still a battle,” Tas tells.
Tas was 27 when he first told his dad about the sexual abuse he was a victim of.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore. Just didn’t know how to handle it…”
In 1999, while on his way back from US, Ben was caught with 103 grams of cocaine. His passport was cancelled for three years and his American career sealed. That was the beginning of the end for Ben, who turned to drugs to find solace.
In March 2007, Ben’s drug addict girlfriend was found dead. Ten days later Ben Pappas’ body was found in the Yarra. It was later found that Ben had killed his girlfriend and later himself.
Tas couldn’t come to terms with his brother’s death. He still struggles with it today, seven years on. It’s hard even talking about it.
” I still … I don’t like it … its just shit … all I hope is that God is merciful … ’cause the idea of me going to – if I go – to bloody heaven and he is not there – I don’t want to be there either.
“Without him … it’s a shit feeling. All I can do is try my best.”
In 2012, Tas was released from prison after his 2008 attempt to smuggle one kilogram of cocaine from Argentina to Melbourne inside his three skateboards.
It was his drug-fuelled attempt to make some quick money and send it to Colleen, his first wife whom he had married in America in 2005 and had two kids with.
He hasn’t seen his two children since he was deported to Australia, shortly after his brother’s death.
After long-term drug addiction and three years in prison, Tas has rebuilt his life. He attributes his recovery to turning back to religion. He is happily married to Helen and proud father of five year-old Billy – who, by the way, was on the board from the age of one and a half.
Prison years for Tas Pappas meant getting off drugs, turning to religion, and starting to skate again – even if it meant just practising his manoeuvres in a jail cell on a board that couldn’t roll or in the yard.
“Prison just taught me that God is in control – not me. Before my dad died (in 2008, aged 54) he just told me that I need God. I mean, I always believed because of yiayia, she always told me about Jesus and stuff, but I just didn’t quite get it … and then before dad died, he said – read the Bible ’cause I am not going to be around forever.
“And then he died, and I read it, and all the advice, everything I needed was in there. It said it – call on me and I’ll help you…
“You know, when you are in prison, you are around murderers and crazy gangsters and sometimes people just get in shits with each other, and the next thing you know – either you’ll have to do some serious damage to protect yourself, to get more time, or someone is going to really hurt you. I started praying the prayers in the Bible, I said ‘God please help me out of this one’, and then, somehow, a lot of problems just went away.
“You know, like the person just changed their mind the next day. It just taught me to trust God once and for all.”
Tas’ honesty hits straight away.
“I pray every day but then I feel like a bad hypocrite. Because the more I read the Bible the more I see that I can’t really obey it.”
Tas is turning 39 in September. After all this hell of a mayhem that his life was, I am compelled to ask what drew him back to skateboarding.
Was it that he felt he didn’t achieve something? Maybe that faithful ‘900’, a 2 ½ revolution aerial spin – that, years before – in 1999, he was trying so hard to pull off and become the first skater ever to do this trick? Or that, simply, skating was his life?
“It’s both – skating is my life, a part of me. Helen, when she was coming up on weekends to visit me, she would bring my board, then she found where the vert ramp was, and we went on weekends leave to Albury, to train. Then she told me she wanted me to do a 900 for Christmas.
“Two and a half years later I finally got it for her.”
While still in jail, Tas was approached by his long time friend and once skateboarder Eddie Martin to tell his and his brother’s story. He had one good reason to accept.
“I didn’t want the Pappas brothers to be remembered as maniacs. There are three sides to every story – my side, your side and the truth.”
Judging by his dark sense of humour that he tells his story with, I fail when I suggest that he may not regret his teenage lifestyle.
“I regret everything! I’m just telling the story – all I can do is laugh about it.
“All you can do is laugh. I mean, what are you going to do – sit down and cry for the rest of your life?
“Of course I have regrets – I lost my kids you know. I wish I had worked out I had a borderline personality disorder earlier in life and got on the right medication…
“But if this can help, if this is the path God has led me down, so that I can talk to someone who might be heading that way – so be it! Fine, then that’s God’s rule, but I know I made a lot of dumb decisions, and he helped me out of all my stuff.”
And, if he had a chance to do it all over again, what would he do differently? He would probably just be Tas again, he says with a chukle.
“‘Cause I’m still me, I would probably just make the same mistakes – I’m only a human…”
“I just didn’t want me and my brother to be remembered just as, you know, a couple of fuck-ups. I wanted to do something right for my family name.
“‘Cause you know, my yiayia saw her name get dragged through the margins, my dad died and I just tried my best to get something right.
“Once you let yourself go down that path, it’s too easy to go back – so you’ve got to keep your guard up about yourself.”
And with the documentary hitting the cinemas on 10 July, Tas hopes it will be a platform for his two kids in the US to see his side of the story – his truth.
“The film is a platform for my kids in America to one day see it and see my side of the story and see that I’m not just a bloody animal. That I had issues. That I love them. That I’m waiting for them.
“And to show people how merciful God was. You can turn to him.
“My hopes are … to see where everything takes me and just try my best. Maybe do talks with young crew who’ve gone down the wrong path, just try my best to give back.
“I’d like to skate again.”
All This Mayhem (a film by Eddie Martin, produced by George Pank, Eddie Martin & James Gay Rees) is in cinemas from July 10, exclusive to Cinema Nova, Melbourne and Dendy Newtown, Sydney. The DVD and Digital HD release will follow on September 10.