Published February 19, 2010
Poppen is the man who, in an attempt to get his kids out of the house on Christmas Day in 1965, rigged a couple of skis together, attached them to a rope and created the 'Snurfer' — the contraption that would later morph into the snowboard.
Nearly 45 years after creating the first-generation snowboard, Poppen lives in the Atlanta area. He's 79 and hasn't been on the hill for a few years. When he watches the Olympics, he's amazed and humbled to see how far his creation has come.
"It just makes me feel good," Poppen said. "It makes me smile and think, it all started in my garage and backyard as a simple something to get children outside."
Like so many great ideas, it was born out of a combination of desperation and inspiration.
It was Christmas Day and Poppen's wife was extremely pregnant and not faring well with the baby. Poppen already had two kids, who were antsy. Dad simply needed to find something to do with them.
Poppen, a wannabe surfer at heart, looked at the snow-covered sand dunes behind the house in Muskegon, Mich., and saw the possibilities. A permanent wave, he thought. He bound the two skis together with a rope, pulled the rope in front of the skis, "and the kids started having a ball," he said.
The Brunswick bowling company saw Poppen's invention and signed a manufacturing deal with Poppen. Together, they sold about a million Snurfers over 10 years.
The boards were largely thought of as a sled-like toy for the back hills and backyards until the late '70s, when Jake Burton saw them and realized they could be refined and turned into something much more.
"I had a vision there was a sport there," Burton said. "There was more than just a sledding thing. I didn't invent it. It had been around. I credit myself with knowing that it could be more than that. But I had no clue whatsoever that you'd be building parks and halfpipes and that kind of thing."
Burton became a multimillionaire by bringing the boards to the masses and introducing them to ski resorts, which initially had no use for them. He has always credited Poppen for the invention.
"He never, ever made any bones about that," Poppen said. "If you go to his factory in Vermont, there's a big wall with the history of the snowboard, and the Snurfer's on there."
About two years ago, Poppen went to Taos Ski Valley Resort in New Mexico to participate in a ribbon cutting when it became one of the final holdouts to allow snowboarders on the terrain.
That resort, like so many others, came to realize snowboarders spend lots of money and aren't as rogue and dangerous as so many people thought early on.
"Turned out, there were good friends of the management who said, 'You won't let my kid snowboard and I've got to go where he's going,'" Poppen recalled. "That's all that took."
Now, snowboarding is an industry valued at between $500 million to $1 billion a year, depending on whether apparel is included in the math.
With their Olympic performances, White and Bright could shoot the numbers even higher. Bright's win was the fourth gold medal for he country of Australia, not known for its winter sports but certainly in possession of a new winter star. White has already made millions, though more impressively, he snapped a six-year winning streak for "American Idol." More than 30 million watched the NBC broadcast that included his winning run, which beat Idol on Wednesday night.
"Everyone else saw the future, but I have to be frank, I didn't," Poppen said. "Except during that winter of '66. We'd go out and ride heavy snow on dunes because it was really good in deep powder. They said, 'Ya know, this is too much fun, it's going to be in the Olympics.' And sure enough, they were right."