CARLSBAD — During his youth, Sal Masekela lived in the shadow of his father, South African anti-apartheid activist and jazz legend Hugh Masekela who is best known for the 1968 hit, “Grazin’ in the Grass.”
Today Sal enjoys global popularity as the co-host of “Daily 10,” a countdown of top 10 entertainment stories on the E! network. He is also host of the X Games and Winter X Games on ESPN and is an avid surfer and snowboarder himself.
Now 38, Sal is a self-made man whose road to celebrity began right here in North County.
In 1988 Sal’s mother and stepfather uprooted the family from Staten Island, N.Y., and settled in Carlsbad. Although he was raised on hip hop, Sal became intrigued with the surf culture. He still remembers the day he mustered up the courage to tell a student in his government class at Carlsbad High School that he was going to learn to surf.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said without any hesitation, ‘You guys don’t even swim, how you gonna learn to surf?’” Sal said. “First instinct, ‘knock this dude out.’ However, as I sized him up, I realized he really thought he was making a public service announcement. He was curious as to how I could possibly defy this urban legend that in his world had to be true.”
Matters didn’t improve when Sal visited a friend’s home and put on a wetsuit for the first time.
“Everyone started laughing,” he said. “I had it on backwards. The zipper was in the front.”
When Sal arrived at Tamarack Beach, his new friends paddled out never thinking they’d see him again. They realized they underestimated him when he appeared in the water.
“I asked, ‘What do I do now?’” he said. “I paddled and rode a wave on my belly. Right as I got to shore I stood up. It was for five seconds. Those seconds changed my life. It was revealed to me that this was what I was going to do. That was really when everything changed. All that concerned me was that I was going to be a surfer.”
For more than a month Sal surfed every day, rain or shine.
“I knew I had to catch up,” he said. “Surfing is not easy. It’s the hardest sport you can learn by far. It ended up being more than I could imagine. Twenty years later I speak on behalf of the culture and have traveled around the world. All that I have professionally comes from surfing.”
Sal worked menial jobs to support his passion. His break came when he was hired as a receptionist for Transworld Publishing, which produced surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding magazines.
“They were involved in Board Aid in Big Bear in 1993,” he said. “They couldn’t find anyone to emcee. I piped up and said I thought I could do it. They remembered that I did karaoke and said ‘sure.’”
Other events followed. In December 1999 Sal was recruited by ESPN to cover the X Games.
“Basically, they were paying me to interview my friends,” he said. “A year later I became a full-fledged reporter for ESPN and later a sideline reporter for NBA in 2003 and 2004. In 2006, I got the opportunity to do “Daily 10” on E!”
Over the years Sal also became a successful entrepreneur.
In return for his good fortune, Sal co-founded Stoked Mentoring in 2005 with Steve Larosiliere. The nonprofit uses life skills associated with action sports to help at-risk kids in Los Angeles and New York City.
He also caught the acting bug in 2007 when he appeared in the Oscar-nominated movie, “Surf’s Up.”
Last week Sal left for South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup (soccer). ESPN’s coverage will include a 10-part series titled “Umlando” which is Zulu for “Through My Father’s Eyes.” It features Sal with his father, Hugh, exploring the people, culture, history and beauty of South Africa.
“I’m over the moon with this project,” he said.
Sal still calls North County home and returns every chance he can. He’s already been here five times this year.
“I’m a couch surfer,” he said. “I have friends from Carlsbad to Cardiff.”
When he’s in town, Sal visits favorite haunts like Mr. T’s in Solana Beach and Ki’s in Cardiff for breakfast, Calypso in Leucadia for dinner and Zen Bu in Cardiff for sushi.
“Yogi’s is my ‘University of Sports Bars,’” he said. “I graduated from ‘Friday nights at Yogi’s.’ That was part of my coming of age, some of the best times of my life.”
When he’s in town, Sal also performs public service work by getting old friends back in the water.
“A lot of them don’t surf anymore because they are tired after work,” he said. “If there was anything that keeps you young, it’s surfing. I love being my age and getting some dude off the couch and keeping that kid in him alive.”