A Sport to Dye For
In the beginning, there were no BushMaster 2000s, no Redz Comfort Gear, no 32 Degrees Defender Goggle systems, but rather loggers and ranchers, rough men of the forests and the plains, and they needed a modern tool to identify their interests from inside a pickup or astride a horse. So in 1970, the Nel-Spot 007 marking gun was invented as a convenient way to identify trees that were to be felled and cows that would be cut from the herd.
Not far behind were the anonymous woodsmen and herders who, after a long and strenuous morning of work in the dissipating mists of the forests and fields, grew bored. And one of them (a pioneer lost to time) sometime, somewhere, wondered: What would happen if, instead of a tree, I shot that other guy with this thing?
Next came the philosopher-sportsmen -- a stockbroker, a writer, a Vietnam vet and a sporting-goods seller. In 1976, a friend of one had just returned from Africa, where he had hunted cape buffalo. He raved about the primal rush of adrenaline that had surged through him as he faced down the animal. Smells were more pungent, and there were sharp edges around his vision. Was it possible, he'd asked, to reproduce this feeling of aliveness in a bloodless way? And so began the discussion.
They were all loud and literate men who drank and played with vigor. Bob Gurnsey, the sporting-goods retailer, raced cars. Charles Gaines, who'd discovered a bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger in his classic documentary film Pumping Iron, had gone scuba diving alongside a hooked marlin. Hayes Noel, a stockbroker, was a former Division I football player who, when confronted with a mugger once, grew furious and nearly beat the man to death with a nearby trash can. Lionel Atwill was a hunter and a former member of the Special Forces who spent 1968 running reconnaissance missions in Vietnam.
Yet the men were smart, too, modern Hemingways captivated by the brutal and the base. Before long -- and usually in that too brief twilight between sobriety and drunkenness called brilliance -- they began to wonder aloud if it might be possible to hunt another man without necessarily killing him. "It was very high-minded -- one of those boozy philosophical discussions," recalls Atwill.
Later that year, in Florida, over gin and grilled marlin, one of the men, a woodsman and a hunter, further theorized that in this Most Dangerous Game, a rural boy, attuned to the rhythms of nature, would almost certainly come out ahead. Noel responded that the cutthroat world of Wall Street and subways prepared one just as well for primal combat. With no practical means to solve it, the argument would rage on for years.
In 1981, the two worlds at last met. A friend of a friend had run across the Nel-Spot 007 and told Gaines. Intrigued, Gaines shot his nine-year-old son, Shelby, to ensure the paint gun's safety -- "He was the only one who would hold still," Atwill recalls. Gaines then proposed a game to settle the question of who would win a contest of instinct and cunning in the woods.
Twelve men attended that now-legendary contest on a fine New Hampshire morning in June. The rural contingent was represented by a farmer, a building contractor and a state forester. Others -- a film producer, another stockbroker, a venture capitalist, a trauma surgeon -- were creatures of the city. There were no women.
In the New England woods, they prepared their experiment. They laid out a 400-acre field, divided into quadrants, with twelve flags dotting the area. Each person had contributed $175 to be supplied with his own Nel-Spot marker. Gaines provided the food and beer. At the starting whistle, it was to be every man for himself, the goal to acquire as many flags as possible without getting shot. For eye protection, they wore shop goggles, which fogged up easily.
Conclusions about the new game of paintball would be drawn later.
It is clear that 48-year-old Suzie Steves has always wanted to do what she's doing presently: ruling west Pueblo's Fashion Hotline from behind a chest-high counter littered with hangers and consignment receipts. Loud techno mall music thumps over the store's speakers. She had to wait for her kids to grow up, and her first store started smaller than small: $1,500 cash and a bundle of consignment clothes she'd gathered by calling up her friends, all crammed into 800 square feet. Twelve years later, it's all paid off.
The Hotline forms an L shape with Suzie's other store, The Expo, an emporium of retro junior wear: sparkly tops, flared slacks, racks topped with enticing hand-lettered signs reading "Cute Pants!" Suzie's daughter, Melanie, handles one of the cash registers, while Melanie's toddler -- Suzie's granddaughter -- wanders back and forth between the stores. On the outside, the two outlets occupy a bunker-like white cement building on a wide street. But inside, this is Suzie's Garment District, where clothes have always meant something more than fashion.
"I've always liked to dress up and sew," Suzie explains. "Sometimes I'll show up in a big blond wig. When my husband wants another woman, I say I can do that...That's why I liked Cher so much when I was growing up. She was always going to wear that sexy dress..."
Last spring, Cher was on her mind as Suzie prepared for the Rocky Mountain Paintball three-man tournament in Colorado Springs. "I wore this white wedding dress," she explains. "I wanted to be a fairy, so it had wings on the back. I took along a little baton, and I was throwing glitter. There was this other team that was really going after us, but I killed a lot of them. They didn't expect a girl to be up front bunkering people in a dress."
"That was the first time I saw Suzie," recalls Anthony Navarro, owner of Action Pursuit Paintball in Greeley. "She flew over a bunker and just drilled this guy in the throat. She was wearing a flowing white wedding dress. It was amazing. She's got to be the best player in the state."
"She's the most aggressive player I've ever seen," adds Dustin Milyard, Suzie's son-in-law, who has played both with and against her. "It's unreal. Sometimes I think, 'It's not right for your mother-in-law to come at you like that.'"
Mike Pagano, a team member, agrees. "She's meaner than the guys," he says.
"Oh, Mike," says Suzie. "You're so sweet."
"No, really," he continues. "I'd choose her almost over any guy player in the state. At this tournament in Denver last year," he remembers, "she runs all the way to the fifty-yard line, bunkers this guy and takes another guy out and then another guy. By the time we got there, there were only two other guys to kill. Each time she killed someone I'd hear her yell, 'You're gone!'"
"Oh, Mike," she says. "You're just being nice."
It wasn't so long ago that paintball still wasn't out of the woods. With exceptions, it was a war game that spoke most persuasively to beer-swilling camo-draped rednecks, goateed survivalists and well-armed militia members who, in between stockpiling canned goods, needed some way to practice their maneuvers in preparation for NATO's impending invasion.
Over time, though, the game moved out of the forest and onto landscaped football-sized fields littered with faux obstacles, and then into brightly lit theme parks. Today, corporate planners pay paintball vendors thousands of dollars to plan team-building exercises. Vans and Nikes make their own specialized footwear for the sport. There is a professional paintball circuit, which Coca-Cola has sponsored.
The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association pegs the game as the fourth-fastest-growing "extreme sport" in the country, behind only in-line skating, mountain biking and skateboarding, and just ahead of snowboarding and trail running. In 1999, about 6.5 million people tried to drill each other with vegetable-based dyes. (Most early paintballs were filled with actual paint and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, which used the same gel-encapsulating machines used to make their drugs.)
In short, it has become less of an isolated afternoon goof and more of an obsession. For more people than you might guess, it has become a way of life.
"Without sounding completely corny, paintball changed my life," says Scottie Flint.
A former junior hockey and college rugby player, Flint was happy enough as a successful stockbroker until about ten years ago, when he discovered paintball. At first it seemed an unlikely fit, as he had never had an interest in actual firearms. "I don't own any real guns," he says. "I never have. I've never hunted. I mean, I'm a stockbroker."
But the idea of simulated weapons and fake battle grabbed him. "It brings out that primal urge in everybody," he says. "The thrill of the chase, of being chased."
At first Flint tried to fit in both of his passions. He bought a paintball field in Sedalia and ran it while continuing to work days as a stockbroker. But the dual life took a toll, so he reluctantly sold the field. It wasn't long, though, before he realized that he'd had his priorities exactly reversed, and four years ago he quit the broker business for good. "I realized that what I really wanted was paintball," he says.
In 1992, Flint started his own professional team, the Colorado Avalanche. Three years later, a hockey team moved to Denver from Quebec and decided it wanted the same name. "They had so many lawyers on me, we finally just decided to sign the name over to them," Flint recalls. Today the paintball team is known as the Fury.
Unlike Pat Bowlen, Flint doesn't make any money on his professional sporting franchise. Instead, he spends a little over $200,000 a year to maintain the team, which he also plays on. The cash covers the cost of his players' equipment -- among other things, they will go through about one and a half million rounds of paint in the next six months -- as well as all of their travel. This spring-to-fall season, the Fury will cover more than 40,000 miles flying to tournaments across the country and in France, England and Sweden.
In October, the Fury will travel to Orlando to compete in the World Professional Paintball League championships. The culmination of the eight-tournament, twenty-team circuit will pay out a top prize of $50,000. An additional $25,000 in sponsorship incentives will be available to the players, as well as crates of free equipment and assorted paintball swag.
Besides spending about as much money to support a team of game-players as President Bush will earn this year, Flint has also found release in lobbying. Two years ago, following the deadly shootings at Columbine High School, the city council of Flint's hometown of Parker considered banning paintball, which at the time seemed a little too derivative for anyone's comfort.
Flint showed up at a meeting to set the record straight. "I stood up and educated them," he recalls. "I brought in paintballs, and I said, 'If you guys think these are bad, I'd be happy to put one in my mouth and eat it,' and then I did. It's all vegetable-based, you know." In the end, he agreed to work with a local sheriff's officer to write local regulations for the game, though nothing came of it.
Still, it's what happens on the field of play that is what Flint now lives for. His ten-man team uses top-of-the line guns, which cost several thousand dollars apiece. They train hard to stay in top physical condition, and they diagram plays for the anchors, sweeps and front players that make the Broncos' offensive strategies look like the work of half-wits.
The time limit for a professional game is fifteen minutes, but contests rarely make it past five. "Professional players are fast, extremely smart, and very, very, very aggressive," Flint says. "Most lower-level players are more passive. At our level, it's whoever can shove it down the other side's throats first. Playing on and owning a pro team: I wouldn't trade it for anything."
He's itching to spread the gospel. Two weeks ago Flint bought five flat acres near the Denver Tech Center for a paintball field he intends to build that can be rented out to highly stressed executives. The project should be complete and ready for live fire by June 15, bringing to six the number of paintball fields along the Front Range.
Most paintball players, of course, play at lesser levels of intensity. There is a lively and competitive amateur tournament circuit, which, unlike the pro division, actually includes a few women. It moves around the country during the spring and summer months. Two weeks ago it hit Las Vegas. There, a mile north of the Strip, on an indoor arena floor covered with sand, dressed in a tight black blouse slit up the sides, 1970s-style bell-bottoms and new Nike cleats ("It's so hard to find a boys' three and a half," she says), Suzie Steves dominated.
Although she usually plays with her family -- husband Mark, son Marshal and daughter Melanie, collectively known as the Sharpshooters -- this time she hooked up with a group of young men pulled together for the Nevada contest. In one game, she raced down the field and immediately executed three men by herself. Her adopted team's inexperience showed, though, and when she turned around for support, she noticed the other four members of her team were already dead on the sideline. Finally she was cut down. Local media swarmed around her.
"She's a great player," says Joe Barach, a professional player for the Fury. "Her family is a big part of the tournament scene, and they dominate here. Maybe it's some sort of mental family connection. I think [her son] Marshal is their star. But she's dressed better."
There is a story about Suzie Steves that is already mythic among certain groups of people in the state. It hints at the transformative power of paintball. It's also all you need to know about God, guns, guts and glory, at least in a positive, family-friendly fashion.
A few decades ago, Suzie's life would have seemed ordinary in a predictable, unswerving sort of way. Today it seems unusual for the same reasons. She grew up on a farm a dozen miles outside of the city with her parents, who loved her in a strict, caring manner. As a girl she played in the nearby stream with her two sisters. Most of her trips into the city involved church.
When she was eighteen, she married the only boyfriend she'd ever had. They met at a church dance and dated all through high school. Thirty years later, they are still happily married. For two decades, she methodically raised a family of three children. All remain close by, and the family tries to meet for dinner once a week. Suzie is also a committed wife: At regular intervals, she lures her husband out to one of their forty acres for a session of steamy parking.
While growing up, she attended services every single Sunday, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later, she demanded the same of her family. "We were definitely very churchy," says Mark. "That's just the way we grew up."
That is, until a day about three years ago, when, at the urging of her children, Suzie tried paintball. At first Mark hadn't approved of the game. "No way," he'd said. "That's for young guys, Army guys in camo." When she eventually did try it, she didn't like it. She didn't get it. She wasn't very coordinated. "She can't even ride a bicycle, she wiggles so much," says Mark. It hurt when she got shot, and she was shot a lot.
But then, slowly, Suzie realized that she was becoming quite good. For once, her four-foot, eleven-inch size worked in her favor; it turned out she made a very small target. Soon she couldn't imagine not playing. Inconveniently, though, most paintball tournaments are held on Sundays, and so Suzie and her family had a decision to make. "And that," says son-in-law Dustin, "is when paintball sort of became her religion."
"We may not do church anymore, but you can still live your gospel," Mark says. Despite the combative nature of the sport, the Steves family has been insistent about demanding moral conduct of itself and of its opponents on the field. All of which explains why, when Suzie discovered a player on the opposing team cheating during a paintball practice session last fall in Colorado Springs, she became furious.
The man, named Junior, denied it. But the evidence was clear. Besides, Junior had been known to bend the rules before, usually by quickly wiping off a telltale blot of paint, denying that he'd been hit and refusing to leave the field.
"When I was growing up, we were never allowed to cuss, and my kids aren't allowed to, either," Suzie says. "But when you get into your clothes and you have your gun, your language changes."
"I never heard her use swear words until she played paintball," Mark adds. "She sure didn't learn that language in church. That's locker-room talk."
Suzie approached Junior. "You're my little bitch now," she told him, adding, "Next game you'd better stay in the back, 'cause I'm coming after you." After thinking it over, though, she changed her mind. "Come to think of it, forget about next game. Me and you, right now, one on one."
There were about two dozen or so people watching, mostly men, and so Junior couldn't really say no and still hope to hold his head up. The two marched out onto the field. Spectators lined up along the fence.
At the opening whistle, Junior opened with frantic fire. "He just started dropping his hopper [firing all his ammunition] on me," says Suzie. When he finally slowed down, she pinned him in his bunker with covering fire. Then she bolted across the field to the bunker where Junior had holed up, backdoored around the obstacle and drilled him twice in the side. The whole thing took less than two minutes. Soon after that, Junior left.
"Poor Junior just got worked," says Mark. But, he adds, the episode was a clear justification for his family's strict code. "Paintball is very open to cheating. But with religion and good family values, I taught my family that you can't get along with cheating. You have to be honest to win."
"When we first played recreational paintball," says Melanie, "my mom wasn't really sure of herself, not very confident. But when we started playing in competition, she just woke up. It's just something she never had."
"I never did sports," Suzie says. "I was in pep club. Big deal. I remember my sophomore year I tried out for cheerleader. In those days, the student body voted for you, and then the faculty voted for you after that. Well, I got plenty of votes from the students, but then the teachers didn't vote for me. People told me to try out again, not to give up. But I wouldn't.
"So when I was bringing up my kids, I never wanted that to happen to them. I always wanted them doing something -- anything. That is so good for girls."
"I'd come home from track after a bad day, and I'd be like, 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" Melanie recalls. "And she'd just say, 'Oh, yes you do. It'll be better tomorrow.' And it always was."
"You've got to have sports," says Suzie. "You've got to have the release."
For the past several years, Suzie's kids have had a release other children can only dream about. "It's too cool to be able to shoot your parents in the field," says Melanie. "I get to shoot my brother and my husband and my father and my mother. I love that.
"But," she adds, "when we play together, that's great, too. We can sense what each other is doing. We'll kill off five people, just me and Mom. She'll run in front and draw the fire, and I'll take out the people."
"And can I just say that I cannot stand men that wimp?" Suzie adds. "After you get shot, you're supposed to put your gun in the air and walk off the field. You always get shot then -- people take shots at you. And the men will start screaming. And I just want to yell at them, 'Dude, if I could take it, you should be able to.' I mean, if you can't take it like a man, get off the field."
Still, there are limits to Suzie's combat-based brand of women's liberation. She says, "People are always saying to me, 'Let's put together an all girls' team! Wouldn't that be great?' And I'm like, 'No. I never want to play with all girls. They so suck.'"
Despite the family's gradual move away from church toward paintball, she still leads a women's class there every Thursday evening. It is a mixture of practical skills -- sewing, homemaking skills and so on -- and more spiritual matters relating to Scripture. "Like we teach," says Mark. "The husband is the king of the castle, and he should be treated like that. And, of course, the woman should be treated well, too."
Still, whenever there is a particularly important tournament, Suzie willingly takes herself out of the picture for the good of the family. "One thing about moms -- they want the best for their teams," she explains. "Being a wife, and good, I always want Mark's team to do good. Girls are good, but there's no substitute for a guy. So I play for other teams a lot."
One Valentine's Day, Suzie showed up at a paintball tournament wearing a short pink dress with a heart sewn on the butt. "And white leggings, of course," she adds. "This game can be tough on the legs." She has also worn a long, flapper-style camo number, a slinky black dress with Day-Glo paint splats and handprints on the butt, and lots of leather. "You can move just as well in a dress as in pants," she points out. "And they look all sexy and cute." This summer, for a big Chicago tournament, she is making a bodice. "You know, like Catherine Zeta-Jones wore in Zorro," she explains.
"She is a very sexy mother-in-law," says Dustin.
Once, at a tournament in Chicago, someone swiped Suzie's cleats, so she wore her high heels, which she still had on when she shot an executive for of one of the largest paintball equipment manufacturers in the country. "Everyone was like, 'Dude, a girl shot you,'" she says. "And I said, 'Yeah, one with heels, too.'"
On a recent weekend, Suzie is relatively subdued. She sports black leather pants, black cleats, a black hat turned backward and a short black jacket cinched fashionably tight around her waist. Her long black hair twists and falls down her back. In her hands she holds a $1,500 Alien Angel equipped with a $500 air tank.
The occasion is the Northern Colorado Paintball Championships, being held just outside of Greeley. The field is several acres of prime bottomland straddling the South Platte River. Giant cottonwoods line the riverbanks on both sides. On the east side of the Platte are the check-in area, air-fill station and equipment rental trailer -- a sort of DMZ. Children run around, yelling, playing tag, or splashing in the water. The Young Marines, pre-military kids dressed in fatigues and jungle greens, help out. The tournament is a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization, which is not officially linked to the Marines and which serves boys and girls ages eight to eighteen. A hundred feet away, a herd of sheep graze contentedly.
The west side of the river is the fire zone. Four fields sporting different obstacles are in action. The strangely delicate PFFFT-PFFFT-PFFFT sound of dozens of pressurized guns firing at once mixes with the staccato slap of hundreds of paint-filled capsules encountering bunkers, trees and limbs. Safety is a concern, and everyone who crosses the bridge into the tournament area is required to wear headgear that protects the eyes and throat. A number of spectators wearing the helmets and lounging wear have set up lawn chairs near the fields. From a distance, the helmets look like space-age gas masks, giving the whole scene a sort of vacation-in-Beirut feel.
The location has been used as a paintball field for years, but three years ago, the business was on the verge of going under. One day, the owner was complaining to a friend at the local Wal-Mart, and Anthony Navarro overheard the conversation. Not long after that, he owned the place. Since then, Navarro has traced the Scottie Flint course, steadily cutting back on his hours as a registered nurse and just as steadily adding to his hours spent as the head honcho of a paintball emporium.
Today's format is a five-man tournament. Eighteen teams have entered, some from as far away as New Mexico. At the start of each game, the squads gather on either side of the field, facing away from each other. There are four referees, each wearing a field-green jumpsuit and carrying a towel, which they hold up and crouch behind during the battles like cowardly bullfighters. It is difficult to contain live fire to a field, and on several occasions, a vicious firefight breaks out near a cluster of spectators, sending them diving for cover behind trees, logs and each other.
At the beginning of the game, the umpire gives a ten-second countdown and then suddenly shouts GOGOGOGO! The teams burst apart and spread across the field, firing at each other continuously. After the battle, the players file off the field and certify their guns. Anyone found to have used a gun discharging ammo at a velocity greater than 300 feet per second is penalized.
Although shooting your enemy is certainly the draw of the game, the actual goal is to pile up more points than your opponent. Grabbing the flag hanging in the middle of the field is worth 25 points. Carrying it to the opposing team's starting point earns another 50 points. Each person shot is five points, too, for a possible total of 100 points.
In her first game with a hastily assembled group of Sharpshooters once again not including Mark or Marshal, there is a misunderstanding about the countdown, and Suzie is drilled before she can even break out of her team's starting area. (Marshal's team will eventually win the tournament; in the semis, he'll shoot his mother, eliminating her.)
The second game is not much better. At the start, Suzie scoots to a nearby bunker, crouches behind it and quickly drills one of the enemy. "You are SO GONE!" she screams, just moments before getting shot herself.
After the game, Rick, of team No Bull, is jubilant. "I finally got her!" he says, adding, "Usually I'm on the receiving end of her shots."
"Suzie is probably the best-known paintball figure in the state," adds Mike, a teammate. "She's awesome. I have nothing but respect for her and the Sharpshooters. We got lucky today."
Still, by the third game, Suzie is plenty frustrated. At the GOGOGOGO! announcement, she bolts down the center of the field, crouching low. The engagement turns into a fast game of attrition, and after two minutes, there are only two players remaining on the field: Suzie and a single adversary. He is crouching behind a red, white and blue inflated bunker already splattered with paint. In the confusion of the battle, though, both have lost track of each other.
Suzie cautiously creeps around from behind her bunker, searching for the enemy. Spectators are not allowed to coach from the side, so instead they are left to cover their eyes and whisper to themselves, as if watching a horror movie: "No! No! Don't go there!" Unaware of the danger, Suzie moves directly into the man's line of sight, and he suddenly sees her. She is not more than twenty feet away. He lets fly with three shots in rapid succession. Incredibly, they all miss, smacking harmlessly into a vinyl bunker behind her.
Now aware of her opponent's position, Suzie quickly reverses field and, now out of sight of the man, backtracks to the other side of his bunker. He is still looking for her from the other side when she bursts from behind the obstacle and drills him in the back at point-blank range. The spectators, even those rooting for the other team, erupt in applause; some shake their heads.
"I thought for sure she was done," says one. "Amazing."
Suzie holds her gun above her head, jumping up and down, yelling.
Unlike the newfangled games of Abner Doubleday and James Naismith, both of which endured a slow acceptance, that first game of paintball two decades ago created an immediate flurry of attention. (It helped that at least three of the original participants were writers who chronicled it -- a coincidence that has seemed less and less fortuitous with passing years.) Television stations called. Taking all of about three weeks, Atwill pounded out a quick book on the subject. "I made up the rules as I went along," he recalls. "Mostly from old Army manuals." It sold surprisingly well.
There was even a surreal appearance on Nightline. With the discussion being moderated by substitute host Sam Donaldson, Atwill was to debate the subject with an opponent of the new game. A psychiatrist was flown into the studio for the show. Just seconds before going on the air, he turned to Atwill. "What is it we're supposed to be talking about tonight?" he asked. Later in the program, the opponent accused Atwill of being "a neo-fascist trying to ruin this country, just like the Boy Scouts."
Bob Gurnsey, meanwhile, with some help from Gaines, tried to capitalize on the phenomenon, moving to license franchises and control the concept of paintball fields. The two men even purchased an old plastics company in the Deep South that had been making car parts for General Motors, retooling it to manufacture a paintball gun they called the Splatmaster.
For a while, they cashed in. "Bob had been unemployed, and he went from asking 'What are we going to eat next week?' to 'I can't keep these damned barnacles off my sailboat,'" Atwill recalls. Before long, however, the game outgrew them all. Fields and new equipment sprang up across the country beyond the reach of licensing agreements, and soon paintball had become far bigger than the original players had imagined.
"It's unbelievable," Atwill says. "I don't think any of us ever thought the thing would become as big as it did. I mean, I could've been Air Atwill if I'd stuck with it."
Instead, Atwill, now a senior editor for Field and Stream magazine, and the others moved on. He played one or two times after that first game, mostly as a publicity stunt for a TV station that wanted to show its viewers the new game. "It's pretty strange to me," he says. "I mean, it's fun to do once or maybe twice, but some people...I just didn't have the epiphany. It was a good bunch of guys, but I wouldn't do it anymore."
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