When I was in middle and high school, there was a kid in my class named Dave Ringo, who, thanks to an unjust genetic mutation, was a gifted athlete in spite of himself. He spent the entire weekend and most of the week drinking and smoking in bad company. Yet he could still stagger onto a field or gym floor and dominate whatever sport he felt like playing.
Dave wasn't big on organized sports. Football was too time-consuming and disciplined. And even though he could dunk easily, basketball was way too uncool for him. That isn't to say that he didn't have a specialty, though.
Dave had giant legs that lifted him off the ground like bionic pogo sticks. His arms, roped with muscles, seemed to stretch to his shins. He possessed a long swimmer's torso, and he moved with the agility of an Airedale ripping into a woodchuck. And despite what we'd heard about the mellowing effects of marijuana, he had a mean streak that bordered on the sadistic.
In short, Dave was designed by God to play dodgeball. This was the one gift that Dave seemed determined not to waste, either, and on some level, he'd made the decision that instead of leading our football team to glory, he would settle for terrorizing gym classes.
Looking back, it is now clear that our phys ed teacher was in on this. Dodgeball in its basic form was already a painful place where self-esteem simply tried to disappear into a corner. But Coach "Pep" Johnson also liked to add a few of his own personal touches.
As the game wore on, for instance, he would roll more of the hard, red rubber playground balls onto the floor. The balls he inserted got progressively smaller and easier to palm; as the number of players remaining on the floor dwindled, he would also advance the boundary line separating the two teams. Not only did the closer lines make it difficult to actually avoid a missile, but they allowed the thrower to take a long, running approach, adding more velocity to the by-now softball-sized projectile. I still remember being pinned against the gym wall as Dave, starting at the far side of the floor, came sprinting toward us, screaming like a madman.
I -- along with every other mediocre athlete in my school -- hated Dave Ringo. Even now, a quarter-century later, I find myself daydreaming that things have worked out justly: He weighs 300 pounds and, what with his two artificial knees and bloated liver, finds it nearly impossible to walk up a flight of stairs without hacking up chunks of his blackened lungs.
If I am honest with myself, I know that one reason I've kept myself in reasonably good physical condition all these years is the hope that someday I'll get revenge. It has finally come to pass. In the process, an important truth has revealed itself: When it comes to dodgeball, it's less gratifying to eventually beat the Dave Ringos of the world than it is to become them.
For many people, every dodgeball game was like a tiny tour of Vietnam. The best they could hope for was to come out of the jungle with a very slight injury that would cut short their duty and send them packing home -- limping, perhaps, but only slightly impaired compared with what might have happened. With the appropriate stimulus, these people can still suffer flashbacks. Generally speaking, they are known as "girls."
"Dodgeball was one big welt," remembers Kat, normally a successful and self-possessed graphic artist. "Everything was going right with the world until it came to dodgeball. All adult supervision disappeared, and it was every kid for herself. Suddenly, everybody was my nemesis. That ball was coming 200 miles an hour at my little thigh. I felt like a veal."
My father-in-law, Blair, remembers more or less the same thing, though from the opposite perspective. "We used to play in a big iron cage," he says wistfully. Blair, now 76 years old, is often ill, and there are many days when he feels bad. But the subject of dodgeball brings a dreamy, far-away look to his eyes. "I still remember the girls squealing," he says, smiling nostalgically.
For others, dodgeball informed childhood to such a degree that even now, the game remains a touchstone, a subject that can resuscitate more vivid physical memories than a first kiss. We call these people "boys." The blood, screaming and humiliation have faded with time until only beautiful memories remain.
"We had guys in our class who could throw the ball so hard that it would actually knock a person's legs out from under him when he jumped in the air," recalls Gary, an artist. "It was a fake sort of thing: You pump, the guy jumps in the air, and you throw into his legs and just take them right out and he falls on his head."
"Oh, yes!" adds Paul, an environmental engineer. "I loved dodgeball. I remember how we eliminated the 'gimmies' first -- the wimps and nerds who would just cower in the corner."
"Dodgeball," adds Jesse, who works for Qwest, "is what being a kid is all about -- getting your head taken off with a ball. It's awesome."
For most guys, even having been a regular target can inspire gauzy childhood memories. After all, while everyone may not have loved dodgeball, everyone did understand that it was a rite of passage. "I went to my thirtieth high school reunion, and this guy came up to me," recalls D.J., a lawyer. "He said, 'We didn't know each other real well, but you and me were always cowering in the corner during dodgeball games.'" Of course D.J. remembered him right away, and they enjoyed a pleasant reminiscence.
Indeed, like devastating acne and the SATs, part of the appeal of the game is that it is a constant of childhood no matter where you grew up. When the subject of dodgeball is raised (or "murderball," "slaughterball" or -- in one pre-PC case recalled by an Iowa friend -- "smear the queer"), a kid from California is instantly on familiar ground with one from Alabama or Maine. No matter where your gym class was, there were always the very hard red spheres, the wicked slapping sound when a ball hit the wall next to your ear, the pitiless gym teacher who always seemed to get more pleasure out of the mayhem than necessary.
Inexplicably, there are people who have started to question whether such things are good for kids. "I can find few redeeming qualities in dodgeball," David Kahan, an assistant professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University wrote recently in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Another professor, Dennis Docheff, agreed: "A person trying to record the positive attributes of dodgeball would end up with a very short list. In today's world, with so many things breeding violent behavior in children, there is no room for dodgeball anymore."
Several school districts, including those in Austin, Texas, and Fairfax County, Virginia, have banned dodgeball. Arguing that any activity that uses children as targets, rewards aggression, picks on the weak and celebrates pain should raise warning flags on the ship of self-esteem, Neil Williams, chairman of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, has placed dodgeball at the top of his widely cited "Physical Education Hall of Shame." Dodgeball, he warns, "is a lawsuit waiting to happen."
And yet. The truth is that when it comes down to it, dodgeball is just one of those terrible things, like pegging squirrels with a slingshot, that kids know are very, very bad -- and yet can't help enjoying. The rules are simple, the goals are clear. From chaos, a form of order is achieved. "I got into it as a way to get back at the kids who gave me a hard time during the day," explains Mitch, a teacher.
The game is becoming part of a growing list of activities (jarts, mini-bikes, senseless property damage) that protective parents once took delight in themselves, but now believe are too distressing for their own children. Mr. Hall of Shame himself admits as much.
"I have to say I enjoyed it," Professor Williams acknowledged to Education Week magazine last year when pressed on the subject of childhood dodgeball. "I was a skinny little runt of a guy, but I was incredibly sneaky and nasty in the game."
Recently, I randomly approached a group of three guys working out together at my health club. Without explanation or even introducing myself, I barged in. "'Dodgeball,'" I said. "What do you think of?" No one batted an eye.
"Bloody nose?" suggested one.
"Broken finger," another answered.
"Loved it," they all agreed.
"You get out there, and you're just jumping and diving and getting hit by the ball, and people love it," promises Reed Davis, recreation coordinator for the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District. "It's great to watch adults transform into kids. This will be our third tournament. Each one has gotten a little bigger than the previous one."
Davis says he got the idea for hosting adult dodgeball contests after attending a conference for recreation directors in Illinois (which also happens to be the home of the recently formed National Amateur Dodge Ball Association). Although the rules of the game are essentially the same as everyone remembers, he has made a few concessions to players' physical security.
For starters, Davis says, "We don't use the hard red balls. There's a little more injury with those." Instead, the rec district provides specially made rubber-coated foam balls that, Reed insists, "wouldn't even hurt if you hit someone in the head at point-blank range."
Also, Davis adds, each team must have three men and three women, a structure designed to dilute the testosterone levels that spike naturally during dodgeball. "When you have the co-rec set up, the games don't get as, um, escalated," he explains.
Once the logistics of finding three guys with a free Friday night are addressed, gathering men for my team for a November tourney at the Sheridan Rec Center turns out to be no problem. In fact, not only are they willing, but without exception, their eyes widen in wonder, as if I were asking them to judge a lap-dance contest.
"Oh, yeah! I'd do that," says Joel, a firefighter and engineer. "With the red balls, right?"
"That was one of my favorite games!" adds Rob, another engineer. "Are they going to use the red balls?"
Mitch, my daughter's gentle, bookish English teacher, also signs on alarmingly fast for a man who is considered a role model for children. "I am the king of dodgeball!" he growls, his eyes already hardening.
Rounding out the team with women wasn't so easy. Jennifer, who works for the City of Boulder, explains why: "I grew up in Nebraska, so dodgeball was really big. I remember getting pegged with the red balls. I know the guys who are playing are really competitive, and I didn't want to be a walking target."
Jennifer first heard about South Suburban's tournaments a couple of months ago. With a mixture of anticipation and fear, she phoned Davis to find out the type of balls being used. Assured that soft foam was in and hard rubber was out, she signed up. This would be her second tournament; in fact, she'd talked so glowingly about the first tournament that this time around she was bringing two teams.
My first female commitment is Liz, a physical therapist who, though reluctant at first, has some pleasant associations with blasting a few of her teenage son's friends during an informal dodgeball game staged at a birthday party. Mitch agrees to drag along his girlfriend and another woman, both young, former college athletes.
On the night of the tournament, both Rob and Mitch also bring along friends who plead desperately for a chance to play. After a quick tryout (fun is nice, but this is dodgeball), they are signed up. Together, we are the [Boston] Weltics. The Sheridan Rec Center boasts a suitably old-school gymnasium: folded up bleachers against the walls and a vast canvas curtain bisecting the floor into two dodgeball arenas.
After a few early missteps -- it turns out the light balls are pretty difficult to catch -- the Weltics coalesce into an unstoppable machine. It is just as I remember it, except perhaps without the nagging sense of impending pain: The balls, light but still capable of carrying a decent charge, slapping into flesh; the crowd's collective groans as a throw slams home off someone's head (new rules say head shots don't count, but who cares?). And, of course, the patently false claims of a successful dodge, despite what we all just saw. Joel shakes his head continually. "This game is full of rampant dishonesty," he notes sadly.
Still, it all ends as it should. In the final round, the Weltics face off against the Ball Crushers, who, by virtue of having matching T-shirts, deserve to die. Alas, the Crushers were not to be so easily vanquished. Led by a vicious blond woman with an arm like a howitzer and the elusiveness of a border crosser, they, well, crush the Weltics two games straight.
Fortunately, the tournament is double elimination. Led by Brent, one of our late-arriving ringers -- who, in addition to being six-four with an arm like a trebuchet, happens to be a gym teacher who does permit dodgeball in his classes -- the Weltics regroup. The best-of-three series ends as beautifully as a sunset, with four Weltics pelting a single woman from the Crushers as she cowers against the gym wall like a chipmunk in a Havahart trap.
Watching from the sidelines, Rob breathes a heavy sigh of contentment. "This," he says -- and I would swear his eyes mist up as four balls at once rocket toward the girl, two of them spanking loudly into her legs -- "is what it's all about."
While the Weltic men, like dogs, were happy simply to have demonstrated our complete and total dominance over others, the team's women found satisfaction prevailing in the game's symbolic battles. "When I played as a kid, it was always a thrill getting the ringleader boy out," recalls Claire. "Same thing tonight."
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Liz, whose bazooka arm always seemed to catch at least one opposition male underestimating her, agreed: Eliminating the buttheads -- referred to by the Weltics as "knee-brace," "baldy" or "the scary guy with the goatee" -- was sweet.
"The guy with the goatee -- he had those killer eyes -- didn't expect me to come after him. I think he had two balls in his hands. Claire said to me, 'Are you crazy?' as I advanced. But instead of backing up, he just crouched down. So I nailed him. And what really made me all the more satisfied was that he thought I was too chicken to go after him. But he was wrong."
With the glow of victory still warming us like a belt of whiskey, several of the Weltics are already planning for the next South Suburban tournament, on December 13. Beyond that, of course, is the National Amateur Dodge Ball Association's 3rd Annual Winter Nationals, on January 4, in Schaumburg, Illinois, home of the three-year-old NADA. After that, who knows? I'm thinking we could go all the way.
Eat shit, Dave Ringo. We rule.