There’s medieval torture, there’s hand-to-hand combat, there’s Brazilian bikini waxes — and then there’s elementary school athletics.
An evil unto itself, those seemingly innocent and carefree playground games of youth have never been for the weak of stature or character. How many of us don’t carry scars — emotional or physical — from haphazardly dangerous, occasionally humiliating and potentially bone-breaking activities like Red Rover, kickball, king of the hill or the politically incorrect “smear the queer” (where the kid holding the ball is deemed the “queer,” and a bloodthirsty, roving gang of fourth-graders will do everything in their power to tackle/pummel/kick the living shit out of the unfortunate). Not to mention all sorts of other destructive amusements we devised that have no name. (“Let’s see who can bounce little Jennie off the seesaw.”)
Yet, amazingly enough, some masochistic souls out there actually have a nostalgic yearning for these activities. And so we have Detroit Dodgeball.
The group falls under the umbrella of the Detroit Sports Club, directed by Bryan Ledin. A self-described sports junkie, Ledin worked in sales for 10 years before deciding he’d had enough of the corporate life. “I wanted to wake up every day and do something I loved,” he says, noting that throwing balls at people is far more fulfilling.
Several sports are included in the group, among them flag football and volleyball. Ledin decided to found the dodgeball leagues when he started getting requests from patrons right after the Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball was released last July.
The idea took off; the very first tournament had 27 six-person teams. Tournaments are hosted once a month, and there are even state and national finals.
But most of the curious get their start at the drop-in dodgeball sessions, every Wednesday at the Taylor Sportsplex. For $8 you can play from 7-9 p.m.; show up alone or with a team.
On one such Wednesday, about 75 men roam the court like caged hamsters on speed; the playing field is encapsulated in Plexiglas and chain link. There are three sections to the court; the middle is reserved for the playoffs between winning teams. A few metal bleachers are sparsely populated by bored-looking teens; the only girls wandering around are clearly admirers, not participants. Ledin says all ages of both sexes have played in tournaments, but tonight it’s all XY chromo — just immediately pre- and post-pubescent, to be exact.
The air is thick with competitive tension — or maybe it’s the lingering aroma of Polo Sport and legions of dirty sweat socks. When the buzzer sounds, the teams spring forward to grab their weapon of choice: Nerf balls coated with a layer of rubber, two per team. Then, with all the raw, unbridled energy of a seventh-grader on a Snickers and Mountain Dew binge, they whip the balls at their opponents with furious determination. Each game is timed at three minutes.
Ledin stands in a Plexiglas case, where he mans the games; he attempts to explain the renewed interest in the sport, in between a shower of balls slamming against the glass.
“Right now it’s mostly the high school and college crowd—”
“It’s something that gives everybody the opportunity to play —”
“For a lot of sports you have to be athletic, but young, old, whatever, they can relate to this —”
That last one had some speed on it.
Noticeably absent are those old-school, big red rubber kickballs o’ doom that, when hurled with a certain velocity, could literally break bones. (The author speaks from experience, with one fractured wrist.)
“Liability is something that’s always a concern,” Ledin says, offering one of the balls for examination. It’s squishy, but the rubber coating gives it a density that allows for pretty decent speed when chucked by a solid arm. Ledin claims they don’t hurt, but that guy who just got whacked in the face doesn’t seem to be too happy about it. Headshots don’t count, by the way, “but these are kind of hard to control,” Ledin says.
And if, for some masochistic reason, you yearn for those flying red orbs of destruction, good news: The Detroit Sports Club is starting up a kickball league in the summer.
Tonight, as the sweat-drenched air grows thicker, so does the raging testosterone. One man climbs the chain link fence, flails about and screeches like an ape. Several expel Braveheart-like battle cries before unleashing their fearsome, rubber-coated Nerf weapons.
Andy Provenzino, 17, offers a deeply introspective look into the appeal of the game: “I get to hit people with stuff.”
The sentiment is echoed by 19-year-old Matt Mahoney: “You can hit somebody with a ball and not get in trouble.”
There are no social mores, no constraining ethics on the dodgeball field; it’s mano a mano, no pity for the weak or the small. Wiry Andrew Scarton, 12, is on a team with men twice his age and size. The opponents go straight for him without mercy.
Wayne Whitney, 49, offers no apology for trying to pound the kid: “He can probably throw harder than I can.”
But Scarton makes up for lack of size with his speed; in a blur of movement, his spindly arms propel a ball that slams squarely into the chest of tattooed and pierced Justin Herriman, 22, who’d previously spent most of his time hopping up and down and screeching like a deranged chimp.
“It happens,” he says later, with a hint of a sheepish grin. “On any given day, the biggest guy can get hit by the littlest kid. That’s the way the game goes.”
Scarton admits he was a little intimidated (today is his first visit), but going up against guys twice his size “makes it harder and funner. It’s a challenge.”
Though it may be easy to roll a haughty eye at the playground chaos that’s unfolding here, one thing is clear — they’re all having much fun. Some say going to the gym is a great release for work tensions, but what could be more satisfying than chucking a ball at someone? Sure, it’s slightly sadistic and a little immature, but it’s also a hell of a good time.
“It’s a recreational sport,” Ledin says. “There are no superstar dodgeball players. It’s all about going back to the fifth grade and having a fun time.”
Detroit Dodgeball will hold a tournament to benefit the American Cancer Society on Saturday, April 9, at the Taylor Sportsplex, 13333 Telegraph Rd. For registration info, call 586-781-2756 or visit detroitsportsclub.com. Sarah Klein is Metro Times’ culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]