Hot wheels and dirty tricks

Jul 7, 1999 at 12:00 am

There are a lot of careers out there – sports marketing, cryptozoology, talk show host – that just were never thrown out to us in high school on career day.

One of them was Roller Derby queen. If it had been, I might have thrown away my cigarettes and my copy of Kafka’s Greatest Hits and spent hours flinging my nasty, pimply-faced colleagues into the rails at the local rink. It just never occurred to me as a career choice.

"Dr. Phillips High is right across the street, you could recruit right out of there," I tell Jerry Selzer, hoping to get those seething pits of teenage aggression the job opportunity that passed me up.

Selzer is with me at a taping of "Roller Jam," the newest incarnation of Roller Derby, which his grandfather founded. He says that the average age of the skaters is 25 and under, and that they have that "wonderful audience, males 12-38."

Still when he was approached by TNN about bringing the sport back, Selzer said, "What for?"

"I didn’t think the timing was right," he explains.

But the time will always be right to watch women on wheels grab somebody by the hair and whale on one another. "Roller Jam" caught on in a big way, and now airs several times a week on TNN.

"We never had lights and music like this," he says of the "Roller Jam" atmosphere which is part hockey game, part WCW, part track meet. "This is very ultimate sports, it’s very Gen X."

As for the players, he says. "They skate so much faster. They’re much better athletes" than the skaters in the ’70s, when after the games they "used to sit and have a beer and a cigarette."

Another difference, besides the fact that the skaters wear in-line skates now instead of the old-fashioned ones, is that back then, according to Selzer, "We tried to take people who had some charisma and bring it out." Now, he says the skaters have it naturally. You get the idea that having been raised on TV, they just know how to be stars. And they are.

On the California Quakes, three beauties with 14-karat blonde hair and the kind of bodies airbrush artists spend hours creating, skate as team within a team and the crowd goes wild.

A little old lady sitting nearby with a Medic Alert necklace is screeching about the New York Enforcers, "They’re gonna kick your butt! They don’t take any crapola!"

Skaters sport body piercings, green hair or a Wrestlemania showmanship that keeps fans hotly anticipating the next pass as much as the next fight.

The New York Enforcers, led by bald, tattooed, cut Mark D’Amato (to whom the kids react like Santa Claus), are said to be the best of the dirty tricksters. ("They don’t play by the rules," one skater says, to which Enforcers Chellie Rossell, from Homestead, Fla., says, "We do whatever we have to do to win.")

But it’s California’s Sean Atkinson that wins the showmanship award for being the only one who has come up from a fight exhibiting actual blood, which still stains his teeth when he talks to his fans after the game.

Sean’s mother, Dru, is a former Roller Derby queen herself. She skated six months into her pregnancy with Sean. Wasn’t she afraid of getting slammed into a rail? "Yes," she says, "but we needed both paychecks."

Fighting on wheels while pregnant might not have seemed that difficult for this tough cookie. "I fractured my skull while we were on tour in Hawaii and I was in a coma for three days."

The protection is better now and she says it’s "thrilling" to see her son, a third-generation skater, out there on the boards.

And while the blood appears real, the fighting in "Roller Jam" often seems to be the same fighting/choreography that goes on in wrestling.

After all, if Jannet Abraham, a dark-eyed wall of female on the Enforcers, really wanted to, she could pick up a couple of the other girls and bang them together like clackers.

"So, how real is it?" I ask Selzer. "It’s all real," he says, but being a real guy and not a marketing executive, he follows it up with, "Who’s to say any of this is real?"

Is the king of Roller Derby going all Buddhist on me? Zen Roller Derby? Is he implying that we may not actually be here, watching chicks whip each other into the pack lead or throw each other to the ground, watching three of the biggest guys I’ve ever seen get into a fight that seems to shake the stands?

"That’s right," he says, with a twinkle in his eye.

OK, but I wouldn’t want to tell big, bad Jannet she can’t shake the other girls like maracas if she believes she can. I believe she can, and that’s enough.

And believing it is all that matters, well, that plus speed (the average jammer skates at about 35 mph), tension and P.T. Barnum showmanship.

It all makes "Roller Jam" the ultimate comeback kid of sports. Part of that success may lie in the fact that, despite the smoke and mirrors, it’s a real sport played by athletes who spend more time signing autographs and talking to the fans than negotiating $40 billion salaries and making horribly serious business out of what is, after all, a game.

That and because who are we kidding ... isn’t it always the right time for a good catfight?

"Roller Jam"’s Web site is