“Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.” – Carl Sandburg
Three of my five readers have known me for most of my life, and can identify that I’m not exactly the sportsy type. It was never really my scene. I know this probably comes as a shock. A fat geek who…isn’t into sports? It’s like I’m a goddamn unicorn. I can appreciate the efforts and talents of the players, I can enjoy a particularly brilliant play as much as the next guy, but that’s about it. I can barely identify names, almost never positions. I’m not even reliable for water cooler talk. A couple of years ago there was a World Series game that went some absurd number of innings. It was a nailbiter that went on to be heralded as one of the greatest games in the history of the sport. My hometown team won that game. I didn’t know a single thing about it and relied entirely on context of other people to fake my way through conversation. Wide eyes, enthusiastic nods, wild gestures and a few well placed uses of “Right?!?” got me through. As the late, great Mitch Hedberg quipped, “I’m not into sports. If I had athlete’s foot, my first reaction would be “that’s not my fucking foot!” Little did I know how much this was all about to change.
About a month ago, I was invited to attend a roller derby match, the first home game of a friend of mine who plays. I was there to support her and to mine ideas for a roller derby board game that was bouncing around in my head. My familiarity with the game at that point pretty much started and ended with being aware of the Arch Rival Roller Girls as being some pretty cool chicks. That’s…about it. My sports investment level was consistent with the rest of my life.
They laid out the track boundaries, while I checked out the seating arrangements. You could either sit in the bleachers behind walls (yawn), off to the side in these plastic folding chairs (HA HA HA) or right down on the floor past the border of the splash zone, right outside the track. They warned me that sitting there came with the potential risk of getting completely plowed by a high velocity cartwheeling mass of flesh, bone and hard plastic. Needless to say, once this warning was issued, I had no choice but to put myself in harm’s way and cross my fingers for a good story to tell later about my missing teeth.
I was armed with a pen, my notebook, some loose game ideas, and an extremely rudimentary understanding of the game which I will share now. Any derby enthusiasts reading this should probably skip ahead a bit and avoid the part where I mangle the explanation of your game. Roller derby is played by two teams of five players, four Blockers and one Jammer. They all start in a pack on one end of the track and when the game starts, the whole pack takes off, skating counterclockwise around the track. The Jammers score points for their team by lapping members of the opposing team. Blockers, as you may have guessed by the title, are not too keen on this idea and are there to stop the opposing Jammer and to clear opposing Blockers out of the path of their own Jammer. Once one of the two Jammers breaks free of the pack, they become Lead Jammer. The Lead Jammer position is advantageous because they have the ability to call the end of the Jam (the period of play where all of this happens). Once a Jam is ended, players return to the starting point to start the new Jam. Once any Jammer shakes off the pack, they hustle around the track to try to pass the blockers again to score more points. All of the blockers move as a single pack and there are limitations to how far out from the group they can go, limitations that do not exist for Jammers. The game lasts 30 minutes, with each jam lasting up to two minutes. That’s extremely simplified and there are plenty of things I am not discussing here yet, but that’s more or less the game in a nutshell.
My friend’s team took to the track and the fun began. I watched to see how some things worked, I scribbled notes and questions to ask later about how the actual game works and how my board game variant might accomplish things. They have different tiers of skill among the teams and my friend belongs to the lower tier. Watching the game was fun, and I was glad I came out to support the event. After that game was complete, there was a brief half-time and then a second bout, this time between the higher tier teams. This, as the saying goes, is when shit got real.
Not to disparage my friend or her team, but watching the two different teams elicited two wildly different reactions. I enjoyed watching her team and could understand what she liked about it. It took all of about 15 seconds of watching the pros before my brain retreated to the back of the skull cave to begin plotting out my path up this roller derby mountain.
Oh, the game. It was fierce. It was tense. It was a little emotional. My heart raced. I got a little adrenaline boost. It came down to the wire, both teams fighting like hell for a game decided by a hair. The underdogs had won the day, and I had witnessed some displays of tenacity and athleticism that inspired me in ways that no other sporting anything had ever registered with me. It was the first experience of its kind like that for me, and a little odd.
After the match, I felt compelled to go seek out the two players I was most impressed by, congratulate them on their prowess, and thank them for making my first derby experience so memorable. As you can see, I got pics with ’em too. These ladies are some bad mamma jammas.
Committed to the full experience, I followed the group to the afterparty, where all of the teams got together for drinks and general merrymaking. This is where my second big moment of awe hit. The energy in the room was just unbelievably positive. Watching fierce rivals laugh and enjoy one another; seeing players across all skill levels regarded as equals; it was an earnest sense of oneness that I did not expect. There were no cliques, no standoffish groups of alphas, no drama. Every other “team” thing I’d been a part of or bore witness to prior to this had various interpersonal problems, and while I’m not saying that the derby world is immune to it or that it doesn’t exist, it sure didn’t that night. Every one of the people there were family with each other, and the good kind of family. Not like your weird, smelly cousin or Uncle Touchy. Being a part of this experience, even strictly as an outsider, reinforced the idea that this was something I needed to be a part of.
I stayed around for the after-afterparty, wherein I went drinking and dancing with a bunch of derby girls till 3 am. By which I mean “drinking and dancing with a bunch of derby girls” and not “nursing a drink while staring at my feet with my back to a wall.” What can I say? Fatty or no, I’m a slave to the groove.
So, yeah. This was a pretty good night as far as nights go. Shortly thereafter, the friend who introduced me to all of this points me to the website for the St. Louis Gatekeepers, the local men’s roller derby organization, if I was interested in getting more involved. Would I like to know more? Yes. Fuck yes.
Thursday: A sobering dose of reality.