“Find what you love and let it kill you” – Charles Bukowski
My first experience with roller derby was the proverbial pebble that started an avalanche. That night I discovered a game that looks like crazy fun, a community that defied everything I had come to understand about amateur sports teams, and the challenge that I didn’t know I was looking for.
There were a lot of unknowns when I started. My excitement carried me through the opening steps of reaching out to the recruiter, but after that step was taken and the crest of the adrenaline wave had broken, the fears started to form on the edges of my periphery.
Would the appropriate gear be available in my ridiculous size? Even if it is (which I assumed everything would have to be custom made, and getting into derby would cost me approximately as much as a car), how could the protective gear possibly hold up under the extreme stress of dealing with my weight? Same old, same old. With every new undertaking, my brain goes into fat panic mode and runs me through all of the reasons why this is A Totally Bad Idea (TM).
I was excited. And nervous, but mostly excited. I’m not the youngest dude ever, and while I may be in the best shape of my adult life and getting better daily, let’s not kid ourselves and say that I’m in good shape. Combine these two concepts and the part of my brain in charge of self-preservation instincts (which is an unrepentant pottymouth) is pissed. “For fuck’s sake, Joe. Are you kidding? You’re fucking kidding, right? Tell me you’re kidding.” Nope. Not kidding.
I emailed the recruiter to get started. It took a few days for him to get back to me, days where I continued to wonder what I was getting myself into. Maybe he looked me up by my email address, saw me and decided not to email me back. I could still walk on this. I’m not in shape, and an injury could have really long term effects that would hamper my quality of life for whatever drastically shortened life I would have after the decision to join derby.
When he did get back to me he apologized for the delay, gave me the basic details of what would be required and made some recommendations on gear. I told him that while his recommendations were welcome and appreciated, they were not likely to work on account of my being a goddamn giant. He says that they have some bigger guys on the team (not like me, chief!) and he’ll ask around to get some tips for me. He invites me to a practice to meet the guys and talk to them about it.
I’m still resolute in this, even though the initial excitement is all but vanished in the rearview. It’s easy to fall in love with the scene when the emotions are all running high, this would provide a better idea of what it would be really like outside of the context of that magical first night. Besides, this would be with the men, who in my experiences are not exactly like women. Your mileage may vary. (In retrospect, this ended up being a lot less true than I expected, another reason I adore this community)
When I arrived, some of the guys took me in with a look, there was no mistaking this 6’6″ heavy for anyone but the new recruit. I’m not typically nervous with people, but I was a little bit here. Completely without reason, as it would turn out. As soon as I was identified as the new recruit, I was welcomed with open arms and genuine excitement.
This was another pretty odd feeling for me. I have a long and storied past of getting picked for gym class sports teams with a success rate that would make Skee-Lo wince uncomfortably. That didn’t happen here. It was clear through both their words and their body language that when they looked at me, they didn’t see a useless fatty who was comic relief at best, most likely a liability, and a danger at worst. They saw a pile of loose bricks and a bucket or mortar ready to become a wall. Their enthusiasm was plain as day; they were excited about my potential, and eager to add me to their ranks.
Now to be fair, I’m pretty imposing even among their bigger blockers, but I was honestly not expecting such a warm reception. The worries were slowly melting away. I was invited back to a bout happening the next weekend, so I wanted to hit the ground running on researching what it would take to get me started.
During that week, I first investigated the most important part, what puts the roll in roller derby. As it turns out, it’s a lot more complicated than “skates.” I anticipated running into size problems with my sasquatch feet, but even past that, there are a lot of variables I didn’t anticipate. I was going to be seeing the guys again on the weekend and assumedly they would be considerably less clueless than myself, so I decided to table my research in favor of advice from the veterans.
On the day of the bout, I was again welcomed with enthusiasm by the guys happy to see me back and getting involved. The audience formed quickly and the match was getting ready to start. I found myself standing next to one of the derby girls I was so impressed with from my first foray, and as silly as it sounds, I was a little starstruck. I wondered if she remembered me, but not enough to ask or make eye contact. She probably did, I tend to stick out in a crowd.
Then the game started. I thoroughly enjoyed the women’s games I saw before, but I felt this would probably give me a better idea of what I might be in for, and what a show I got.
I spent the week prior daydreaming of becoming a prominent figure in the nightmares of Jammers everywhere. I’d be what Jammers would tell their kids about to frighten them into good behavior. I saw these little dudes; guys I probably have a solid foot on height-wise, probably still double their weight when I’m where I want to be at my maintenance point; and they hit those blockers (including some big solid dudes) like wrecking balls.
My eyebrows shot into lower orbit, and my brain fired up again. My mouth watered in the anticipation of this new challenge. I will be the immovable object that meets that irresistible force.
I saw some masterful dodging, some crushing blocks and it all just sang to me. There was even an older guy there, no stick figure, and he was a badass. He primarily blocked in several jams, and then even lead a round as a Jammer, where he scattered those blockers like a bowling ball hitting pins, and once barely bumped the other Jammer, which sent him sailing. I never had any particular aspiration to be a Jammer, but seeing that guy destroyed any preconceived notion of what I would or would not be capable of.
I joined the guys for their afterparty where I could engage in more socializing with them and absorb any wisdom they had to share. I picked up a few gear tips for bigger guys, shared some laughs, and the common theme shared by everyone in the room that was getting into derby was one of the best decisions each of them had ever made as individuals, something that was resonating with me pretty strongly at this point.
We chatted derby and non-derby stuff, and this is when the last puzzle piece of why this all felt so right slid into place. In telling them how I came to be here, and what I hoped to gain from it, I brought up the Captain Hammer Project. This was met with strong enthusiasm, but it wasn’t the weight loss they were excited about (though they were impressed by it), it was the theme. So yeah, as far as I can tell, roller derby is a full contact, high adrenaline sport populated almost exclusively by geeks.
This is my new adventure. I think that this is a damn near perfect fit for my goals and my fierce desire for challenge, and I’m chomping at the bit to start crafting myself into the thing I’ve been daydreaming about. I still don’t get sports in general. I still get glass-eyed when people talk about hockey or football or basebzzzzzzzz…zzzzzzzz.
…but those games don’t excite me. Those games don’t have maneuvers with names like “soul crush” or “shadow crush” I mean, come ON.
Adding this to the ongoing crusade of the Captain Hammer Project will most definitely help me to achieve it, while having what sounds like pretty much all of the fun.
Best of all, this is a solid reminder of what I have accomplished this far. This is a reward made possible by my efforts to date. There’s absolutely no way I would have been able to do this 130 pounds ago. Hell, the jury is still out on whether or not I should do it now, but there’s just one way to find out.
This is something that I never ever would have predicted that I would get involved in, and a decision I will certainly look back upon as a turning point in my life. Now it’s up to me to make sure that turn is a good one.