Ball of Shame

The violence, humiliation, exclusion, degradation, and sheer joy of dodgeball in the park

"It was called 'war ball' at my school," explains Andrew Flurry as we tool toward Golden Gate Parkfor the opening game of the San Francisco Bombardment Society. The flicker of long-buried, unwanted memory darkens his big blue eyes.

"We played on rainy days, when the whole school was stuck indoors. Seven classes all crammed together in one room. They brought out all the yellow balls -- it seemed like there were hundreds of them. Yellow balls are harder than red balls ...."

Flurry trails off, taking a long, deep breath, as if to steel himself for what comes next.

The San Francisco Bombardment Society in action.
James Sanders
The San Francisco Bombardment Society in action.
Roky Roulette is a dodgeball star.
James Sanders
Roky Roulette is a dodgeball star.

"At first, the hooligans would completely ignore the little kids, until all the big guys in school were on the same side. Then they would choose one kid and they would all aim for him. ... It was absolutely terrifying."

To see Flurry now -- tall, broad shoulders, square jaw, solid forearms, easy laugh -- it's difficult to imagine him as a scrawny little kid, cowering on the dodgeball court, but I remember his youth, engulfed by a voluminous leather jacket, topped by half a head of spiked baby down. He was skinny enough to get blown over by a sneeze. Is it any wonder then, in an urban landscape devoid of natural predators like hyenas and lions, that dodgeball left an impression on his still-developing cerebral cortex? No sir, not when a well-directed sphere of schoolyard misanthropy could have snapped his head off, or mine, for that matter. Which might be as good a reason as any to support the seemingly barbaric pastime of using a child's body as a moving target. Certainly, it's better to develop a preternatural fear of a fast-moving rubber ball than of, say, intimacy, failure, or solitude. But as we all know, dodgeball isn't limited to the glee of physical brutality. As "pro dodgeballer" Patches O'Houlihan explains in the latest misfit comedy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, it is a sport of violence, humiliation, exclusion, and degradation.

"The statement is blatantly misleading. Dodgeball is so much more than that," says Sean Speer, founder and president of the SFBS. "Dodgeball is also about one-upmanship, domination, punishment, belittlement, coercion, schadenfreude, and the inherent beauty in a well-aimed crotch shot."

Initially created just to make a fantastic T-shirt logo (which depicts the silhouette of a head getting hit hard enough by a dodgeball to cause globs of spit to fly from its slack mouth), the SFBS now meets in Bunny Meadow, just east of the Conservatory of Flowers, on most Sundays of the summer. And what started as a tightknit group of friends has grown to include any player with a like-minded approach to the sport.

"They're the most excellent group of human beings ever assembled," says Speer seriously. "They're the reason for the season."

When the SFBS was formed two years ago, dodgeball was getting a bad rap. There was, in fact, a national movement to eliminate dodgeball from the physical education curriculum; it was spearheaded by Neil Williams, chairman of the health and physical education department at Eastern Connecticut State Universityand creator of the Physical Education Hall of Shame. "Dodgeball is one of those games that encourages aggression and the strong picking on the weak," said Williams during an interview with Education Week. Despite his position in the debate, which was waged in journals and newspapers from Maryland to California, even Williams publicly admitted a soft spot for the game.

"I have to say I enjoyed it," said Williams. "I was a skinny little runt of a guy, but I was incredibly sneaky and nasty in the game."

"Oh, it's a love/hate relationship," admits 33-year-old Pilar DeGama, who wears a number seven on the back of her SFBS shirt corresponding to nothing much at all. "It's fun, but it's kind of like therapy, a chance to get over all that old dodgeball trauma, to reclaim the game. I still can't throw for shit, but I'm more coordinated and less attached to my ego. And I'm not picked last for every single team anymore."

I watch as two team captains stand opposite a motley gaggle of dodgeball enthusiasts. One by one, names are called as grateful players happily bound over to their respective sides, until only an unfamiliar newcomer remains.

"Damn it!" says Flurry, good-naturedly kicking the sod. "Picked last again!"

A few of the dodgeballers laugh in support, but there is painful recognition in their titters. It's only funny because it's true.

"Game on!" shouts 26-year-old Kevin Lewis, whose most embarrassing educational moment was throwing up in kindergarten. The teams lurch across the grass to grab the familiar balls waiting in the center and let them fly.

"It stings!" bawls a member in mock anguish.

"You're out!" shouts an opponent.

Two players dash from their home court to the back line of the opposing team.

"Watch your back!" shouts Morgan Frank, who has admitted to pants-ing a fellow student on the dodgeball court once upon a time. (The opposing team, of course, took advantage of the entanglement, striking said student with a ball at full force.) Twenty-two-year-old Logan Gilbert, a powerful player with a lower-back tattoo and a spiked leather belt, catches an opponent's ball with a resounding thwack and holds on.

"You're out!" shouts Speer to the thrower.

While there are countless variations of dodgeball, the SFBS concentrates on three basic games: Prison Rules, in which a circle of throwers surrounds a group of dodgers; Fortress or Four Square, in which every person hit joins the team that hit him; and Trench Ball or Roman, the most common game, in which the court has two sides and two back lines. In all, a caught ball eliminates the thrower; and one ball may be used as a deflection of another ball, as might the skull, since a hit on the head is considered a miss except in the case of a dive. According to the International Dodge Ball Federationrule book, the head-to-ball immunity does not apply if a player is diving to catch an opponent's ball.

"You've got to love a game that considers head shots fair play but still uses 'bouncies,' 'dropsies,' and 'returnies' as official jargon," observes 34-year-old Justin Drenttel, who has stopped by the field to find out when the next game will be held.

We watch as Paul Madrinandoes the splits in midair and catches a ball, only to be hit by another as he lands. A short time later, Kevin Lewis catches a ball in one hand while wielding another ball in the other hand, eliciting the nickname "Spartacus" from a fellow teammate. In one round, Madrinan finds himself the last man standing in a court before he is bombarded with three balls in rapid order. Early on, Shashi Kara, aka Sixo, is hit in the head, and, as his sunglasses go flying into the warm yellow afternoon, I notice Andrew Flurry's face, which shows a mixture of horror and surreptitious delight at having beaned someone. Players are swapped, laughter shared. The games come fast and furious between beer breaks, too fast for anyone to really care about skill levels. Feats of physical prowess and ineptitude blend in the summer sun. Laughter and alcohol run together, as do the rules.

"None of my cheers will work for this game," pouts Wesley Kingsbury, a one-time cheerleader who looks more comfortable these days behind a cigarette than a pom-pom. Her prayers are answered with the arrival of Roky Roulette, who decides to strip off another article of clothing every time he finishes playing a game.

Whether in spite of childhood trauma, which included being strung up by his underpants to the cold-water faucet of a shower when he was 9, or because of it, Roulette is a dodgeball star, successfully catching and evading balls while holding his blond wig in place.

Wearing nothing but tennis shoes and a pink G-string studded with rhinestones.

"R-O-K-Y!" shouts Kingsbury while Roulette's wife, Margot Montmartre, and daughter, Liberty, also cheer from the sidelines.

Roulette's opponents express a suitable amount of dodgeball-fueled fury, pummeling him with balls, but there are no injuries, even of feelings, and by the end of the day, the SFBS cheerleading squad has gained a member, and so has the team.

"Man, that was fun!" says Flurry with an unfamiliar glint in his eye.

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