I have vivid dodgeball memories. None of them are good.
At my middle school, everyone wore the same mustard gold short-shorts and maroon tank tops to gym class. The coach -- a hefty middle-aged woman with a graying brown ponytail, no makeup and a battered clipboard -- would strut into the changing room to count heads. "Good," she'd say, smacking her gum, "an even number. We're playing dodgeball." Next, she would pick team captains and the humiliation would commence.
But now, years later, thanks to Charlotte's own Rag Tag Armada, I've finally got a different take on the game.
RTA is a band of goofy, mismatched misfits -- one of several teams in the Q.C. -- who gather at Tremont Music Hall every other Monday to play dodgeball ... or what the club promotes as "Hot, dirty, ball on ball action."
The group, many of whom met at the now-defunct shop, Lucky Cycles -- which was owned by RTA's ringleader Cory Slusher -- also plays softball, kickball and football together, in addition to riding their bikes for charities like 24 Hours of Booty, which benefits Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong foundation.
RTA aims to win every dodgeball match, of course, and do manage to annihilate most of the teams they play against at Tremont, a venue that is normally home to musical acts like the Revolting Cocks and festivals like the Punk Rock Picnic.
Tremont's manager, Lisa Barr, says she understands that the game may seem like an unusual fit for "a dirty rock club," but she hopes her patrons will realize how much fun they can have, drop their stereotypes and get involved. On dodgeball nights, she offers drink specials. "Lately," she said, "that means a pint of Natural Light for $1.50."
"Anything you can drink beer while playing -- we're in," says Slusher.
Fellow RTA associate, Jake Thorsell, says, "Cory is a bad ass. He's the best player here." Thorsell, with his half dark, half bleached mohawk and ability to hit the ground while dodging an incoming ball, ping back up and not drop his lit cigarette, isn't so bad himself.
The last time I saw the team play, RTA knocked out an entire team in less than one minute with all five of their team members still standing.
In response, a Tremont referee announced, "Y'all are gettin' tested for steroids."
Rules of the game
Dodgeball might be a violent and degrading, if relatively harmless, game, but it's not exclusive; anyone can play. All it takes is a little effort and acceptance of the fact that getting pegged is part of the deal. No matter how good you are, eventually all players will get smacked; however, says Jeremy Mojica, a player from Lake Norman, "If you hit someone in the head or face, you're out. That's not cool."
Jason Howie, a Tremont employee, says they spent last year ironing out the rules, which are a modified version of the National Amateur Dodgeball League's rules. Players can't dribble the ball, but they can bounce it ... once. They can't hold onto any ball for more than five seconds unless they're the last person standing on their team. And there's no coming back; once you're out, you're out. Each team has one time-out per game during which they can substitute a player, though that's a rare occurrence.
A regulation dodgeball court looks very much like a volleyball court, without a net. Tremont's court is spray painted in orange and yellow on the floor in a room usually reserved for gritty rock bands. There are four poles on the left side of the court, near the stage, covered in half-peeled band stickers. Sometimes balls, and even players, bounce off the poles during a heated match. The far wall has an open garage door, curtained with a net. Other potential complications, like metal ladders and sawhorses, fill the opposite corner while a brown tarp hides the sound equipment.
Once the ref says, "Ready, set, go," three of each team's five players bolt for the centerline in an attempt to scoop one of six balls. Quickly, they back away. They have to be behind the attack line, 10 feet from center court, before they can throw. A flurry of balls crisscross the court, and it's over. Most games last two minutes or less.
To avoid being hit, players sometimes jump into impressive leg splits. They're fast, nimble and bendable. Occasionally, a ball flies through the door into the bar. Spectators or barflies chase it down and toss it back into play.
Players defend themselves with their own balls, using them as a shield, sending offending balls bouncing in the opposite direction. The real prize, though, is when someone catches another player's ball. When that happens, the person who threw it is out.
Sometimes there are issues at the centerline when players forget which balls they're supposed to grab. When that happens, the ref repeats his game-night mantra, "You can only mess with your balls. You can't go messin' with other people's balls."
Occasionally, a game is paused to recover the balls -- purple, green and yellow (with a smiley face). During play, it's common for them to bounce behind the sound equipment or bleachers. Once bright, it doesn't take long for the kiddie balls to turn dingy. Some look deflated; they don't last long when -- game after game -- they're hammered into walls, rafters, players and, occasionally, an onlooker (which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why everyone who attends or plays must sign a waiver).
Players who get hit are sent to the Outbox. No bitching, whining or crying allowed.
After a round, if a team only has one player left, the ref will call a time-out. The ballsm are placed in front of the lone competitor in a cracked dip in the concrete floor.
In the midst of one recent game, Mojica was left to face six opponents on his own. When the ref said, "Go," someone on the other team yelled, "Attack!" Balls, hard thrown, bounced off the wall behind him. He smiled, charged the centerline and struck back. It wasn't long, though, before he was out. And it didn't bother him at all.
To Mojica, dodgeball is about having fun and being active. A former semi-pro soccer player, he admits he was pegged the moment he stepped on the court in Las Vegas, where he first discovered adult dodgeball.
Not everyone who plays at Tremont is such a good loser, though. And if the refs make a bad call, the crowd lets them know about it. They've also been known to shame a player off the court if they're not playing by the rules, with comments like:
• "There's not a strike policy -- you're out the first time!"
• "Baldy has an attitude!"
• "How do you not know how to play dodgeball?"
• "He was the guy who was picked last in school!"
Fights were a problem at the bar last year, so management decided to take a several-month break. Things have reportedly tapered down though, says Howie, who sometimes referees. "The games are more consistent this year. A lot of the same teams are showing up."
"Some people take the game too seriously," says Lily Couture, who has been playing since Tremont started hosting the game. "They had to stop the games for a while because of the assholes. They'd come out here [to the court] inebriated and get into fights."
That's why, before each game, the refs recite this: "We have zero tolerance for fighting. We'll warn you once, then we'll ask you to leave. After that, we'll call the police and everyone will laugh at you."
"It's competitive and energetic, but it's just a game. We're not enemies, we're all friends," says Tony Kelley, aka Statyk, another RTA player. He used to play with a team called Thundering Cock, but they got tired of losing and quit coming. That's when he joined RTA.
John Belair agrees with Statyk. After one of the last games, which RTA lost, he grumbled to an opponent who hit him in the face during play. A few minutes later, when asked how he was doing, Belair said, "I'm good. It's just dodgeball. I might kick myself for one fuckup, but five minutes later I'm over it."
Recently, the refs have started assigning teams for the first tournament of the night. "This makes things a little more fair," says Barr, Tremont's manager. "It also creates a chance for everyone on the court to get to know one another. If someone shows up without a team, it's an easy way for them to get into the game."
Players can choose their own team for the second tournament. "This is when the two most consistent teams, RTA and Bomass, usually end up going head-to-head and providing entertainment for the spectators," says Barr.
In the end, everyone shakes hands. And the secret known only to those who stay until the end is this: There's rarely a winner anyway. Once the bracket is whittled to two teams, the refs are known to scrap the whole thing and start a new game.
A few weeks ago, it was three-legged dodgeball, where two players bound their legs to one of their teammates.' Another day, they played blindfolded. Slusher was impressively accurate blindfolded, says Belair, "He kept taking out the scoreboard." But when there are actual prizes, they're good, like free concert tickets.
The Big leagues
Believe it or not, there is a professional dodgeball league and a National Amateur Championship, held each year in Las Vegas. This year it goes down on Aug. 14, 15 and 16.
Teams come from all over North America, including Alaska and Canada. Some even travel from as far away as Denmark and the Netherlands, says Ed Prentiss, president of the National Dodgeball League, who's expecting 40 to 50 teams at this year.
Tremont's head ref, Stephen Jones, says they're more interested in the regional scene for now, but he's not ruling out a trip to the nationals. "Eventually, I would love to put a Tremont team together to take on those sissies in Las Vegas," Stephens says.
"That's what they all say," Prentiss retorts. "Then they come out here, get beat and get mad."
According to Prentiss, the championship draws two types of teams: Those who are tired of beating everyone in their hometown and those who are looking to have some fun. This is the competition's fifth year. The prize? Bragging rights.
Prentiss meant to make it to Charlotte this past April to scout for the professional league but says he ran out of time and resources. You've got to wonder, though, if he knows what he's in for.
When asked if players at the national tournament can drink and smoke while playing, Prentiss responded flatly and emphatically: "Hell no."
The next Tremont game is Monday, Aug. 24, at 8 p.m. You must be 18 to enter and it costs $2, whether you play or not. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/tremontdodgeball.