NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — They travel to the mountains to cake themselves in mud, diving with outstretched arms in hopes of catching a pass, only to sink in muck — and perhaps to relive their youthful glory days.
In the end, they stand on a slippery and soggy sideline either in victory or defeat, having fun and being competitive all in the name of mud.
“The mud makes everything more difficult,” said 27-year-old Stephen King — not the author, but the mechanic, from Danvers, Mass. — who once played high school football. “You’re using muscles you didn’t know you had. And if you can’t see the fun in this you shouldn’t be here.”
Ten teams from New England are in North Conway for the annual Mud Bowl, the championship of mud football. The three-day, double-elimination tournament, complete with a wacky Saturday morning parade, draws teams with down and dirty names like the Merrimack Mudcats, North Shore Mudsharks, Mud Ducks, Predators, and hometown Mount Washington Valley Hogs.
Each year’s parade, with costumes and floats, is themed. This year’s topic: “Mud Bowl: The Musical.”
The tournament has been held in North Conway since 1976 as a fund-raiser that has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mount Washington Valley charities.
Played in Hog Coliseum with its grassy hillside on a short 120-foot-long field about 70 feet wide, the games consist of seven-player teams and 40 minutes of two-hand touch football.
Soon after kickoff, the players in numberless and nameless shirts and shorts become a mishmash of lean, mean machines and overweight contestants who look like refugees from a wet T-shirt contest gone wrong.
High school, recreational, college, and semipro players become mud-soaked weekend soldiers before returning to work Monday with aches in places they did not know existed.
Some play barefoot for traction, while others like protection against the sometimes coarse mud. Duct tape is universal, wrapped on ankles, feet, shins, and shorts to hold clothing up and keep mud out. Got mud in your eyes? Don’t spread it by wiping; go rinse it off.
King is in his fifth year of playing mud football and is here with his rookie cousin Patrick St. Pierre, 25, of Salem, Mass., on the Jack’s Predators team from Peabody, Mass. King said their uncles played mud football some 30 years ago.
“Football and mud, that’s a good combination,” said St. Pierre.
For the Predators, yesterday’s game was also sweet, with its first victory since 2009, a 6-0 overtime win over the Mud Ducks of Rowley, Mass.
The win was a long time coming, said team cofounder John “Barnesy” Barnes, 43, of Danvers, Mass. “Fifteen years of playing and now two wins. Our record is not as big as our hearts.”
Now the Mud Ducks, in their second year, wait for their first victory.
“This was anybody’s game,” said Ducks co-captain Bill Murphy, 52, a carpenter from Rowley. “A few missed passes and we would have been there.”
In a defensive struggle with plenty of dropped passes, interceptions, and bad snaps with a ball more slippery than a greased pig at a county fair, the Predators scored on a short pass from quarterback Nick Pisanelli to Everett police officer Sean Bagley.
“We don’t have a great record, but we have a great time,” said Barnes, who works in construction and started the team with his brother Bob. He said the tournament is definitely a young man’s game, but he is hooked.
“I’ve got a bad knee, bad shoulder, and every year I say I’m going to retire, but I keep coming back,” he said.
For some, it’s returning to childhood games, while for others, like a handful of Mud Ducks, it’s about passing the torch. A few years ago, Murphy and his family watched the games and then wanted in. It turns out organizers needed another team and Murphy filled it, along with some fellow Essex County coaches in the youth-oriented Triton Pop Warner football league his son, Bill Jr. (now at Colby), played in.
Now the sons are away at school, some playing football. Murphy and others look at the team as a place for their sons to return.
“This is a way for middle-aged people to play football in the mud,” said Murphy. “But we’re also doing this so our sons can take over for us and still play football.”
Bill Eldridge, 49, a shipping executive, played high school lineman as a Nantucket Whaler and now as a Mud Duck. His son, Luke, plays football.
“Football is a fantastic way to be a part of your kids’ life growing up and also be part of the sport,” he said. “If they want to play together again, they’ll be able. We’ll hold a place for them.”
And for a guy named Stephen King: “I finally get to see my name in print.”