CHICAGO — In this corner of Chicago, folks thought they had seen it all. In 1929, Al Capone’s gang carried out the bloody St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Five years later, the FBI gunned down Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, in the alley of the Biograph Theater after the Lady in Red fingered him.
Nearby, the Chicago Cubs have just suffered through the worst two-year stretch in their entire cursed history.
But when Kasey Miller came home from work one day, she did a double take.
“I see a bunch of things that look like hamsters or gerbils running around in bubbles,” she said.
No, those would be humans in giant womb-like inflatables playing in the Chicago Bubble Soccer League.
It is believed to be the first league of its kind in the United States.
“I’m a little perplexed by it,” said Miller, watching from her balcony overlooking Wrightwood Park. “But I think it’s pretty cool. It looks like fun. I’d give it a try.”
League founder Greg Caplan said he got the idea from an unlikely source.
“Jimmy Fallon did a little bit on it on his show,” said Caplan, “and I thought, ‘Oh, this is awesome. We have to get this going.’ ”
But Fallon was not the first to publicize this sport. A video from a 2011 Norwegian sports TV show has gotten 3.5 million hits on YouTube. Bubble soccer is already being played in Norway, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and South Wales.
Caplan, an employee of Groupon, urged his company to buy 32 inflatable bubbles from the Danish company Funballz. Word went out, and the response was overwhelming at $49 for the six-week season.
“We got 450 people in the league,” said Caplan. “It far exceeded my expectations.”
Word got back to Fallon that he was the inspiration for the inaugural US league, but his reaction was more Dr. Kevorkian than Dr. Naismith. He absolutely hated doing the bubble soccer skit.
“It’s very claustrophobic, and I almost feel like I’m going to die,” he said. “I’m wiped out. You really have to be an athlete to do this thing, and you have to be a little crazy.”
. . .
Before the first game in Chicago, expectations ran high. Little Leaguers who occupied the field before the bubbleheads had trouble keeping their eye on the baseball.
A generator hummed as the bubbles were inflated and participants took turns smashing their girlfriends or boyfriends, bouncing and giggling as if they were in bumper cars.
The bubbles are actually made up of six-sided sections with two safety hand straps.
The rules are essentially the same as soccer, except the goals are tiny; there are no goaltenders and no red or yellow cards.
There is a coin flip at midfield, but shaking hands is impossible, because only the players’ legs stick out.
Occasionally the play is competitive, but mostly it is just for laughs.
The Bubblebutts lost their match in the final seconds, but Andy Lederman of the losing team said the bouncy bubbles made him feel like Air Jordan.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” said Lederman.
The novice players sometimes seemed like turtles flipped on their backs, legs thrashing in the air. Sometimes the refs took mercy on them and extended a helping hand.
Maggie Wrona, a Chicago saleswoman, took a while to get the hang of propelling herself upright.
“My feet are too short,” she said. “I couldn’t get the momentum going. I was too high up, I guess.”
Most of the males were psyched for the sumo-meets-soccer mentality.
John Dellaplane, who works in the Chicago wholesale markets, said, “The best part is hitting people, the worst part is soccer, ’cause I’m terrible at it. I yell at people on the phone all day, so I take a little frustration out here. It feels great.”
Sam Pessin, a consultant at Bain & Co., said, “I came for the fun. It seemed like a hilarious sport, but it’s actually a good workout. You definitely have some visibility problems, but that’s part of the fun.
“It’s sort of like being a drunk guy running around hitting other people. I came here personally with a lot of rage. You come here to play bubble soccer and you want to take some people out.”
This is a sport in which you are a human air bag.
“There’s no way you could get a concussion,” said Leonard Finney, a referee. “You’re surrounded by a big inflated balloon that’s not going to break. It’s not like playing football where you have head-to-head helmet contact. It’s like balloons hitting balloons. The worst injury you’re going to see is a sprained ankle.”
There were complaints, though.
“It’s hot — it’s very hot,” said Andrew Bishop, wiping away sweat. “I’m glad we had subs. It got a little bit claustrophobic. It’s hard to see, too.”
John Paullin, a sales engineer for a conferencing company, had mixed feelings.
“I had a hell of a time,” he said.
But he felt sort of like a human petri dish.
“It’s kind of gross being inside these bubbles,” he said. “You don’t know who was the last person to use it. You put it back on, you’ve got arm sweat going against your arm.
“But that’s the price you’ve got to pay if you’re going to win a championship.”
Samantha Kopin, lean and not so mean, said wearing the big bubbles actually levels the playing field.
“Size doesn’t matter,” she said with a smile.