Thwack. Here comes a blast from the past.
More than 360 of the best dodgeball players in the country competed in the Elite Dodgeball National Championships recently at Boston University.
Picture elementary school kids, now grown up and with adrenaline flowing through their veins, slinging that red rubber ball toward each other at up to 80 miles per hour.
Recess this is not. On the home page of Elite Dodgeball, the motto is: “This isn’t gym class anymore.”
It may not be politically correct, but participants say the three-day tourney is all about competition and having fun.
Just ask Vince Marchbanks, a 32-year-old architect from Los Angeles whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed “the LeBron James of Dodgeball.”
“This is the best sport ever played, plain and simple,” said Marchbanks. “There’s no other sport where you can hit people with balls. It feels great.”
He said his team has made more than $125,000 in prize money from a single tournament, but his share averages out to only about $8,000 a year.
“You definitely cannot survive on that,” said Marchbanks. “ I wish I could.”
After each day of the three-day Boston tournament, the 39 men’s teams and 16 women’s teams partied together at night — win, lose, or draw.
“You have a bad day at work, you hit some people, you catch some people, you make friends, you have a drink together, and there’s no better feeling,” said Marchbanks, who played baseball and football and ran track in high school.
Not only do players have to be quick and agile to win, they must have their heads on a swivel to survive on the 50-by-25-foot court.
“There’s not another sport where you have six members on each side and six objects to keep track of,” said Mark Acomb, CEO and owner of Elite Dodgeball.
Eyeglasses are prohibited, just in case of a head shot.
There were no serious injuries during the tournament; typically there are a few broken fingers and several ball-tattoo souvenirs left on players’ chests. The men flash them like badges of courage.
Bragging rights are more important than the $9,000 in prize money.
The game was lampooned in the sophomoric 2004 comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” which made popular quotes such as, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.”
Acomb has mixed feelings about the film.
“I’m not a fan of the movie,” he said, “but it did do a wonderful job of bringing the sport to the forefront.”
Marchbanks is still upset with “Dodgeball” stars Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn.
“If I had a chance to play them, I would crush them in the face with the ball,” he said. “Absolutely.”
He looks down at his taped, twisted pinkies and explains why.
“Dodgeball has been living in the shadow of the ‘Dodgeball’ movie,” said Marchbanks. “Every time I tell someone I’m playing dodgeball, they give me a quote from the movie, and honestly I’m tired of it. I hate it.”
He also is defensive with those who see dodgeball as a child’s game.
“It’s a real sport; it’s not a kid sport,” he said. “There are real athletes here. We are playing at a very high level. There’s a lot of thought and strategy that goes into it. I think it should be in the Olympics.”
But some schools have banned it, saying it encourages bullies. The Society of Health and Physical Educators says dodgeball “creates an opportunity for aggressive behavior that teachers and school administrators would not allow in any other circumstance.”
Acomb, though, says dodgeball is about teamwork and becoming a family, not bullying.
“Those that want it banned just see the stigma of the sport that they feared when growing up,” he said. “Every sport has bullies in it. Choosing one sport to place the blame happens to be our burden. We are working to help lift that.”
Tournament organizers were hoping there would be a one-on-one, east-vs.-west showdown between the veteran Marchbanks and local hotshot Michael McGee, an 18-year-old baker at the family-owned Modern Pastry in the North End.
“I’m the young gun,” said McGee. “I love dodgeball. We’re the only sport where you’re willingly able to throw a ball as hard as you can, try to hurt somebody, and get rewarded for it.”
Marchbanks captured the top prize in the showdown, but McGee impressed many by finishing third nationwide.
McGee said trash talk is rampant, but everybody is friends and respects each other at the end of the day.
“This is the one place on earth we all want to be,” he said. “This is a community.”
McGee’s delivery looks like Pedro Martinez’s, and he is built the same wiry way. He says he has overcome a variety of issues to get here, including anxiety, dyslexia, and learning disabilities since his middle school years.
“I went through a very bad patch when I was younger,” said McGee. “I was flunking out of school. I had a lot of problems. I couldn’t sit down for more than five minutes at a time. I was over the top, and it almost tore the family apart.”
He started playing dodgeball at a local Sky Zone five times a week.
“Dodgeball was the thing that brought me back,” he said proudly.
His mother, Sara, a cancer survivor who worried more about her son than herself, said that dodgeball was the main ingredient in his recipe for happiness.
“Dodgeball saved his life,” she said.Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.