Like most kids, I first played dodgeball from the time I was 9 or 10. As an Air Force dependent living on Karamursel Air Force Base in Turkey, I got to see the true “sporty” non-violent version of the old playground game. I confess that I always played it just okay, but I saw some truly great players. During those days I remember that the very best player of all was a girl. She was 12 or 13, and man could she DODGE!
The way we played back then was to form a large circle of players that I’ll call strikers or throwers. We used the reddish-brown, soft, bouncy ball that all Americans, and probably everyone else all over the world, uses for both dodgeball and kickball. We would form a large circle, usually no more than 12 feet in diameter. The “dodger” got into the circle, and the rest of us gathered on the perimeter evenly spread out around it. We then threw the ball at the kid in the middle—the dodger. The idea was to strike the dodging kid either on the bounce or with a direct shot. If you hit the dodger, then you “earned” the dubious right to become the next dodger.
Getting back to the young lady who was such a wiz at dodging—she was one of THE most incredible athletes I’ve ever witnessed of ANY age or gender! Once she made the middle, she could stay there almost for as long as she willed it. Her instincts, rhythm, flexibility and speed were a joy to behold. With her long wavy brown ponytail flying, she would dash from side to side, always keeping herself as far away as possible from the next thrower.
It didn’t matter how hard we threw at her, or if we tried to slyly skid the ball into her legs, or even if we attempted to fake her out with a false throw—she ALWAYS dodged the ball.
Once, a bunch of older boys decided that they would challenge her and she jauntily accepted. She rose to the occasion once again and became a dervish of dodging motion. The ball came at her from every direction, angle, and at an incredible rate of speed. No sooner did she sidestep one throw and start moving away from the next striker, than the ball would come whistling at her again from the other direction. At times she would jump high into the air, doing a full split, as the ball passed harmlessly between her legs, sometimes while she was wearing a skirt or a dress! (That was always a treat for us admiring guys!) Usually she just ran from side-to-side within the perimeter, evading the ball with a simple jump or a skip step, all while preparing for the next oncoming throw.
When this chick was center circle she drew huge crowds of us to watch her magic. She could keep this up for 5, 10, almost 15 minutes at a time. This doesn’t sound like all that long, but imagine running full steam without pause, starting and stopping between throws, and at the same time trying to concentrate on evading an oncoming thrown object that could come from any angle and speed.
As she eluded each toss, all of us would cheer as the ball passed her. The sound we made was metrical and it seemed to help her as she gathered strength from our encouragement and from the rhythm of our cheers. If someone threw high at her middle, she would avoid the throw by ducking or sidestepping; if the ball came at her low, she might jump over it, or split her legs while leaping just high enough to clear it.
No one else could do what Dodge Ball Girl could do. I remember my last attempt at trying to copy her. I could manage all right for 10 or 12 attempts at me, but the energy it took to keep moving and evading was sapping. My very last time at center circle went like this:
The ball came at me, again and again, bouncing at my feet, causing me to jump and move toward the direction of the thrower while I made ready for the next dodge. The easiest throws were those clearly not coming directly at me; all I had to do was take a step away, reverse direction and run. The most difficult throws were those coming directly at me toward my middle. Then I had to make a snap decision—duck, jump, or sidestep?
The very last throw I ever dodged on that playground was thrown at my crotch. Instinctively, I leaped high over the ball with spread legs, only that last time my legs went directly out and away. In other words, I lost my feet. I landed directly on my stomach with my arms and legs splayed wide apart. The sound that escaped from me was more than just a “thud.” When my body pancaked flat onto the asphalt it caused an embarrassing release of intestinal gas. It was exceptionally loud and every kid on the playground heard it. They responded with laughter that would have made Bob Hope proud. Is there any surprise that I never “dodged” there again?
But, my dodge balling career was not quite complete. Birch Run High School featured dodgeball as a required sports activity in all the boys’ gym classes. High school dodgeball is played a lot differently than the playground variety found in elementary schools. The highschoolers play it in teams, with each team having their own side of the gym floor to protect and “take refuge” in. A centerline divides the teams, but there is also a rectangular area on each side of the center that designates a “common area.” Within this “shared zone” the players can intermix and actually throw at each other from pointblank range, at times even from behind.
Boy’s dodgeball is warlike and played with a vengeance by both sides. In fact, we didn’t even call it dodgeball—we called it “murder ball!” The goal: hit your opponent on the fly with a thrown ball so that he is unable to catch it. If he does manage to catch the ball, then the thrower is out of the game and must sit in the bleachers with all the rest of the defeated “losers.” A player holding a ball in two hands can also use that held ball to repel a ball thrown at him. As long as he doesn’t drop the held ball, and the deflected ball doesn’t careen back into any part of his body, then he is still in the game.
My usual strategy was to hang back in my team’s exclusive zone and retrieve balls for my more aggressive teammates. That’s usually where I got tagged and forced to sit it out till the end of that game.
There would be a variety of conclusions to this warlike sport and it could be quite exciting to watch the game play out. I usually did exactly that—from the stands! At times, one of the teams became outnumbered and was forced against the far wall of their own zone while their opponents threw wickedly fast balls at them from the free throw line. At this point the end was not long in coming, and as we watched our still “surviving” teammates fall one-by-one, we prepared to run laps—the punishment of shame doled out to all boys’ gym classes since time immemorial.
In January of 1975 I found myself in this exact hopeless situation. The game had winnowed almost all the other boys to the bleachers, and there were just three of us still on the floor. I was flat against the wall with another teammate, whose back was also against the wall next to me not ten feet away.
Our opponent was a mean, muscular redheaded kid with a reputation for cruelty. He had managed to put all the other balls into his team’s exclusive zone, preventing us from making a break and getting our own ammo. We had no choice but to stay where we were. He had three balls in total, two spares placed not far behind him, and one ball that he intended to “kill” us with.
This malevolent fellow had a mean streak, and before “murdering” us he intended to torture us. I remember now that this guy did not even finish his senior year with us; instead, within a month he dropped out and joined the marines! This soon-to-be marine threw whistling shots at our heads again and again, intentionally missing us, but getting closer with each vicious hurl.
My teammates sat watching glumly, knowing that they would soon be loping around the gymnasium floor in defeat. The redheaded kid made it known that his “playful” torture was soon to end when he no longer attempted to retrieve the balls after they splatted loudly against the concrete block upon which we cowered. He was down to one ball.
Back then; I was a skinny fellow weighing no more than 130-pounds. To complete my nerdy image, I wore glasses that I continually pushed back into place onto the bridge of my pointy nose. I looked a bit like Harry Potter, only not as good looking. It came as no surprise then that my tormentor decided to center himself directly in front of the nerdy kid--me! He smirked as he relished the pain he was about to inflict on my thin-framed body. He was no more than ten yards away, but it seemed like he was right on top of me. Like my dejected comrades in the bleachers, waiting for my inevitable end, I figured I was about to get smeared.
At that moment I understood what it must be like to be on the deadly end of a firing squad. I felt completely helpless and fatalistic, but even so, I also began to feel myself become calm and collected. I decided I would not give this guy the satisfaction of watching me run and squirm. I held my position and prepared to “die” like a man!
The gym got deathly silent as he wound up like a pitcher on a mound and coiled to sling the red ball at me with all his might. I moved my hands to the front of my body to protect my groin and face as I watched for the inevitable approach of the red rubber missile. At last, he released it and time seemed to slow to a crawl. I could actually see the ball coming directly at me; it wasn’t a blur at all. I could make out the distinctive groups of lined patterns on it's round surface and even the seam molds. I could hear the ball hiss as it approached. When it was almost upon me, only a couple feet from the center of my chest, the ball seemed to float. I raised my hands to intercept it.
The cannonball-sized rubber ball thunked neatly between my spread palms and stuck like a dart in a board. Then—bedlam! The arrogant redheaded kid, so certain of a “kill,” cried out and collapsed to the floor in disappointment and self-rage. My teammates leaped from their bleacher seats cheering like crazed maniacs, while the other half of the gym class moaned and slowly arose to start their “loser” laps. Even Mr. Peters, our gym class coach, grinned his amusement at the unexpected turn of events. It was a far cry from my earlier embarrassed departure from the game some six years earlier.
After four years of high school, that might have been the first time some of those kids even realized I existed. Dodgeball is cool, and for a few minutes, after a miraculous moment in January of 1975, so was I!