If you mention dodgeball to someone over 18 years of age the most likely response will be to either praise or denigrate the 2004 film of the same name starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Dig a little deeper and you are likely to unearth tales of gym-class heroics or nightmarish recollections of humiliation. The Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s aim seems to be to target the latter group and provide them with a safe haven for stress-free bombardment.
Chris Alves and Craig Fowler founded the first chapter of the Eagle Rock Yacht Club (members call it ERYC but don’t pronounce it “eric” — it is strictly E-R-Y-C) in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2008. The organization is a public charity whose mission statement declares it to be “an adult dodgeball league, a circle of friends, an army of do-gooders. We establish and run adult dodgeball leagues while partnering with the local rec center to develop original programs for children in under-resourced communities in Los Angeles and Detroit.”
In more concise terms, the Eagle Rock Yacht Club is basically a charitable fight club that has elected to switch out bare-knuckle fists for squishy rubber balls.
Martine de Bijl moved to San Diego in July 2015. She had participated in the Eagle Rock Yacht Club (as well as other dodgeball leagues) while living in Los Angeles. When she arrived, she immediately sought out any sort of local dodgeball leagues similar to those. When her search came up empty, she had the idea of attempting to start a chapter down here. She contacted Alves and was given the green light.
4044 Idaho Street, North Park
The first step was finding a recreation center that would work for both the sport and the community. After a bit of a search, North Park Recreaction Center was chosen. The inside was a bit cramped since the single basketball court would have to be split in half to host two simultaneous games. The community seemed to be a perfect fit, though.
“We want to be in an area where hopefully we can make an impact once we have enough people,” De Bijl explained. “North Park is kind of cool because there are always kids’ programs going on. That’s what we try to focus on when we’re doing our activities with the gym — working with the kids that are there.”
She continued, “In L.A., there are some kids that started with Yacht Club dodgeball when they were five or six. Now they’re in junior high or high school, and it’s, like, ‘What happened?’ You kind of keep an eye on them when they’re around…because they’re always around. They, in turn, listen to you a little more if you are around. There are three days a week where you see these kids, and you can say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s school?’ It’s kind of like a check-in.”
The next step was getting the word out. According to De Bijl, this has been the biggest hurdle: “Not a lot of people know that there are adults playing dodgeball in San Diego.” In order to gain awareness, she utilized an old-school, punk-rock approach. “I went to Kinko’s and spent a hundred bucks on flyers and I walked up and down El Cajon and University; anywhere I could put up a flyer I put up a flyer,” she said.
She also developed a relationship with the neighborhood tavern Tiger! Tiger! (3025 El Cajon Boulevard.) The group would head to the bar for drinks after games and, in turn, the bar would tweet @Eagle Rock Yacht Club and post their flyers. One of these flyers caught the attention of 27-year-old Leo O’ Driscoll, who moved to San Diego last year and was looking for new meetups.
“A year ago the thought of playing dodgeball had not even crossed my mind,” O’Driscoll wrote in a letter to the Reader. “I didn’t know it was an option. I was new to sunny San Diego, unemployed, and looking for ways to meet people. I had joined countless meet-ups and had failed to attend a single one. I had considered various sports leagues but was deterred by high costs or fear (‘athletic’ is not a word anyone would use to describe me). Still, after spotting a poster for adult dodgeball, I decided this would be the sport I would check out. I had of course seen the movie and was interested to see how reality would match up to the silver screen.”
O’Driscoll went on to detail how his initial trepidation quickly dissipated when the games began. Within a year he had become a dodgeball addict. He ended the letter with an open invitation to come and play with the group and enjoy the “magic.” He would be “the devilishly handsome bald guy getting down to Drake.”
It was an invitation that only a fool would accept, so I freed up a couple of Sundays to go play with the group. The first day of reckoning was a roasting late-August afternoon. I hopped on my bike and rode up to the rec center (luckily in my neighborhood) decked out in athletic shorts and sneakers. I also brought a backpack stocked with water, a Gatorade, a towel, and five bucks for admission. A local basketball practice was wrapping up when I entered the gym. None of the kids on this day would stick around to throw balls at one another.
I looked around for a devilishly handsome bald man but instead stumbled upon O’Driscoll. He introduced me to De Bijl, who in turn gave me a quick overview of the group and the game. I tried to recall the basic rules of dodgeball from my youth. I remembered that a ball hitting you knocks you out and a caught ball eliminates the opposing team member who threw it at you. But would a ball that had bounced off a wall and then hit you knock you out? Could I use a ball to block another ball? Could I catch a ball coming off a wall to get an opponent out? Another facet of my youth was returning to me: lack of preparation for a test.
I should pause here to state that I didn’t pause to stretch before we started. This was a mistake.
De Bijl divvied up the players and it was time to prove my worthiness. I wasn’t scared to play this back in middle school, so why was I suddenly terrified? But I didn’t have long to cower.
Seven balls were placed on opposite ends of the center of the court. Three on one side, four on the other. The typical dodgeball placement is all of the balls on the center line, and opponents from each side making a mad dash for any of them at the onset. Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s San Diego chapter utilizes this alternative set-up due to a bloody mishap.
“Alex [Brummer, Leo’s cousin] actually broke her nose!” De Bijl explained to me later. “Alex and her friend Stephanie, they were on different teams, and they did a stare-down at the beginning over who was going to get the balls first. They both went to get the same ball and when they bent down to get it, Stephanie slid into it and Alex bent down at the exact same moment that Stephanie was sliding in, and she just cracked her nose on the top of Stephanie’s head. It was like a massacre of blood. I knew that she had gotten hit, but I didn’t know how bad it was. She was laying face down on the court with both hands on her face, so everything was covered. All of a sudden, all this blood starts pooling out. I was, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ She didn’t even know she was bleeding. I told her, and she looks up, rolls over, and it’s, like, drip, drip, drip.”
I’m glad I was unaware of this tale before De Bijl yelled, “DODGEBALL!” and we were underway. The throwers from each side began to pick targets as I stayed in the back trying to make sense of what was going on. Soon enough the volleys began and certain tricks to successful gameplay became apparent. The first was that it’s a better idea to try to dodge an incoming ball than attempt to catch it.
Brummer later explained to me that she tends to dodge all the balls. She claimed to have awful hand-eye coordination, which made catching difficult. During the 15-minute warm-up before play, she would try to have someone throw at her to get practice but that in the actual games she rarely went for catches.
O’Driscoll says that he despised catching so much that he hated being the final player alive on a team, solely because of the pressure to make catches and bring other teammates back into play.
Despite the general favoring of dodging over catching, I learned quickly if you throw a duck straight at somebody’s chest, they’re likely to catch it. I made the mistake of targeting De Bijl above the waistline a couple times and she easily caught my wussy throws. In my defense, she was one of the few participants that was aggressive with making catches.
“For me, my general rule is that if it’s coming to me, I’m gonna try to catch it,” De Bijl said. “If I have to reach for it, I try not to. If I’m the last one in, I’ll generally scan the group and determine who out of the group I think I can catch. Then I will focus on that one ball and hope it comes to me, or move to where that one is coming so I can catch that. Rather than focus on three balls or four balls, I’ll focus on one. If the other ones hit me I’m out, but I’ve caught at least one.”
On the other side of the coin, the best trick for avoiding getting your throws caught was to aim low.
“I try to aim for people’s feet,” De Bijl explained. “My favorite throw is the sniper throw, where the opponent is in their throwing motion. That’s the time when the player is the most vulnerable. As they’re winding up, they have lots of surface area to hit, including the back leg that is showing while they are at the crest of their throw. That’s my favorite time to hit somebody. They’re completely open, and you have lots of leg to aim for and they don’t think it’s coming.”
The cat-and-mouse game that develops between opposing throwers aiming at one another is one of the most enjoyable aspects of dodgeball. There are all sorts of ways to try to tempt someone to throw at you, just so you, or someone else, can quickly take aim at them. One easy method is to creep up toward the center of the court, pretend you’re going to try to retrieve a ball, lock eyes with a thrower on another team, and have one of your teammates peg them while they are concentrating on you. There are all sorts of methods of deception that seem to work well in this game. One that I attempted, with little success, was to keep one arm behind my back so opponents would think that I was hiding a ball... or was I? It was something I came up with to throw the other team off. It didn’t work. Nobody fell for my hidden-ball trick. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anybody noticed that I was attempting to pull off this trick. A more worthy trick I employed was the no-look throw — eyeing an opponent and then launching the ball at a different opponent. I had to apologize for two direct hits to adversaries’ noggins when I employed this method. Luckily, no noses bled.
As I started to adapt to the rhythms of the game, I was surprised at the lack of coordinated attacks when one side had managed to gain possession of all seven balls. The Eagle Rock game intensity, players told me, is obviously more lax than other dodgeball leagues. So the kind of mapped-out play I envisioned would likely be considered taking the competition a bit too seriously. The unofficial motto of Eagle Rock Yacht Club is “Don’t be a dick,” and participants are much more likely to get an earful for playing too aggressively than they would be for slacking off.
Since Eagle Rock is a social meeting group and the overly aggressive players more often tend to be men, De Bijl employs a method that would probably make Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer proud. “I will go up to them and say, ‘Hey, she’s kind of cute. You may want to get her number later — maybe you don’t want to hit her in the head.’ That generally works. If not, I just say ‘We’re all here for fun.’”
Not coincidentally, it would seem, De Bijl met her boyfriend at dodgeball. His name is Urson Urbanik and he was one of two players who really stood out. A burly, bearded fellow, he looked as if he had been dropped off by a casting director from the Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier. Not only was he an apt ball catcher, but he had a ripping sidearm throw that made him a menace on the court. While playing against him, I kept an eye on him constantly. The other standout was Jeremy LaPeer, who perfectly embodied the defensive side of the game. He was a master dodger. His skills at ducking, squatting, sliding, and jumping over balls made him look like a live- action video game. He was like a dodgeball ninja.
I was starting to feel pretty confident as the initial 90-minute session was wrapping up. Then one of my opponents scored a direct hit on what I will refer to as my family jewels. The balls (not my testicles) the league utilizes are smaller than a standard soccer ball but larger than a softball and composed of what feels like a thin, quite squishy rubber. I was surprised at how jarring a direct hit to this area could be. I tried to play off my pain as best I could, but I knew that there was no hope of making it to Tiger! Tiger! for post-competition drinks at that point.
The final game was referred to as “speed ball.” It’s a variation on dodgeball in which everyone can only hold on to a ball for five seconds. It made for a delightfully chaotic finish. When it was over, I hit the bench and mourned the fact that I had failed to bring more liquids. All my water and Gatorade had long since entered and exited my body. Overshare alert: I’m a year-round heavy sweater. And dodgeball, supposedly a silly, nostalgic throwback for adults, had exhausted me. I felt like I had just run a half-marathon and pitched nine innings. I hobbled to my ride and found that my front and rear lights had been removed from my bicycle frame.
I knew I was in trouble when I got home and noticed — overshare alert number two — that my urine resembled nuclear waste. I done dehydrated myself real good. I filled the bathtub with cold water, hopped in, and stayed put for about an hour. As I cooled off and healed, I pondered how sore I would be the next day — very, it turned out — and whether it was a good idea to actually do this again. (I decided it wasn’t.)
But a couple weekends later, I found myself back at North Park Rec. Wiser from my first dodgeball experience, I left my new bike lights at home and stretched beforehand. I noticed some new faces, but De Bijl, Urbanik, O’Driscoll, and LaPeer were all in attendance. As the games began I felt much more relaxed — and surprisingly patient. This time out I would definitely pace myself a bit.
As a result of my calmed nerves, I found the second session to be truly enjoyable. I played like a complete moron at points (getting hit by a ball that had been softly tossed at me in one instance) but felt that my spirit was a closer embodiment of the Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s pathos of just having fun. I even found myself to be the final competitor on my squad at a couple of points, which not only presented me with the opportunity to dodge a barrage of balls, but to also take advantage of one of Eagle Rock’s most unique rules. Since gameplay at North Park Rec incorporates two courts (separated by a net) that run perpendicular to the full-size basketball court where they are located, each dodgeball court has one basketball hoop near the mid-court line. If you are the final player on your squad, you can get all the players on your team back in by hitting a three-point shot with a dodgeball. I played basketball for years and could drill threes on occasion, but trying to shoot one of these small dodgeballs through the rim gave me a more sympathetic perspective on Shaquille O’Neal’s abysmal foul-shooting.
Other rules unique to Eagle Rock Yacht Club include two ladies getting freed if a female catches a ball; “quiet dodgeball,” in which players are not allowed to talk, clap, or make any sort of noise; and medic, a game variation in which a selected player on each team has the ability to “heal” participants who have been hit by balls.
“We have an extensive history of coming up with weird, wacky rules,” Chris Alves told me. “We just try to give as many opportunities for it be as fun and lively as possible.”
Dodgeball, like kickball, has transformed into a tongue-in-cheek adult-league activity driven by nostalgia. The Eagle Rocck version strives to make it a sort of healing variation of a sport that gave many of its players gym-class post traumatic stress syndrome. It takes you back to a certain time and place but allows you to rearrange those memories with a fresh and positive spin.
“I think when we try to get people to come play or try it out, I think there’s that initial thought in everyone’s head where they zoom back to fifth grade when it was the two team captains picking players one by one and no one wanted to be the last player,” Alves said. “Everyone probably had nightmares about that situation. I think we’re trying to find a way to rewrite that memory.”