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Gym Class Heroes

Local dodgeballers ride the sport’s surge of popularity to a Guinness World Record

By Josh Potter

Photos by Joe Putrock

They’ve been at it for seven hours before Rob Immel, captain of Hometown Dodgeball, declares the first 15-minute break. Players saunter off the Washington Avenue Armory court and crash in a line of folding chairs. Some take advantage of the bathroom, others change their sweat-soaked T-shirts and headbands. A few treat floor-burned elbows, and ice sore hamstrings. A courtside table holds a buffet including such sports staples as Gatorade and oranges, but overall the spread looks like something that might better fuel a college all-nighter than an athletic event, with Dunkin Donuts, peanut butter and jelly, homemade cookies, Red Bull, and giant bottles of aspirin.

“I just double-checked the rules,” Immel announces, “and it’s OK to sleep, but only if you’ve subbed out.” This will become important info as the match stretches on. The next break won’t arrive until 2 AM, eight hours later. The goal at hand is to play dodgeball continuously for a grueling 31 hours, 11 minutes and 13 seconds, thus setting the Guinness record for world’s longest game. A score sheet on the buffet table keeps tally of how many rounds each team has won—with Hometown leading their friendly rivals Albany Dodgeball by something like 60 to 40—but more important is the big digital clock mounted on the armory stage, counting down to their target duration. For the record to stand, they’ll need to abide by Guinness’ stringent regulations. For every hour of play, they can bank a five-minute break.

When the 15-minute break elapses, players wander back on court. The clock indicates that the two teams have just over one full day left to play. Both sides line up, someone yells “Dodgeball!,” and the carnage resumes.

In the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, washed-up legend Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn) celebrates the sport as a game of “violence, exclusion and degradation.” It is, no doubt, a common impression, as most adults who remember playing the Darwinian game in junior high gym class either harbor feelings of malicious glee or utter pain and humiliation. It’s for this that we have the expression “out like the fat kid in dodgeball” and recent movements to outlaw the game in public schools. But for Immel, Albany Dodgeball captain Jasen Von Guinness (no relation to the world-record-verifying brewery), and the growing number of dodgeballers who play Thursday nights at the Armory, we couldn’t have it more wrong. Dodgeball, for them, is a game of fun, camaraderie, and even public service.

Like Vince Vaughn’s character in the movie, who enters a tournament in order to save his struggling gym, Von Guinness started Albany Dodgeball originally as a fundraising venture. A real estate broker who also competes in Scottish highland games, strong-man events and competitive rowing, Von Guinness came to the idea of dodgeball as a way to fund his organization the Albany Society for the Advancement of Philanthropy (ASAP). Among the group’s other events is the Santa Speedo Sprint benefitting the Damien Center for HIV/AIDS, a Meatfest, a Booze Cruise and an upcoming field day at Lincoln Park called the Albany Olympics. Started in 2004 under the slogan “relax and encourage,” ASAP avoids committing to a specific philanthropic endeavor, instead encouraging its 50-some members to take on philanthropic causes of their choosing. Projects have included benefits for the American Stroke Foundation, the Christian Center of Albany and various Little League teams. As their mission statement reads, they believe “it is possible to do well by your fellow man while having a good time.”

That is, while pummeling your friends with rubber balls.

“It looks a lot worse than it really is,” says Von Guinness.

“During the game, you see all these angry faces across the attack line,” Immel says, “but as soon as that last person is hit, everyone starts high- fiving, hugging it out. Someone told me that it’s the best $10 therapy session you could ever have. If I didn’t go to dodgeball at least once a week, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“If I have a bad day, I’m looking forward to dodgeball,” says Von Guinnes, “because as soon as you get there you get to grab balls and smash your best friend as hard as you can—and have a beer after.”

On the first league night the group hosted, 18 to 20 people showed up. Next time it was between 30 and 40. Now, after a couple years and a few exhibition matches during the intermission of Albany All-Star Roller Derby bouts, the group draws 80 to 110 participants. A true American spectator sport, Thursday night dodgeball at the Armory now includes a bar and DJ Yoshi spinning nonstop jock jams.

Despite the stigmas and the fact that there are few outlets for the sport after gym class, Von Guinness has not been surprised by this level of interest. “There’s actually a draw for this,” he says, “so there’s no reason for us not to pick that up, organize it and promote it.”

Immel’s history with the sport goes a little further back, as he actually helped write the rulebook for the National Dodgeball League (NDL), an organization that formed in 2005 to standardize rules and lend the sport legitimacy on the national level. “I was breaking into my college fieldhouse, holding outlaw games,” he says, “taking over tennis courts and stuff like that, but then the NDL jumped on it [in 2005],” and, inspired by the movie, “went to Vegas for the weekend to have an amazing Dodgeball World Championship.”

That’s right: Much of dodgeball’s current popularity has to do with the movie that poked fun at the game’s intrinsic absurdity. “I don’t think the movie started [the interest],” Immel says, “but it was definitely fuel on the fire. It was kind of funny, kind of great, and it gave the game some recognition. Pretty soon after, leagues started popping up here and there. Now there are pro tryouts and tour stops all over the country.”

In March, Albany Dodgeball hosted their first regional tournament, which drew teams from as far away as Boston and New York City. The rules were simple: eight players to a side, and each team must field at least one woman. To eliminate opponents, you must strike them with one of six balls or catch a live ball thrown by the other team. First team to win three rounds wins the match. But, within these parameters, strategy varied widely from team to team. Some teams preferred to send volleys at their opponents, spinning and windmilling the balls to give them extra power. Other teams preferred to hide the balls behind their backs and snipe at individual players when they approached the center attack line. Most surprisingly, unlike the muscle-bound jock who dominated the fat kid in gym class, no single body type seemed to prevail.

“It’s funny,” Immel says, “you’ll see these athletes come out who say they pitched in college, but it’s not called ‘throw ball.’ If you can throw hard, that’s great, but you’ve got to be able to get out of the way.” As Patches O’Houlihan says, you have to abide by the “Five Ds”: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. Then “no amount of balls on Earth can hit you.”

“There are some big guys we play with,” Von Guinness says, “who are very agile and have a huge catching radius. They’re tough to throw against and will scoop your stuff right up.”

As aggressive as the sport can seem, the slapstick element of ricocheting balls tends to keep a lot of the brazen machismo in check. “When you’ve got six balls coming at you at the same time,” Immel says, “it’s humbling.” It’s not uncommon, too, as in the case of the tournament’s victorious Boston team, that the female player will be the last player standing and have a unique opportunity to catch an opponent’s throw and bring back members of her team. And, when all is said and done, a shared love of loud music and cold beer tends to replace the preceding display of simulated genocide.

“I’d love to be old enough to see it become an Olympic sport,” Immel says. “I think it’s possible. Reach for the stars.” But for now, he and Von Guinness are just interested in trying to grow the sport and raise money for a scholarship fund that will help send a high school senior to an Albany area college. All the student must do is write a 1,000-word essay explaining why he or she is deserving. “It’s not even based on grammar,” says Von Guinness. “It’s pretty much just based on awesomeness.”

The Guinness record attempt is one such effort to gain awareness of the sport. In December 2008, Immel set the initial record of 24 hours and two minutes in Clifton Park. As soon as he walked off the court, he swore to his wife he’d never try something like that again. “A little over a year later,” he says, “here I am, going for seven more hours.”

“I love him to death,” Von Guinness says of Immel. “He asked me to break his record and how can I not?” For more than a day, the two friends will be mortal foes, but in pursuit of the record, it matters little whose team actually wins.

“In the end, we’re all winners,” Immel says.

“Oh no you didn’t!” Von Guinness exclaims, mocking the cliché.

After 30 hours of play, the two teams have already broken Immel’s previous record and wage on toward their final goal. Empty Gatorade bottles fill a bin, pizza boxes have replaced the donuts on the table, and three Box O’Joe cartons have been drained. Players shuffle around the court, lobbing the balls with diminished intensity, trotting off the court when struck, and—like an eternal sentence plucked from some Greek myth—immediately resetting the balls for yet another round. Score has been abandoned long ago, but players applaud each other after every game if for nothing else than to keep morale up for the final push.

Due to the number of attempts to break existing Guinness records on a daily basis, the group were unable to have a Guinness official in attendance, but observers in a rotating lineup have been present all night long, signing off on every hour of play and videotaping breaks for verification. As Von Guinness says, “We’re definitely on top of that. We don’t want to have to do this twice.”

With 30 minutes to go, Immel confesses that he feels “terrible,” and his teammates bicker momentarily over whose turn it is to sit out. Von Guinness admits he’s tired too, but that they are just “trying to stay consistent all the way through. Not a lot of ups. Not a lot of downs.” The group banked enough hours of continuous play to take a 45-minute nap in the middle of the night, but the sleep deprivation has clearly taken its toll.

Yet, when the clock breaks the five-minute mark, there’s a surge of energy. The game starts to move a little quicker and balls start to fly with increasing velocity. One Hometown player charges over the attack line on a suicide run, smashing an Albany player right in the face. And as the final minute begins, every player takes to the court, throwing high fives and rallying for one final rush. Similarly rallying from exhaustion, the observers rise to their feet for the final minute, counting down the final seconds and delivering champagne bottles to center court when the clock reads zero.

Posing for photos, Immel admits this is the first time they’ve smiled in 31 hours, but Von Guinness says he thinks they managed their time perfectly. It’s hard to tell if the emotion is more excitement or relief, as one player admits he “can’t really remember yesterday,” and another says, “I just want to go home.” Still, there’s talk of moving the celebration to a local bar after they clean up the rented gym.

When asked if he’ll attempt to break his updated Guinness record with, say, a 40-hour match, Immel is quick to say, “No way. If anybody wants it, they can have it.” But, you know, that’s what he said last time.

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