August 4, 2012 was a memorably hot and humid day in New England.
Before embarking on the 90-minute long drive from my house in Connecticut to Easthampton, Massachusetts to watch the Connecticut Death Quads (CTDQ) take on the Pioneer Valley Dirty Dozen (PVRD), I spent the afternoon in my comfortably air-conditioned living room scouring the internet for videos of men’s roller derby. I not only like to be knowledgeable about the sports I watch, but I was also very curious to see what I was potentially getting into. I hoped to get a grasp on the strategies, speed, and power with which the guys played roller derby.
If women’s roller derby is considered a fringe sport, then men’s roller derby is on the fringe of a fringe. This meant that video footage of men’s derby was quite scarce at the time, however, I did get pretty amped up to see my first live men’s roller derby bout later that day after finding the following two highlight videos on YouTube:
I was full of anticipation while driving up to the Williston Northampton School, and upon my arrival I learned very quickly why players laughingly refer to this venue as “The Hot Box.” Industrial fans and propped-open doors do little to fight back the heavy heat that gets trapped in the large, metal-walled gymnasium.
Beads of sweat rolled from my forehead down to my goatee, and the back of my t-shirt was wet to the touch…And I was just sitting up against a warm concrete wall, watching in awe, as the Death Quads and the Dirty Dozen battled it out on the track. The thud of a bone-jarring hit often resulted in players strewn about the floor, and slippery ‘snail trails’ of sweat were left behind as players rejoined the pack. These slick spots made it even more difficult for speedy jammers as they circled the track, and often resulted in more intense pile-ups. The pace of the men’s game was a bit quicker than the women’s bout I had watched the week prior (See Part 1), and it was obvious how much energy these guys were exerting while out on the track.
No longer full of theatrics or flailing elbows, today’s version of roller derby is very much a sport that requires fitness, agility, and toughness. Considering my fitness at the time, coupled with the fact that I hadn’t been on skates since High School, I had some self doubts about my ability to play at the level I was witnessing.
Despite my trepidation, the following Sunday I found myself nervously seated in Kernel’s passenger seat as we pulled into the Roller Magic parking lot for my first Death Quads practice. I have been blown away by the graciousness, enthusiasm, and dedication to growing the sport which other roller derby players encompass.
This has been a huge inspiration on my journey, as it is not just about one individual player, but a collective community of people who simply love to play roller derby and want to see the sport continue to evolve. Despite his *ahem* creative name, Circle Jerk #19 (CJ) was the first player to show me this side of roller derby.
A true pioneer of the sport, Circle Jerk is one of the founders of the Connecticut Death Quads, beginning the league in 2007. Along with the Pioneer Valley Roller Derby (Easthampton, MA), the New York Shock Exchange (New York, NY), and the Harm City Homicide (Baltimore, MD), the Connecticut Death Quads (Waterbury, CT) formed what was originally known as the Men’s Derby Coalition (MDC).
In 2011, the MDC rebranded itself as the Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) which today is the parent organization for over 40 men’s roller derby teams across the United States, in Canada, and in England (and growing). What began as four teams has literally become an international affair, and the first Men’s Roller Derby World Cup was played March 14-16 2014 in Birmingham, England. The World Cup featured teams from 15 nations from around the world and is a tribute to the insanely quick pace at which the sport of roller derby is advancing.
My first Death Quads practice started with some warm-ups, a 20-minute succession of off-skate stretches, plyometrics, and sprints. I was amazed by how easy it seemed for everyone around me as I struggled through the various exercises. I mustered through, but after being told to jog two laps around the rink to “cool down, then gear up,” my quadriceps and hamstrings ached, atrophied from far too many sedentary hours. I literally fell backwards onto a solid yellow bench, then attempted to lace up the Antik skates CJ let me borrow. My legs quivered as I put the boots on, and because I was breathing rapidly, it was very difficult to bend forward in order to tie the skates (okay…okay…so maybe my belly was in the way too).
Whereas the team practices on the yellow-lined track laid out on one end of the Roller Magic floor, new recruits generally work on the basics of roller derby in the ‘shallow end’ until they are ready to join the pack. This is where I spent the remainder of my first practice working on various derby basics with a former CT RollerGirl named Rink Wraith. After a solid hour of stops and knee falls I was drenched with sweat and exhausted, but Wraith didn’t let me rest. Instead, she pushed me to work on some light contact drills, during which she showed me that one of the toughest parts of roller derby is picking yourself up off the ground.
Despite being physically and mentally drained, I was really enjoying my time on skates and practice time passed in what seems like a blink. It concluded with a brief team meeting and I was invited to join the guys in the center of the track.
After a quick round of introductions, it was announced that a karaoke fundraiser was being held the following Friday and I was encouraged to attend, unaware at the time that the forthcoming event would mark the day I found my roller derby identity as Dirty Frank #10.
As I think back, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what made me go to practice that day. Maybe it was watching those guys leave it all on the track the night before, and despite a physical and somewhat chippy game when the bout ended everyone shook hands, hugged, and talked about hanging out together at the after party. Maybe it was the fact that Kernel seemed so excited about seeing me try it out.Maybe I was drawn to the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team, something I now realize I missed greatly after getting out of the Army.
Or maybe it was just the Universe doing its thing, a combination of a series of moments throughout life that lead to a particular meaningful instance.