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Cinematically inspired older crowd takes a whack at a kids' favorite: Dodgeball

A staple of elementary school playgrounds for decades in the United States, dodgeball has jiggled its way up the sports pyramid in recent years. No longer is it just a grade schooler's rite of passage through morning and afternoon recess, almost guaranteed to lead to the nurse's office for a swipe of Mercurochrome to skinned knees and bloody elbows.

Much of its increased popularity traceable to the 2004 comedy, "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," dodgeball has gone from old-school mainstay to a sort of new-age grungy cool. And while kids may still heed the call to pick up those familiar inflated playground balls, the game that many loved for its simple rules -- and sometimes stinging welts -- today is just as likely to be played by high schoolers, college students, and white-collared professionals.

"It's play therapy," said Paul Naddaff, the 25-year-old owner/director of BigKidsDodgeball , the Boston-based organization that stages frequent tournaments at BasketBall City, the twin-domed rooftop facility in the shadow of TD Banknorth Garden. "You'll hear the players screaming, you'll hear 'em yelling, and you realize, yeah, it's dodgeball, but they're taking it seriously -- you know, seriously to a point. After all, it's still just dodgeball."

Naddaff, who grew up in Newton and graduated from Southern Cal with a degree in psychology, fixed his attention on the game in the days soon after seeing the Vince Vaughn-Ben Stiller sophomoric spoof. How cool it would be, he thought, to pick up the game again, possibly form a league. In short order, he was doing all of that, inside the Brookline High gym, and the sport's popularity soon led Naddaff and friends to the bigger space offered by BasketBall City.

Last Wednesday night, no fewer than 11 teams, with 10 players a side, squared off in a tournament at the Lomasney Way site. In the end, a team of Billerica High students prevailed over a team made up mainly of twentysomething financial types from around Massachusetts, in a best-of-three final round.

Billerica senior Matt Tieri fired the winning shot, completing a two-game sweep. Start to finish -- including a brief shoving match at the end of Game 1 -- the two games took a total of 12 minutes. Naddaff presented the Billerica kids with a large trophy, propped on a table that was hastily hauled out onto the court, and the winners were left to pick a date to claim the No. 1 prize -- a night on the town in a limousine big enough to haul all 10 players. No booze included, because no one on the team is yet 21 years old.

"Fun -- it's all about fun," said Tieri, as he was mobbed by ecstatic teammates at game's end. "That's all it is -- fun."

"I think for a lot of us, this is just a great way to relieve some stress," said Doug Mavilia, a 26-year-old financial adviser who lives in Weymouth. "You get to see some friends in a different setting, have some fun, go out for a beer afterward.

"Some of it, too, is just the novelty of the game. You know, it's easy to find leagues for softball, or basketball, or soccer. But where can you find organized dodgeball?"

Scarcity of women
Out of 110 players, Cathy Liang, a 29-year-old research project manager at Brigham and Women's Hospital, was the only woman in the field. Originally from the Pittsburgh suburbs, she suited up at the urging of friend and co-worker Seth Woolf. Liang figured it was her first time playing dodgeball since her grade-school days. Woolf, also a marathon runner (he reported a time of 3 hours 29 minutes for his recent Hopkinton-Boston run), said he has played in a few of the BigKidsDodgeball tourneys, and felt sorry for Liang that the crowd was almost exclusively male and skewed toward high school age.

Naddaff explained that exam period at local colleges held down the field (usually upward of 200) and also brought down the teams' average ages. Three teams, he said, averaged about age 27. The other eight clubs were stocked with teenagers, most of them from Billerica High.

"I'm kind of disappointed," acknowledged Liang. "I'd like to see more women play. It's not the first time that I've been in a situation where I'm the only girl playing, but let's just say it makes me feel like an easy target."

Naddaff said there has been a decline in the number of female players since the start of his organized games three years ago. For the most part, he said, women make for excellent catchers (a key skill) but typically weak throwers. Some of the strongest men hurl the balls in excess of 80 miles per hour, said Naddaff, and he believes the force of those tosses, and the pain they can inflict, also has led to females opting not to play.

Liang wrinkled her nose in skepticism.

"C'mon, it stings a little bit," she said. "But only for a second."

Reached at his office, Billerica High athletic director Mike Granfield said he wasn't aware that his school had become such a wellspring of dodgeball talent.

"I know some of the kids came in here looking for gym space for dodgeball a few months ago," said Granfield. "I didn't want to push them out the door. But gym space in the middle of winter? Good luck. I had no choice but to send them on their way.

"Hey, maybe some of this is a statement by some of the kids over the lack of physical education. Unfortunately, like a lot of schools, we had to eliminate phys ed for juniors and seniors from the budget. So I guess it's a possibility they're finding it on their own out there. If so, that's great.

"I've said a million times, for every kid that hated phys ed, there was another kid who loved it, thought it was the best part of his day."

Kyle Houston was among the tournament's more passionate attendees. By his eye, the old schoolyard favorite is an equalizer, allowing all shapes and sizes to get in the game and have fun.

"Everyone can play it," said the 18-year-old Billerica senior. "It doesn't matter if you're tall, short, fast, slow, skinny, heavy, whatever. We've got kids playing dodgeball who are on the school's baseball team, another one from the hockey team.

"Our guys, we're the stragglers, kids who just wanted to hang out and have some fun, and this is just our way of taking it to the next level. When you were a little kid, maybe you were picked on a lot, or maybe you were heavy, just not good at sports, you know?

"With dodgeball, you can come back and say, 'Hey, it's my time.' It's all about equal opportunity."

The national level
Naddaff and staff have yet to announce their next BigKidsDodgeball tournament. However, the National Dodgeball League, in the midst of a 13-city national tour, makes its only New England stop May 12 at Velocity Sports Performance in Sudbury (visit nationaldodgeball.com for details and registration). Winners of the Sudbury tournament will be granted entry into the Dodgeball World Championship in Las Vegas Aug. 17-18.

According to NDL president Ed Prentiss, it is difficult to estimate how many people across the country are playing dodgeball, but he figures the number is between 300,000 and a half-million. He agreed that participation has skyrocketed since the movie, recalling how a Google search of dodgeball just weeks prior to the movie's launch brought only four hits, all of them images rather than text.

"That movie," said the 41-year-old Prentiss, who is originally from Connecticut but now lives in Minneapolis, "has been the catalyst for everything."

The standard fee for Naddaff's tournaments at BasketBall City is $200 per team or $20 per player. Typically, he must limit capacity to 20 teams. Tournaments draw clubs from Massachusetts and other New England states, but some squads have traveled from as far as Maryland. Despite the recent tournament that counted Liang as the sole woman, female participation, said Naddaff, generally ranges between 10 and 20 percent.

Rarely do individual games last more than 5-6 minutes. The outline of a volleyball court, roughly 30 feet by 60 feet, forms the playing area. Four balls, two small (5-inch diameter) and two large (8 1/2-inch diameter) are spread across the center line, with each team lining up 10 across on opposite endlines. At the referee's whistle, the 20 players converge in a mad dash to gain possession of the balls. Players with possession must first retreat to touch the endlines before they fire on the enemy.

Players are never allowed to advance beyond the center line. They are eliminated when hit by an opponent's toss, or when using a ball to block a shot, they lose control of the blocking ball.

According to a number of players interviewed during last week's tournament, the highest risk of injury occurs at the start of each game when players often collide in the center-line scrum.

"Last time here, everyone ran to the middle and one kid went head-first into another kid's knee," said Mavilia. "He had a tooth go through his lips. There was some blood, and he needed a couple of stitches, but nothing too bad."

Early on, said Naddaff, he had to hire off-duty police officers to help maintain peace on the courts. Pre-screening, with an emphasis on good sportsmanship upon registration, has all but eliminated fighting, he said. There is no restriction as to how hard a ball can be thrown, and aiming for the head is both legal and common. Other than bandannas, ball caps, and headbands, players go without head protection.

Woolf, a research assistant at Brigham and Women's, figures he'll be back for another tournament. By his estimation, the whole thing is a niche sport, one challenged to grow much more unless another movie comes along or big money gets behind it with advertising and marketing.

"Most people probably look at it and think it's a joke," mused Woolf. "They'll think, 'Well, the movie's cool, but dodgeball . . . come on, I'm an adult.'

"But I look at it as a place to blow off some steam, get some exercise, meet some new people . . . and find the kid inside."

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