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Dodgeball is a nostalgic hit

By Jenae Cohn

May 27, 2009 9:14 p.m.

Never under any circumstances would I choose to return to elementary school P.E. class. Do you remember that bespectacled girl who always got hit in the face during soccer only to start crying out on the field and have to be sent away from the game to put herself together again? Yeah, that was me.

Yet there is some teensy little part of me that can’t help but muster up nostalgia for any game involving the use of rubber balls. So, upon discovering the existence of the Los Angeles Dodgeball Society, I could not help but be curious.

I was never a huge dodgeball fan (honestly, I did not need to make myself even more privy to potential injuries), but the further we get from elementary school P.E., the less clearly we remember these sports and the more fondly we remember them.

The Los Angeles Dodgeball Society is a surprisingly large organization, composed of “leagues” of players from all over the Los Angeles area, including Westwood.

I attended an “open gym,” a two-hour dodgeball session where anyone could come and play “Stay Puft”-style, or with “No Sting” (that is, non-rubber, but squishy, balls) for $5 at Santa Monica’s Stoner Recreation Center.

As soon as I entered the gym, I felt something I hadn’t experienced in a long time: utter dread.

I tried to practice, throwing a ball against the wall. Yet my ball resonated with only a mild thud while the gym echoed with the hard smacks of squishy, foamy material against brick. I squeezed the ball in my hands, attempting to wring out my fear, as I envisioned a ball smacking me straight in the chest.

Everyone soon lined up against the wall of the gym waiting for teams. I joined the line, heart pounding, hoping that team captains would not slowly disseminate the group, leaving me as one of the last ones chosen. Mercifully, teams were chosen randomly and the rules were briefly explained: No crossing certain boundary lines (or you were out) and no throwing at people’s faces (oh, thank the Lord). That was it.

For those of you who can’t remember the typical game play, it’s simple. At the beginning of the game, about 10 squishy balls are lined up in the center of the court. The referee blows a whistle, and players from both sides dash to pick up the balls from the center.

Then, the players with balls throw said balls at the other team. Hit players must leave the game and can only be brought back in if someone from their team catches a ball.

As soon as the referee hit the whistle, it was hustle time.

Obvious forerunners stood out in our group, poised like tigers ready to pounce with dodgeball in hand.

The other players sometimes tried to strategize with each other, coordinating all throws at one particularly strong target or determining with a grunt or throw of the head which person should pick up an abandoned rolling dodgeball. Players would often comment on certain moves during game play as well.

“Ooh! A curved throw! Nice one!”

“Easy, easy! Don’t rush it!”

I primarily skittered around the back of the court, flinching at the closest sign of a ball and dumbly running away with my eyes shut when any ball came near me.

Amazingly, that “strategy” sort of worked; in most rounds, I was one of the last ones standing primarily because I was not any threat. I didn’t make any extra effort to nab one of the balls for play, and when I did have a ball to throw, I usually completely missed my target.

One of the key players in our group ““ a man with bright red board shorts, a flame tattoo enveloping his shoulder and bright red hair to match ““ attempted to give me tips in between games.

“You’re going to want to throw it underhand,” he said, pulling back his arm into an arch.

“I’ve got to up my game,” I said. It seemed like a dodgeball-ish kind of thing to say.

Another game began, and I attempted not to skitter around as much.

“Go for the sides,” red-shorts man said. “If you try to hit ’em from the sides close to the center line, you can intimidate ’em.”

Ball in hand, I locked eyes with one of the strongest players on the other team. He planted his feet on the ground, shoulder-width apart, and hands outstretched into a basket to catch the ball. He nodded at me, mouthed a “come on.”

Confident and determined, I threw the ball with all of my strength only to completely miss him.

Then, before I even knew what to do next, I was hit square in the face. I started to walk off the court, slightly dazed, head spinning and cheeks stinging from the impact.

Memories of sitting on the concrete curb after getting hit with a soccer ball in elementary school came back to me. I was grateful my pain tolerance has since increased, and I didn’t burst into tears.

“You’re not out! You’re not out!” my teammates yelled around me. After all, a rule had been accidentally violated. I wobbled a little on my feet, rubbed my cheek and retreated to the back of the court.

I didn’t quite feel back up to par after the hit to the face, and by the end of the day, I walked back with a throbbing headache and a completely sore back from falling on my behind earlier.

I certainly didn’t relive any elementary school glory days, but the camaraderie built in this rag-time team of dodgeball players reminded me that it does not really take skill to enjoy oneself. All you really need to enjoy any type of sport is a goal, some excitement and the ability to let go.

If you want to start a UCLA dodgeball league, e-mail Cohn at [email protected].

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