On The Road From Obscurity To Espn

April 28, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer

Lori McComas, dressed in a lovely royal blue evening gown and white sneakers, comes out from behind her bunker, blasting away with her semiautomatic rifle.

Unfortunately, someone else gets there first, and a paint pellet explodes on the handle of her gun. The game is less than a minute old and she is eliminated.

The game is paintball and the weekend warriors in the camouflaged outfits and goggles say they have a modest goal: to make their sport the next beach volleyball.

The sport's best are competing for $35,000 in prize money in the D.C. Cup, a five-day national tournament that started yesterday in Bowie and continues through Sunday.

You probably haven't heard of it, but there is a National Professional Paintball League, and they're hoping to hit the big time -- complete with big-name sponsors, decent prize money and television exposure -- like those scantily clad hard bodies playing volleyball on ESPN.

"As soon as we get a visible sponsor, like Nike or Coke, this thing is going to explode," said Stephen Robinson, 26, of Silver Spring, who is a member of Bad Company of Maryland, one of 19 professional teams in the country.

But the paintballers have a slight image problem. They find themselves fighting the impression that they are survivalist warmongers who crave violence.

"This is about as unpolitically correct as you can get," admits Dana F. Lombardy, who runs Outdoor Adventures in Bowie, the largest paintball field in the Mid-Atlantic and site of the tournament.

The action is fast and fierce. At yesterday's five-person team competition, the battle started with a blast of an air horn. Two Maryland teams, Bad Company, clad in the customary camouflage, and Class Act, decked out in evening wear, started shooting at each other from behind bunkers and trees. The object is to capture a flag and bring it back to your team's home base.

After a brief battle, Bad Company, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation in 10-player competition, overwhelms the less experienced Class Act, an amateur team in only its second competition. In the early rounds, amateur and pros can face each other.

"They're an extremely good team, so you've got to take it before they take it. Meet aggression with aggression," said Ms. McComas, who runs a paintball supply store in Brooklyn Park.

Talk to an avid paintballer and two things become clear: The first is that their sport does not glorify war and violence. In a sense, it brings home the reality of what a gun can do.

"It's got to be the most eye-opening, anti-war experience you can have, because you get shot," said Mr. Robinson, who installs high-tech audio systems for a living.

Unlike television or the movies, he said, "If you run across an open field, you will be shot."

The second credo among paintballers is that the game takes skill and strategy, with communication and teamwork being the keys.

"It's human chess playing. That's what I call it," said Tim Barrett, 33, of Beltsville, a private security guard who is also a Bad Company member.

The sport is about 12 years old and has its origin in the paint guns ranchers use to mark cattle, and foresters to mark trees.

In spite of all the talk about strategy and high-tech, semiautomatic equipment, most paintballers say they're basically in it for the fun.

"It's like going out to play hide and seek when you were a kid," said Bill Styron, 28, of Sykesville, team captain for Radioactive of Maryland.

And who knows, maybe their dreams of the big time are not so far-fetched. After all, ESPN2 says it is planning to stop by tomorrow.

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