Mids embrace the pain

Fieldball: It's played at only two places: the New York State penitentiary and the Naval Academy. And it hurts. A lot.

January 27, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy boast that the only other place this game is played is prison.

There are rules, but the main rule is: Kill the guy with the ball.

It's called fieldball. Borrowing from rugby, football, soccer and lacrosse, it is widely regarded as the wackiest, most aggressive and dangerous intramural sport played here.

The only protective equipment required is a mouthpiece. Injuries are to be expected. In their mud-caked sweat pants, young men -- no women -- shed blood for their team.

"It lets out a lot of the frustrations of academic life here," said Matt O'Brian, a junior from Toledo, Ohio, using a sweat shirt to collect the blood gushing from his swollen, purple nose and dribbling around his mouth and down his chin. "I caught an elbow. I think it's a little broken."

Yesterday was the fieldball championship game. At a school where athletic prowess and military toughness are as important as good grades, winning at fieldball is no small matter.

"It's quite the macho thing to be the fieldball champs," said Jan Dainard, the intramural sports director.

Teams consist of nine players -- four attackers, four defensemen and a goalie. Goals are scored by throwing or kicking a soccer ball into a triangle-shaped lacrosse net: one point for a throw, two points for a kick. Like rugby, players run with the ball and can kick or throw it to their teammates. Opponents try to tackle, shove and otherwise do harm to the ball carrier.

Dainard said they've tamed the game a bit in recent years. But it's hard to tell.

One of the new rules defines "pushing" as "an attempt to move an attacking player with the hands directed between the waist and shoulders." But there's not a whole lot of "pushing," per se. There are a lot of forearm slams, elbow thrusts, head butts, trips and tackles.

Yesterday, a fight nearly broke out between two scuffling Mids. One player went down grimacing with a knee injury, as teammates yelled, "Shake it off, baby." And player after player was steamrollered by fieldball standout Tom Trimble, known as "the big, tall redhead with the tree-trunk legs."

Midshipmen are expected to participate in one of the academy's 10 intramural sports programs. Mostly, that means things such as volleyball, basketball and soccer.

But there's a cult of Mids drawn to the free-for-all of fieldball.

"I fell in love with it the first time I played it," said Dan E. Kent, a junior from Troy, Ohio, who said he plays to get out his aggressions. "It's as close as you can get to backyard football."

Like many fieldball veterans, Kent has been sidelined by injuries in past years. He's separated a shoulder and cracked a rib. "A lot of people get hurt. You see broken noses, concussions. There's at least two or three shoulder separations each year," he said.

In 1985, a midshipman was kicked out of the academy when a fieldball injury prevented him from doing the six pullups that were required to graduate.

"I know when I was here, the orthopedic surgeons weren't happy about fieldball," said Col. Norman George "Dutch" Schlaich, the deputy commandant and a 1973 graduate.

The rule book gives some indication of the tenor of play: "If a head, neck or back injury [occurs], do not move the player. If a player has blood showing, the referee immediately stops the game and that player must leave the field. He may not return until all bleeding has stopped and been cleaned up."

"As far as we know, we're the only university that plays it," Kent said.

At least that's the lore. It is believed to have been developed at World War II military training camps. A parents' guide to academy life, called "Brief Points," describes fieldball as "apparently only played at the academy and the New York State penitentiary."

Despite an unexpected rally by the underdog yesterday, the 18th Company (one of the 30 student body units) won by a score of 8-7 over the 5th Company. It was the second year in a row the 18th emerged bloody but victorious.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.