Paint bursting with flare

Combatants are going to extremes as paintball grows in popularity

Maryland Journal


"I hate this. I always get so nervous on the first game." says Eric Tedrow. He stands rigid, gun pointed at the dirt, forehead sweating and knees cocked like a sprinter in the block.

To his left and right are seven teammates, from teenage boys to middle-aged men, many in camouflage pants and jackets. All of them stare forward across the field at their opponents. Someone needs to take charge.

Tedrow, 18, starts barking orders. "Take right. You take back house. If he goes down, you bump up," he says, gesturing to the people around him before facing forward again. "Try not to shoot me."

To the uninitiated, a paintball match can look like merely a disorganized frenzy of a war game. But to the steadily growing number of people -- mostly young men -- who have made it their No. 1 hobby, there's a strategy at work in the extreme sport that even a beginner can adopt.

"Communication is key!" shouts Sean Smart, a 28-year-old senior staff member at Outdoor Adventures Paintball Sports in Bowie. He stands just outside the netted field on a recent night, coaching this evening's walk-on players. "Tell 'em where they are!"

After a few seconds, it begins.

Over shouts of "Go go go!" comes the staccato thwack thwack thwack of paintballs bursting on plastic barricades as the two teams rush at each other and simultaneously dive for cover.

Tedrow, a Crofton resident and four-year paintball vet, assumes the leadership role for his temporary platoon. "The beer can's hot! The ghetto's hot! The middle finger's hot!" he yells.

He's directing teammates to move up on specific bunkers on the course where opposing players are hiding out. Those who have played the field before understand his jargon, those who haven't just hang back and try not to get nailed: One hit with a marble-sized paintball is all it takes to get called out by the roving referees.

In the sweltering, low-90s heat, games have a five-minute limit. But before time has expired, Tedrow and all his teammates are picked off, the last one battered on the left side by opponents storming downfield. A handful of red-shirted staff members direct all the players to the check-in trailers to drink water or Gatorade before they're allowed on the field again.

As they peel off their face-protecting goggles -- required gear for even approaching the paintball field -- the fallen recap the match.

"I was running out of paint. I was two bunkers back. I just ran right at him and got the guy. Then I turned and got lit up," says 25-year-old Vladimir Bott from Waldorf.

He swigs from a water bottle and wipes his forehead. "The worst part isn't getting hit. It's the sweat," he says.

"And it's expensive," adds Josh Marchyshyn, a 16-year-old Bowie resident.

That, more than anything, is probably why paintball has remained on the fringes of extreme sports since its invention by three New Hampshire men in 1981. The paintballs themselves average about $50 for a case of 2,000 rounds, and new high-end paintball guns can rattle off up to 30 rounds per second. The index and middle fingers of experienced players move like a blur, "fanning" they call it, and an itchy trigger finger can tear through a case of paintballs in a minute.

Then there are the goggles, paintball canisters, long-sleeve protective gear and the guns, which cost from $150 to more than $1,500 each.

But Lee Draper, a co-owner of Outdoor Adventures since 1995, insists the thrill is worth it. "It's an adrenaline dump that is nearly identical in every respect to extreme sports like hang-gliding and bungee jumping," he says.

Indeed, a series of signs along the mile-long dirt road leading to his paintball field reads "Are You Ready To Feel The Rush?"

The Bowie paintball field opened in 1988 and is one of the oldest and largest in the state, covering 80 acres of forest and farmland just off U.S. 50. On weekends the full site is open for matches in vast wooded courses, which reflect how the sport began and still account for 80 percent of all paintball games, Draper says. Four 100-yard-by-200-yard fields -- known as speedball, hyperball or airball fields based on the makeup of their bunkers -- are open for night games on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the summer.

There are about a dozen other designated paintball fields in Maryland, though some -- such as the former Anne Arundel Paintball Park near Arundel Mills -- have closed to make way for development.

But the faithful say the sport's popularity is increasing. They can rattle off statistics about how safe it is -- causing fewer injuries than golf and tennis in organized play -- and how it trails only skateboarding and inline skating as the most widespread extreme sport.

"It's just a great stress reliever," says Bott. "All you need is to lose the fear of running out there and getting hit."

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