Roller Boys

The men of Baltimore strive to get ahead of the pack in the fast-and-furious world of roller derby

June 25, 2008|By Sam Sessa and Meredith Cohn | Sam Sessa and Meredith Cohn,Sun reporters

In the glam yet gritty world of roller derby, women may rule the rink, but that hasn't stopped the average Joes of Baltimore's Harm City Homicide from elbowing their way in.

Roller derby - the sometimes campy, sometimes brutal sport - has seen a resurgence in recent years, with female leagues such as Baltimore's Charm City Roller Girls taking center stage. But the boys just couldn't stay on the sidelines.

"I imagined the feeling was similar to flying," said Tracy Williams, who had been relegated to the infield as a referee for women's matches before forming his own team. "Of course, you learn you can get hit. Hard. But that's part of why it's fun. When eight people are after you - 1,000 pounds flying at you - you have to find a path to safety."

All this tough-guy, dodge-ball talk from a man in a miniskirt. Like the women's matches, male derbying is part skill, part danger and part show. Not in a fake pro-wrestling kind-of-way, say the players. And no longer in an old-timer, derby story-telling manner. But in a modern, dress-up and strut-your-stuff kind of way.

It's not that derby is not a real sport, mind you. It took Williams two years to get comfortable enough on his skates before he could play. And the best players, men and women, have technical skills, not bulk.

And about that skirt Williams was wearing, it's not to poke fun. It's more of a homage to the (not so) fair gender. They pioneered. They showed grit.

Williams, who just this year recruited enough players to field an entire team, even picked a nickname that speaks - sort of - to the "segregation" of sports in general: Justice Feelgood Marshall, inspired by the name of the late Baltimorean and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. (Though, he says, many nonlocals think he's named after BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.)

This Sunday, Williams and his Harm City Homicide will play their first full 60-minute bout against the New York Shock Exchange.

Harm City Homicide has its beginnings in September 2006.

Williams caught wind of Pioneer Valley, an all-male roller derby team based in Northampton, Mass. On a whim, he challenged them to a short exhibition scrimmage during the halftime break of the Charm City Roller Girls championship bout. After 15 minutes, the local men edged out a tough 33-30 win over the visiting team.

"I gotta admit, it was a little dirty on both our sides," said Williams, a 31-year-old freelance writer who lives in Hampden. "People were going as fast as possible at other people."

But Williams loved it. So did the crowd. After the mini-bout ended, audience members approached Williams and asked him about forming an all-male team and if they could join. Soon after, Williams helped organize just such a team.

When picking a name, the teammates looked to their hometown for inspiration.

"We wanted something that reflected Baltimore and stuff, like The Wire," Williams said. "We wanted a name that evoked Charm City but didn't cause confusion with the female league."

At the risk of scaring their spouses and parents, they chose Harm City Homicide.

Word spread about the Homicide, and its ranks swelled to 14 players. Members range in age from 22 to 37. Most live in or around the city, and all pay dues to rent a rink and play. Together, they are one of about 10 publicly competing male teams in the country. In a testament to the popularity of male derby, the stands have begun to fill with people who don't know anyone on the team.

The players may have different reasons for joining, but Williams says the dressing up keeps them all from "trying to show their masculinity" or getting too serious. The team wears versions of a police uniform. Williams is the only one in a skirt - "really comfortable," he said. Another player with long hair put it in pigtails for a game.

Normally, roller derby bouts are played in two 30-minute periods. Both teams have five players (three blockers, a pivot and a jammer) who compete in a "jam." The pivots set the speed of the pack, and the jammers start 20 feet behind the pivots and blockers and fight their way to the front.

A team scores one point for each person the jammer laps along the way. Each team tries to stop the jammer. If the jammer makes it to the top of the pack while staying in bounds, he can call off the jam at any time. Or, if no one emerges as lead jammer, the jam ends after two minutes. As with other sports, derby skaters can be penalized or tossed out of a game for fouls.

While bumps, bruises and pulled muscles can be common in bouts, stamina is the biggest issue for the members of Harm City Homicide. The first time they faced the New York Shock Exchange in an exhibition match, the out-of-town team beat them 97-14 in 20 minutes.

"They annihilated us," said Williams. "We got taken to the woodshed on that one."

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