Best way to get popped upside the head

The explosive energy of Sacramento’s dodgeball scene

Illustration by Don Button

Don’t be startled by the rapid-fire popping noises emanating from the Alkali Flat Boys and Girls Club. What sounds like athletic Armageddon is only the echo of Sacramento’s fastest-growing sport: dodgeball.

You need quick reflexes just to watch a dodgeball match here. You have to time your entry carefully, waiting for a pause in the balls slamming against the gym’s double doors. Inside, you’ll scurry past four teams hurling rubber projectiles at breakneck velocities and run for the relative safety of the bleachers on the far wall. Even seated, you must be on guard. Once the team in front of you successfully dodges a ball, there’s nothing stopping it—except the fans. If you’re there, you dodge. There are no spectators. And despite the game’s location in the Boys and Girls Club, there are no children either.

When substitute teacher Nick Berruezo first moved to Sacramento in 2008, he decided to put together a little sports league, like the kickball club he played with in San Diego. He was new in town, and it seemed like a good way to make friends.

He chose the name Xoso, a nonsensical word inspired by the X’s and O’s in a sports playbook, posted some ads on Craigslist and Facebook, and invited Sacramento to a kickball game. He had no idea the Xoso Sport and Social League would soon become his full-time job.

In the year since its inception, Xoso’s membership has doubled or tripled every few months. The league’s offerings have expanded to include dodgeball, volleyball and capture the flag. There are more than 1,000 athletes playing with Xoso now, and the most popular game—by far—is dodgeball.

There were 22 co-ed teams in the league’s summer dodgeball season, which ended last month when Megatron’s Jock Strap pummeled Balls Deep in a late-night championship tournament. (Yes, dodgeball’s juvenile essence extends to the teams’ names.)

The demand to play dodgeball is so great that Berruezo is running out of T-shirt colors for all the teams. At the first ever Xoso Dodgeball All-Star Game on August 5, team members raced around the gym in league shirts colored lime green, burnt sienna and any number of unorthodox shades.

The league is likely to swell again this fall, whether T-shirt manufacturers can keep up or not. And that begs the question: Why is dodgeball blowing up in Sacramento?

The local dodgeball phenomenon does not exist in a vacuum. The 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller as rival competitors in a Las Vegas dodgeball tournament, is widely credited with reviving interest in a sport previously relegated to middle-school P.E. classes. Amateur adult dodgeball clubs soon popped up throughout the country. There are even professional dodgeball teams and, in a classic case of life imitating art (or silly sports comedy films), the fourth annual Dodgeball World Championship was held last month in Las Vegas.

It’s all part of the “rejuvenile” trend: adults gravitating towards activities once reserved for children. In his book Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up, Christopher Noxon poses various theories about the popularity of playground sports off the playground, including the erosion of traditional adult values in the face of high divorce rates and a crumbling job market, and constant media pressure to avoid aging.

“A lifelong barrage of media attention aimed at youth has created a cultural tractor beam,” Noxon writes, “drawing older consumers back into the target market. By so lavishly fixating on youth, the market presents those who are no longer young with a stark choice: buy in or be forgotten.”

Berruezo sees the sports’ popularity in much simpler terms. “I think people want to get back to their youth and no-pressure attitudes,” he explained. “Everyone wants to be young.”

Players wouldn’t think of dodging practice for Xoso Sports and Social League’s dodgeball games.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Xoso’s no-pressure attitude extends off the court and into weekly afterparties at the Pine Cove Tavern, the league’s dodgeball sponsor bar. Teams follow the games with epic flip-cup battles at the Midtown bar, in which players race to drain a plastic cup of beer (or water for nondrinkers) and then flip it on end before the next player can drink.

“Most of us look at the games as just the pre-game. Hanging out at the league bar is the main event for the night,” said Andres Perez of championship team Megatron’s Jock Strap. Perez has played with Xoso since December and, like every player interviewed for this story, cited the social aspect of the league as his favorite part of the experience.

“Dodgeball is a fantastic way to meet people,” Berruezo said. “Four teams play at once, so more teams are in the gym and more teams head to the bar afterwards.”

Making friends is all well and good, but as violent dodgeball send-ups on South Park and Freaks and Geeks attest, the sport has a darker, predatory edge. After all, the object of the game is to hit another person.

“You are on your toes at all times,” Perez said. “You have to know how many players your team has left, how many of your opponents are left, how much time, how many balls on each side. You have to think fast, but you can’t think too much or else you’ll get eliminated!”

During a 30-minute game, every player gets hit multiple times and the gym sounds like a shooting range. It’s enough to trigger fourth-grade flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder in the calmest adult, but Xoso players have trained themselves not to flinch.

Laura Breedlove, a 24-year-old student teacher, explained her strategy. “You always flinch. You just learn to make that the ‘dodge.’ Once you get hit a few times, you realize you’re not going to get seriously hurt.”

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“A lot of women especially are afraid of getting hit in the face,” Berruezo said. “That was one woman’s biggest concern, and it happened the very first night. She’s played lots of games since.”

That might be the best endorsement for Xoso Sport and Social League: So much fun, it’s worth getting hit in the face for!