The rules of Dodge Ball are straightforward and widely known. Players on two teams try to throw balls at each other while avoiding being hit themselves. The main objective is to eliminate all members of the opposing team by hitting them through varying levels of intensity with thrown balls, or catching a ball thrown by a member of the opposing team, or forcing them to move outside the court boundaries.
The strategies of dodge ball fall into three possible categories:
Attack – offensive stance where the player obtains a ball, races forward and pegs a player, preferably below the face.
Avoid—hence the name of the game – to have situational awareness to the extent that you see and prepare for incoming attacks, moving your body to dodge each hurled sphere
Absorb—the most impressive move is when the attackee faces their attacker and instead of dodging, bravely catches the ball, therefore effectively eliminating their attacker.
The year was nineteen hundred and seventy-eight. The place: Jefferson Elementary School, in Jefferson City, Tennessee—22 miles east of Knoxville, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It was time for Physical Education with Coach Ogburn. I can still smell the freshly waxed gymnasium floor and feel the hard wooden bleachers. I knew the moment we walked in and saw the round red rubber balls that there would be only one winner, and many, many losers–possibly with the visible welts to prove it.
As the class filed in and completed warm ups, I sized up my other classmates. There were always a few you hoped were absent on Dodge Ball day.
That’s gonna leave a mark.
Coach Ogburn was not the stereotypical elementary school coach. Yes, he wore a whistle and usually a baseball cap. He alternated between blue and red Champion shorts and his tennis shoes and crew socks were impossibly white. I know this from sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor as he roamed between the students counting our arm circles out loud. He wasn’t the yelling kind of PE teacher. He was kind and soft-spoken and he frequently turned down the 4th grade boys constant and repeated pleas to divide the class into “boys vs girls” on Dodge Ball days. Unless.
There were less than 10 boys.
Something about 9 boys to 15 girls caused Coach Ogburn to relent on this particular historic day and we had the first and only battle of the sexes that gymnasium had ever seen. And quite possibly the last…for reasons that shall unfold.
The boys high fived each other and lined up across their side of the gym. The girls looked at each other sheepishly. Without benefit of Beyonce, Katy Perry, or Lady Gaga we attempted to rally our girl power. Our main mojo in those days came from The Bee Gees, Barry Manilow and Olivia Newton-John, so you know the cards were stacked against us.
Imagine if you will, the shock and awe that ensued as one by one, we began to methodically strike out the boys –just as efficiently as they were eliminating us. Of course the main strategy of at least half of our young lady squad was to congregate along the back wall, safely out of range. The band of brave sisters coordinated efforts along with the front line. Using a series of facial expressions, imperceptible nods and the American Sign Language we usually saved for silent classroom gossip, we were able to identify a plan of attack that brought us closer and closer to the seemingly impossible victory.
We bided our time, with a heightened awareness of incoming attacks, mournfully sending off our fallen, and swiftly reconvening to slowly and methodically take out the boys. One of ours, one of theirs. One of ours, two of theirs. Soon we were down to – you guessed it – one brave girl.
She was not yet known for her athletic ability and she had gone as far as she could go with the avoidance strategy. The boys had finally begun working together as a team, and they nodded to each other, smiling because they knew this victory would be swift and sweet. On cue, the boys strutted toward center court and fired. Time seemed to stand still as the next few moments played out in slow-motion. The boys knew better than to aim for her head or they would surely be eliminated for foul play. Ricky Thomas fired ball one directly toward her left hip – and she bravely caught it. Groans erupted from the other boys on the sidelines as their eliminated number grew by one. How can this be happening?
The rules state a caught ball must stay in possession for at least two seconds so there was no time for her to drop ball one before WHOOSH Randy Miller fired ball two at her right shoulder—with cat like reflexes, she caught it ONE HANDED against all odds. ALL the girls cheered wildly and the entire gym was on their feet! Coach Ogburn’s whistle dropped from his lips, his mouth fell open in disbelief and his eyes followed as Eddie Massey hurled ball three WHOOSH across the center court line towards her knees. This would be the fatal blow. If she dropped either ball, the boys would win. If ball three hit her, the boys would win.
The vertically challenged 10 year old mustered up her strength, heart pounding, and dropped to one knee. With every fiber of her being she securely gripped the other two balls under her forearms, holding out her small, cursive-writing hands, and epically caught the third and final ball with her glorious fingertips .
It was a banner day for girls everywhere. Well, at least for the girls of Jefferson Elementary School in the foothills of the East Tennessee Smoky Mountains. I have treasured that memory over the years. It sometimes comes back to me when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed. I like to recall how good it felt to win one for the girls that day. And how proud I was….of my good friend Carey Woodard. How much I admired her for her bravery and perseverance. Oh, you thought it was me? Gosh no. I was out at least ten minutes before when I tripped over my untied shoelace and fell out of bounds.
But I did cheer though. I cheered my butt off.