We Made a Sport: Diggerball

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Floor hockey and dodge ball are the meat and potatoes of rural Ontario high school boys’ gym classes. These are the eternal activities assigned to fill any blank periods that fall between traditional units. There are always several “spare” classes at the end of a one month-long session, like basketball, before the next one, like badminton, starts. We never kept score in dodgeball or floor hockey. We played to fill the periods.

Some time during the winter term of twelfth grade, my class grew inadvertently disinterested in meat and potatoes. Our games became limp and unambitious, played with that uninspired tedium born from repetition and predictability. Gym class devolved into a day job. With its buzzing lights and stale air, the gym became our cubicle. We threw balls and shot pucks in an emotionless vacuum.

It took the absence of our teacher for the class to realize we’d become grossly apathetic. For one week of class he stayed home, recovering from illness. We were assigned a former college basketball player turned teacher as substitute. He’d just graduated the previous fall, and his competitive juices were still bubbling.

On his first day, he said we could play whatever we wanted but warned he didn’t have keys to the equipment room. We could only use the gear lying around the gym. If we’d had access to all regular supplies, laziness would have overtaken ingenuity. We likely would have just gathered up the shitty plastic sticks and soft orange puck and started into another meaningless rendition of floor hockey. Two nets were left out from the previous class. We also found one large green indoor soccer ball behind the wooden bleachers.

The young teacher appeared bored by the mundane prospect of soccer. His disappointment and the lack of paraphernalia spurred our imagination. A decision was made to blend the full-contact checking of ice-hockey with the dexterous grace of soccer. The teacher was excited. We were all excited.

The game started and stopped as the rules were created and tweaked on the fly. There wasn’t one person making decisions, but an entire class: no checking to the head, no hand balls, and no boundaries at all! And no actual fighting, the teacher added.

We understood within minutes of starting that goals were going to be sparse. The lack of easy offense made each pass and shot attempt more important. This was a highly physical, tight-checking sport that required grit along with footwork and skill. We would never have attempted to invent a sport—let alone one so violent—with the regular teacher. The sub looked on admiringly, clapping and nodding his encouragement.

One student dubbed our endeavor “diggerball’ because of the importance placed on using one’s feet to “dig” the ball out of the congested corners and toward the net for a rare scoring chance. The game was fast-paced. It was legal to play the ball off the walls. There were no face-offs, no shot-clock, or extended breaks in the action. Substitutions were made on the fly. It was crucial to keep your head on swivel, to be aware of the other team. If you put your head down to look at your feet, or the ball, you would be hit hard. We learned quickly to keep our heads up and to communicate with teammates.

Afterward, there was a feeling of assurance that we’d play again. The following day we picked up where we’d left off. We kept the same teams and carried over the score. In the length of two gym periods, as the last few rules (there weren’t many) fell into place, we’d invented the coolest sport any of us, including the teacher, had ever played.

Soon other kids who weren’t in the gym class had heard about it. People were talking. They wanted in. We couldn’t sneak fifty or so other boys into the class, so it was decided we’d have to return to school on Friday evenings and “borrow” the facilities. The gym could be used by a group of students after hours only if a teacher had signed off. We found a young teacher who amazingly agreed to act as staff supervisor. Periodically, over the course of the next few months, he would show up, sometimes even joining in the game.

Eventually, four official teams were formed. The secret weekly matches weren’t just a gathering of like-minded chums. Everyone wanted to play: jocks, non-jocks, musicians, guys on the honor role, dudes who never went to class, guys in the A/V club, affluent suburban kids, farmers, some who were into hip-hop, others who listened to country, guys who listened to metal, guys who smoked hash at lunch. Most of the people who played weren’t close friends. This aspect was deeply meaningful; an entire sport can’t begin solely because of a social element. That would be more like an activity. People weren’t leaving diggerball matches saying “I’m glad I played because that was a killer cardio workout.” They were either happy they won, or pissed because they lost. Guys arrived at diggerball to compete, not to chat or appear cool. They left sweaty, sore, and exhausted. Every goal was massive, every save remarkable, every hit memorable.

No one ever had to convince others about diggerball’s merits. Even leery newcomers, unsure of the rules, understood the appeal. There was not much warm-up, no music playing before matches, or even much chatter. There were the squeaks of shoes on the hardwood and boisterous celebrations with each goal.

The following school year (Ontario still had a 13th grade at the time) the sport didn’t recede but expanded. Younger grades were included. A new franchise was added. There was a player draft in the school’s cafeteria at lunch. In an attempt to capture the magic, each game was recorded on two cameras. One, located above the action, shot from the weight room window. The other sat between the benches on the floor. Diggerball had no referees or officials. There were no coaches, or spectators - only the teams waiting to play the next match.

It became our version of Fight Club, a widespread competitive pressure-valve for venting late-teen angst. It was never sanctioned. In the context of high school, and specifically high school sports, diggerball’s lack of official status was rare and thrilling. Despite the hellacious hits and lack of protective equipment no one was ever seriously injured. There were no broken bones, concussions, or fist-fights. It was egalitarian by default; there was no pre-existing diggerball ethos, or an established culture in which a digger player had to fit. Participants didn’t wear their diggerball jersey around the school. It wasn’t like playing for the football or basketball team. Acceptance and school endorsement would have only confirmed something we’d already figured out.

Not even a seasoned movie producer could create a compelling film based on a season of diggerball and its players. It was the anti-Varsity Blues. We were mostly unattractive, mildly disillusioned lads best represented by a short, fifty-second video clip. There was not much in the way of theatrics, save for that on the hardwood. Diggerball wasn’t a spectator sport. And that’s precisely why it thrived.


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