Underdog’s finest: No one takes the game too seriously.

Image: Mary Moore

FULLY GROWN MEN dressed head-to-toe as ninjas don’t dive through the air three feet in front of your face every day. When said ninjas are jumping to avoid broadside strikes from balls thrown by other people in equally absurd getups, that’s just a typical Wednesday night at an Underdog Sports Leagues’ coed dodgeball game in Seattle.

Like a lot of playground games, the dodgeball we remember from grade school could be a cruel exercise in gym-class warfare; it separated the macho from the meek—basically by giving the macho an unfettered opportunity to pummel the meek with red rubber balls. But the game could be the great athletic equalizer, too. Even the geeks—if they were assertive enough and had decent aim—could pay back their hallway tormentors with a well-placed shot to the soft stuff. In other words, for the young adults who populate Underdog’s leagues, dodgeball could bring back memories of fun and recreational redemption…or torture.

Of course, it’s the fun part that Underdog’s cofounder and “Ambassador of Fun” Shawn Madden wants to emphasize—and it appears he’s succeeding: More than 500 dodgeballers play on Underdog teams, and as with all of the group’s leagues (such as coed kickball, softball, and flag football) that number is growing. “People want to enjoy sports the way they did when they were kids, when they truly were just games,” Madden says. “There’s a certain nostalgia associated with elementary school games that I think a lot of people enjoy. And we hear this phrase a lot, for both dodgeball and for our kickball league: ‘Wow, I haven’t played this since…’ ”

“We forget all about strategy once the game begins. There have been moments when we remember to coordinate our throws, but usually it’s just chaos.”

I hadn’t played dodgeball since “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It” topped the charts, so when I arrived at the Wallingford Boys and Girls Club for my game with a team called the Axis of Awesome I got a refresher on the rules from the captain, Nathan Rouse. He wasn’t dressed like the kind of person I’d normally go to for advice—Risky Business–style sunglasses, his team’s uniform pink T-shirt, knee-high socks, headband, and cutoff jean shorts. But Axis of Awesome’s winning record was enough to lend Rouse some recreational credibility.

Aside from a few rules—most notably, no head shots—the fundamental tenet of dodgeball is as simple as you probably remember: Get hit with the ball and you’re out. (Unless, of course, you catch a ball, in which case the thrower is out.) Straightforward enough, but a live-action game looks like 20 minutes of mayhem incarnate. Two teams of six players square off from opposite sides of half of a volleyball court and scramble to snag the six available balls; without stepping over the center line, players pick off members of the other team until all have been eliminated. It’s a haphazardly choreographed athletic assault of cutting, weaving, throwing, catching, running, and jumping—all in the name of outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying the opposition.

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But despite the bean-or-be-beaned commandment of the dodgeball culture, all that seeking and destroying is done with a smile. (When they’re not gasping for breath, that is; the game is surprisingly tiring.) No one takes the game too seriously—what, the ninja costumes and goofy team names didn’t give that away?—but just in case, the league instituted rules designed to prevent over-aggressive play, and it recently switched from rubber balls to softer, foam-filled -Rhino Skin balls that Madden says literally and figuratively take the sting out of getting hit.

“Those who sign up are usually outgoing and sociable, and if they aren’t outgoing by nature, then silly, relaxed sports like dodgeball have a tendency to draw them out of their shell.”

Before wading into the fray, I asked one of my teammates, J. B. Wogan, for some advice on strategy. “The truth is, I think we forget all about strategy once the game begins,” he admitted. “There have been moments when we remember to coordinate our throws or pick targets, but usually it’s just chaos.” Chaos was a good word for it. I stepped into a match and instantly brought it to a sneaker-screeching halt by picking up a ball on the wrong side of the court, but after that one minor hiccup, I was dodging, ducking, dipping, and diving like a pro. A pro who never lasted beyond the first few minutes of a game, that is: I couldn’t keep track of where the balls were on the court and became an easy target—and got pelted more times than I could count—but thanks to my gracious hosts on the Axis of Awesome, I was at least able to have a blast being an easy target.

“It’s a great way to meet fun, interesting people in Seattle,” Rouse said after our games were over. “Those who sign up are usually outgoing and sociable, and if they aren’t outgoing by nature, then silly, relaxed sports like dodgeball have a tendency to draw them out of their shell. You end up interacting with friends and acquaintances in a goofy, sweaty environment where it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.

And though it was hard to take him seriously in his pink T-shirt, knee-high socks, and self-cut “jorts,” it was clear that Rouse was deadly serious when he said with a smile, “I plan to play dodgeball in Seattle for as long as I live here.”

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