‘Nerd Sport’: On finding family

Off the Beat

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No way. There’s not a chance. Someone had what looked like a dodgeball glued to a four-foot chain and was whipping it over their head and down at another player, who only just blocked it with some sort of padded staff. There’s no way I’m going out to play whatever this weird sport thing is — I mean, there’s no way I could, not with everyone watching, not with these strangers. 

But I looked down at my shoes and I realized I would do almost anything — including risking getting beat down by a screaming kid wielding a huge weapon shaped like a Q-tip — to avoid going back to my dorm and sitting alone, contemplating things I would prefer to forget. One of the players had noticed me at that point and ran over, asking me if I wanted to join. I had nothing to lose, and if nothing else, at least this could be a distraction. I was desperate for even that. So I picked up the first thing I found, the weapon I later learned was literally called a Q-tip, and joined in. 

I sucked at this game. And now, standing in the place I had been only minutes before, people stopped to stare and point at us as we ran Memorial Glade, and I felt their judgmental eyes mocking our every step. But I had to admit, there was something beneath the embarrassment that was liberating. This was … fun? And the people around me seemed to unabashedly enjoy every minute of it, welcoming me with enthusiasm — something I had yet to see or feel since I had arrived to Berkeley. Through the embarrassment, I smiled as a flicker of joy flashed in my chest. Quickly as it came, it was smudged out as a duct tape-wrapped ball on a plastic chain nailed me between the shoulders, knocking me out of the game and down to my knees. I still sucked, but no one around me seemed to care. 

I returned the following weeks, tried different positions, learned new names. Those names became comfortable. More weeks passed, and I found that now, finally, I had something every week to look forward to. I became a part of a reliable team of about 10 boys who rolled out every Saturday to play this “nerd sport” called “Jugger.” They became my family, my support system. Looking back, I know they are the reason I made it through my first few years of college. They took care of me, beyond just being teammates – they were the best friends I could have asked for. When I got hurt, they watched out for me. When I started to slip into bad habits again, they were there to fall back on for support. Maybe they never realized it, and maybe they never will, but the teasing, the jokes, the embraces from the team I came to consider my boys — these were the things I kept, and still keep, as the most precious moments in my college career. 

I started playing Jugger in the fall of my freshman year. I’m a senior now, graduating in a few months, and I can’t help but feel something hollow in it. I watched as many of my boys moved out, graduated, went on to be “real adults.” Some I still get to see when they visit, others, I haven’t heard from. Although even now Jugger isn’t quite the same without the original team I began with, I still love it. 

Recently we hosted our first tournament for the United States Jugger League and I realized that this would likely be the last time I saw some of these faces, these unique, fellow “nerds” who in some way or another found themselves in a similar position that I had that first year. Most of these people, gathered with their own teams from Colorado and Arizona, I met semiannually for tournaments, but despite the infrequency of our gatherings they too felt somehow like family to me. We exchanged stories and nicknames with newcomers, relived jokes and memories with the familiar faces. And though I had been away from the team for a while, for those few days I felt the spark of childish joy I had felt the first time I picked up a weapon on that miserable day in November more than three years ago. 

I know that this is only the first of my goodbyes as a departing senior, but I think it might be one of my hardest. This nerd sport, and the boys who played it, saved me. Them, and whatever spurt of shameless, desperate energy spurred me to take that first step onto the Jugger pitch. And for that, no matter where I end up or when I get the chance to meet them again, I will always be indebted to my boys. To you marvelous bunch of idiots, thank you. You mean the world to me.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.