There are a lot of careers out there -- sports marketing, cryptozoology, talk-show host -- that just were never thrown out to us in high school on career day. One of them was Roller Derby queen. If it had been, I might have tossed away my cigarettes and my copy of "Kafka's Greatest Hits" and spent hours flinging my nasty, pimple-faced colleagues into the rails at the local rink.
"Dr. Phillips High is right across the street. You could recruit right out of there," I tell Jerry Selzer, hoping those seething pits of teen-age aggression might get the job opportunity that passed me by. Jerry is with me at a taping at Universal of Roller Jam, the newest incarnation of Roller Derby, which his grandfather founded. He avers that the average age of the skaters is under 25 and that the show has that "wonderful audience, males 12 to 38." Still, when approached by TNN about bringing back the sport, he said, "What for?"
"I didn't think the timing was right." But the time will always be right to watch women on wheels grab each other by the hair. Roller Jam caught on in a big way. "We never had lights and music like this," Jerry says of the Roller Jam atmosphere, which is part hockey game, part WCW, part tack meet. "This is very Ultimate Sports, it's very Gen X." As for the players, he says, "They skate so much faster. They're much better athletes" than the skaters in the '70s, when after the games they "used to sit and have a beer and a cigarette." Another difference is that back then, "We tried to take people who had some charisma and bring it out." Now, he says, the skaters have it naturally. You get the idea that having been raised on TV, they just know how to be stars.
And stars they are. On the California Quakes team are three beauties with 14 karat blond hair and the kind of bodies airbrush artists spend hours creating. These three skate as a team within the team, and the crowd goes wild for them. A little old lady sitting nearby and wearing a medic alert necklace is screeching about the New York Enforcers: "They're gonna kick your butt! They don't take any crapola!" Skaters sport either body piercings, green hair or a Wrestlemania flair that keeps fans hotly anticipating the next pass as much as the next fight.
The New York Enforcers, led by bald, tattooed, musclebound Mark D'Amato (who the kids react to like Santa Claus), are said to be the best of the dirty tricksters (to which Enforcer Chellie Rossell, from Homestead, Fla., says, "We do whatever we have to do to win." ) But it's the Quakes' Sean Atkinson who wins the award for being the only one who comes up from a fight exhibiting actual blood, which still stains his teeth when he talks to fans after the game. Sean's mother, Dru, is a former Roller Derby queen herself. She skated six months into her pregnancy with Sean. Wasn't she afraid of getting slammed into a rail? "Yes," she says, "but we needed both paychecks." Fighting on wheels while pregnant might not have seemed that difficult for this tough cookie. "I fractured my skull while we were on tour in Hawaii, and I was in a coma for three days." She says it's "thrilling" to see her son, a third-generation skater, out there on the boards.
And while the blood appears real, the fighting in Roller Jam often seems to be the same fighting/choreography that goes on in wrestling. After all, if Jannet Abraham, a dark-eyed wall of female on the Enforcers, wanted to, she could pick up a couple of the other girls and bang them together like clackers.
Real to real
"So, how real is it?" I ask Jerry Selzer. "It's all real," he says, but being a real guy and not a marketing executive, he follows it up with, "Who's to say any of this is real?"
Is the king of Roller Derby going all Buddhist on me? Is he implying that we may not actually be here watching chicks whip each other into the lead or throw each other to the ground? "That's right," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. OK, but I wouldn't want to tell big, bad Jannet that her ability to shake the other girls like maracas depends on whether she "believes" she can. I believe she can.
And believing it is all that matters ... well, that plus speed, tension and Barnum showmanship. Roller Jam is the ultimate comeback kid of sports. Part of that success may lie in the fact that, despite the smoke and mirrors, it's a real sport played by people who spend more time signing autographs and talking to fans than negotiating $40 billion salaries and making horribly serious business out of what is, after all, a game.
That and because, who are we kidding? Isn't it always the right time for a good catfight?