Two teams of five line up on either side of a field meticulously measured out before the game. Chris Wilcoxson, 30, holds a long chain in his hands with a foam ball dangling at one end.
Someone on the sidelines asks if the two teams are ready. The Qwiks signal they are.
Jugger is a game adapted from the movie The Blood of Heroes in which roving teams, called “juggs” challenge local teams to “The Game,” which is what real-life players have adapted their sport from. Players, called Qwiks, compete for a dog skull, which they attempt to place in the opposing team’s goal to win; meanwhile, other players use their weapons to clear the way. Each team consists of five “armed” players with a range of weapons, from large cotton swabs to balls on chains. In the movie, they compete for honor and glory, but this Arizona team just wants to have fun with their friends.
Jugger Arizona meets twice each week to practice their skills and prepare for their upcoming matches with competing teams. A self-described “bunch of nerds,” the players goof around before practice, talking about Dungeons & Dragons and other foam combat sports they’ve played, discussing where to go for lunch, and making obscure SpongeBob Squarepants references.
“We all hang out, and it’s not just us hanging out and playing a sport,” Kasey Gibbs, 30, says. “It brings people closer together.”
The players stand in a group talking about their friendships and social activities that are exclusively Jugger, and the conversation devolves into favorite dishes at potlucks and birthday parties.
But, even with all the community bonding, there’s an emphatic and unanimous belief that it’s not at all difficult to bludgeon each other when the game is in session.
“You hit people you love with foam weapons,” Krueger says amid raucous laughter, though no one is ever hurt during the gameplay.
As the game ensues, a sharp, staccato thudding booms from the speaker: stones. In another adaptation from the movie, the games are timed by a rock thrown at a gong approximately every 1.5 seconds. For practicality, the group uses an app that plays the sound of a rock hitting a gong instead. Each game is split into halves, and each half lasts 100 stones. When a player is tagged, he or she take a knee for five stones; if tagged by the chain, he or she is down for eight.
Jugger’s popularity hasn’t taken off in the United States, but the players at Jugger Arizona say it’s only a matter of time before its popularity spreads. A huge draw is it inclusiveness – players vary in age and skill level. “You really don’t have to be an athlete,” Neniv Bazi, 26, says. “You can just pick up a weapon and be alright at it.”
On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, the players divide into two teams for the first game: the Chocolates and the Mongooses, names picked for seemingly arbitrary reasons (or the aforementioned SpongeBob Squarepants references). The Mongooses scored first, then again several more times, gaining a hefty lead. Despite the overwhelming victory, the players are laughing, joking, enjoying the day. Spectators sit on lawn chairs cheering on their friends and family members. There is that sense of community in the atmosphere; not everyone knows what’s going on, but they enjoy watching the camaraderie and the skill so unique to this unusual sport.
After watching from the sidelines the first week, I decided to give it a try. I haven’t played sports since high school, and I personally think gyms are where fitness dreams go to die in a sweaty amalgamation of judgmental glances and overwhelming insecurities. I appreciate exercise that gives me a goal, something to work toward, and especially something that gives me a team to work with.
The only thing running through my mind was, “Dear God, just please let me be acceptable enough to not drag my team down irreparably.” I was pathetically bad at the warm-up game, Zombie. In the game, you essentially battle people one-on-one as a skill-building exercise. If I improved at all, it wasn’t impressive. When you’re watching the game, you comprehend that it moves quickly. When you’re playing the game, it suddenly moves at such a different pace. One minute I’m squared off and jabbing stupidly at the air in front of the other person, and in a flash I’ve got a stinging arm and my opponent is off to battle someone else.
I think I improved from my awkwardness, though. I eventually beat some people (though out of pity or actual merit, I don’t know), so I was feeling pretty good about myself by the time the captains were picking teams for the game.
Dante, age 8, was picked before me. In fact, everyone was picked before me. I know having a bruised ego over what is essentially playground politics is immature and, well, pretty stupid. But I thought if I could know anything on that field, it was that I could beat little Dante.
I was horribly, horribly mistaken. Here’s the thing about Jugger: You’re so focused on the giant guy who’s tagging people out with the chain like it’s a third arm (who, ironically enough, was Dante’s father) that you forget about what’s going on around you. Among the juggers, it’s a phenomenon called “field awareness,” and not having it means an 8-year-old boy with a foam short sword will come up from behind you and literally stab you in the back. Plus, I feel like as an adult, there’s something just fundamentally wrong with being that guy who got the kid out. But, after Dante beat me a few times, I mostly stopped feeling bad about it.
On the field, the game goes fast. From the moment you sprint to the skull from either end of the field, time seems to move more quickly. In your head, you’re hearing the stones count down the time and looking for the skull and distinguishing your teammates from the enemy and figuring out who to take down first and – oh wait, there’s the skull going into our goal.
It moves so fast.
My best moment was in the second game. We had miraculously won the first, and here Dante was my team captain. He was trash-talking – for some reason, he wanted to trade me – and I felt a very primal, macho insecurity. I needed to prove myself. I volunteered to Qwik. I felt confident. I felt powerful. And I was put on the ground and pinned for the rest of the game within five stones.
Was I humiliated? Not really. But I could see Dante’s disappointment, and there’s something really weird about an 8-year-old’s disappointment that makes you want to do so much better.
When it was my turn to Qwik again, I was determined to score. The game started, my team was dominating, and suddenly, it was just me and the other Qwik facing off against each other.
Dread washed over me. This girl is probably 100 pounds soaking wet but has played for significantly longer than I, obviously. Being a solidly-built woman with plenty of muscle mass to spare, I really didn’t want to hurt her. But I had to wrestle her to the ground and win the skull, then run to the goal and score it in before anyone else got through his or her five-stone count.
In the end, I didn’t have to worry about being too aggressive because she immediately lunged at me, wrapped her arms around my waist, and started trying to drag me down. As gently as I could, I turned her away from my torso and, in an almost romantic dip, lowered her to the ground, picked up the foam skull, and ran to the goal. I still don’t know if I did it right, but they gave me the point anyway, bless their hearts.
Our team still lost the game, but no one seemed to care. Not even Dante showed a bit of disappointment or frustration with the loss. He was too excited about his Pidgeotto evolving into a Pidgeot on his Nintendo DS. A surprising number of people came up to me to ask if I would come back and play again. If the last two weeks are any indication of what my life could be like on Sunday mornings, I think I’ll be back again.
Want to try it out for yourself? Jugger Arizona practices on Sundays at Kiwanis Park in Tempe at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at Chaparral Park in Scottsdale at 6:30 p.m. People of all ages and skill levels are welcome.