After six years as an announcer, I gave up the mic and had to find a new reason to go to the roller derby. It wasn't hard-they've got beer and pit beef-but it turns out they've got a pretty good game going on as well. Saturday, Feb. 23 was the Charm City Roller Girls (CCRG) league championship game and it was a doozy, kind of like Super Bowl Lite with way fewer concussions but, like, three times the dancing.
In the eight years of its existence, CCRG has changed a lot. Back in 2005 when CCRG started, there was a touch of anarchy to the whole thing. Police commissioner-turned-felon-turned-radio host Ed Norris "threw out" the first skater at the inaugural bout (that's a game in derby talk). There weren't so many rules, and there were fights, some real. As an old school fan, I definitely miss some of the feminism-meets-pro-wrestling wackiness that ruled at Putty Hill Skateland, but I don't miss moments like watching a skater named Mexican Fury lying motionless, waiting for the paramedics after going off the track headfirst into a cinderblock wall. The hitting was hard and often scary.
Like I said, there's a lot more rules now, but the basic game has remained the same. Two teams with five players to a side skate counterclockwise around an oval track. The game is broken into plays called "jams," which can go a maximum of two minutes. One skater on each side is called the jammer and her job is to knife her way through the pack faster than the other team's jammer. The first jammer through is the lead jammer, and she can call off the jam as soon as she wants or can let it run the full two minutes. After that first pass, every time the jammers pass an opponent, their team scores a point. And while rule changes have made the game safer, roller derby is still a tough sport. Bruises, sprains, and broken bones are a fact of derby life.
Still, derby has gone big-time. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was trackside to get things going for the estimated 1,200 fans who showed up for the championship bout at Canton's Du Burns Arena.
Coming into the championship bout, the Mobtown Mods had only lost once-by a slim eight points on the final jam to the undefeated Junkyard Dolls. The Dolls had breezed through their playoff game and were the odds-on favorite to win it all. It looked like things were going to stay on script as the Dolls built a 39-point lead late in the first half and seemed as if they were going to roll (no pun intended. Seriously. I have way better puns than that). Chants of "Doll so hard" were raining down on the track, but Mods jammer Roxy Balboa had different ideas as she gave a glimpse of things to come, putting up a dominating 9-0 jam to close out the half and cut the Dolls' lead to 119-89.
The second half got underway with the Dolls further stretching their imposing lead. Then Du Burns Arena took on the pallor of the Super Dome as a scoreboard malfunction halted play for long minutes. Confused fans could do nothing but buy more beer, and the cocksure Dolls started a dance party on the track as everyone wondered when the action would resume. When it did, things started to change. The Mods were getting back into the game, and with them, their fans, as the stands were suddenly dotted with Mods red banners.
Midway through the second half, Balboa, who was the breakout star of the game, put up a mind-bending 20-4 jam to close the Mods' deficit to 34. A few minutes later, in a thrilling power-play jam, Balboa was twice hammered to the floor by a tough Dolls D but managed to bounce back up en route to a dominating 24-0 jam that closed the Dolls' lead to 214-185 with 7:20 to play. After a frustrating 0-0 jam, Balboa was back on the track going head to head with the speedy Adrenaline Junky when Junky drew a penalty and gave the desperate Mods another power play.
Balboa, who looked ready to collapse before the whistle, picked up some big blocks by her equally exhausted line and sliced up the Dolls like a college art installation. On the jam's fourth pass through the reeling Junkyard defense, Balboa entered the third turn with only one skater to beat: the intimidating blocker Bella Trips La Smashya. Fans from both sides were on their feet and the walls of the arena were shaking from the noise as Balboa faked to the inside but couldn't get past La Smashya's ferocious booty block and made a desperate move to the outside. La Smashya drove her hip hard after the speedy jammer. "I was just hoping to land it and knock her the hell out," La Smashya would later say, "I thought she got away."
But Balboa didn't get away. She crumpled under the weight of a long game and a rib-rattling hit that would have made Terrell Suggs proud, and called off the jam while still facedown on the track. She'd put up an epic 14-0 jam that closed the lead to 15 points with under five minutes to play. The noise of the crowd fell to a dull murmur as Roxy Balboa pulled her nearly broken body up on all fours and crawled to the bench. "They're big girls," she said after the bout. "And they can hit. I knew I was going back in, but my legs wouldn't get back up."
Somehow, Balboa made it back on the track for the final jam, but during her absence, the Dolls pulled together and showed why they were undefeated. The lead was all but insurmountable, and when the final whistle blew, Dolls blockers Xena Paradox and La Smashya bottled up Balboa, and jammer Red Pepper exploded through the line, claiming lead jammer and sealing the win for the Dolls, 239-218.
Roller derby isn't the greatest sport in the world. It lacks the elegance of baseball or the brutality of football. But sport is so much more than the rule book. Seeing the Dolls rally together when it seemed the goddesses of derby were aligned against them and feeling their joy as fans swarmed the court reminded me why I was there. I asked Lady Quebeaum-the last original Mod and one of the best players ever to strap on the skates for Charm City-still soaked from the game, how she was taking the loss. "I'm proud of how we played," she said, "It's just a game."