At 6 feet 6 — without skates — Don Sherker looks more like a hockey enforcer than a roller derby recruit.
But in the rink he's wobbly and stiff. Zig-zagging through cones, he hits more than he avoids. "Stay low, bend your knees,'' shouts trainer Anita Bopabitch, known outside of derby as Sabrina Romann.
Sherker tries, but falls with a loud splat. He has to work on his confidence before he can master the skills. And that's not easy with Kat Von Kittie whizzing by in short shorts and a purple helmet that says 9Lives.
Sherker, the Philthy Phanatic, is a "quad killer" for the new Tampa Bay Men's Roller Derby league. That's the term given to newbies who wear down their wheels learning to skate. To the more experienced women, it's synonymous with fresh meat.
Sherker, 35, joined the group a few months ago after watching some women's roller derby and thinking it looked cool. An occasional marathon runner, he wanted a new challenge and was intrigued by the fact that, in roller derby, height doesn't help. The high center of gravity might even hurt.
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Modern roller derby gained popularity among women first, then expanded to include men, making it a rarity in the world of sports evolution. A loose grouping of male derby leagues formed in 2007 as the Men's Derby Coalition, which has since become the Men's Roller Derby Association. It has about 20 leagues nationwide and many more in the formation stage.
Joining the association takes time and an invitation. A team must be skater-owned and operated, have at least 10 members and have competed in five, full-length bouts, each 60 minutes long. It must follow the rules of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association.
Charles Sandstrom and Marco Reynolds started Tampa Bay Men's Roller Derby in August. The team name might be bland, but the men have adopted the same kind of catchy monikers — Huge Hefner, Chop Stixxx — as their female counterparts.
Sandstrom, aka Sigmund Fault, skated with the Capital District Trauma Authority in Albany, N.Y., and refereed with the Tampa Bay Derby Darlins, the area's well-established women's league. "Marco the Beast'' Reynolds is head ref for the Darlins and fiance of Angela Kroslak (professional name: Dee Bauchery), who founded the Darlins in 2005. The two met on the rink five years ago and have a 1-year-old who most certainly will tie on skates.
About two dozen guys showed up to the recruitment meeting last year, and a handful started practicing together. Among them was Marc Lawson, a 27-year-old personal trainer who skated competitively in school and comes from a long line of speed skaters.
The group practices Tuesdays at Skateworld in Town 'N Country and Sundays with the Derby Darlins at Skateplex in Temple Terrace. Tuesdays are open to anyone, male or female, and usually attract women from area leagues looking to hone their skills and help the guys. On Sundays, the men learn from the ladies, focusing on speed, endurance and moves. About 20 men have joined, half of them with enough skating experience to play, and the rest still learning to stop, turn and bump like the women. They bristle at any suggestion they should wear fishnets or tight shorts.
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Their first exposition bout is Saturday against the So Flo Men's Derby in Fort Lauderdale. Expect a lot of whistles and hard falls. Both are fledgling teams aspiring to join the association.
Most players know the basics but haven't memorized the 57-page rule book. Leading the pack is coach Bettie Kruger, captain of the Derby Darlins' Black Widows and co-captain of the league's all-star travel team, the Tampa Tantrums. Kruger, whose name is Brandy Moore, has played with the Darlins since the beginning and serves as assistant coach and head of the training committee.
Getting her to coach was a coup for the men's team, even if it meant having to take orders from a girl. She's firm but patient. And, like many top derby girls, she has a secret weapon most guys can only admire from afar: a good butt for blocking and hitting.
Roller derby is played with two teams of five players that skate counterclockwise around a track. A jammer from each team attempts to score by lapping the opposing team's skaters. Teams play offense and defense simultaneously, resulting in frequent collisions and high scores. There's no hitting with elbows, hands, feet or the head, and contact above the shoulders or below mid-thigh is prohibited. Blockers use their hips and shoulders to neutralize opponents.
For Moore, coaching men has been insightful. Women play more strategically and cohesively as a team. Men rely more on their upper body than their lower. It has also upped her own game as she often skates with them. "I'm trying to move a refrigerator now rather than a little girl,'' she said.
But a few bumps from the backside, and the guys learn quickly the girls aren't about to lose their dominance in the sport.
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Roller derby got its start in the mid 1930s in Chicago by a promoter named Leo Seltzer, who read that nearly all Americans roller skated at some point. Seltzer started skating marathons similar to the bike races and dance marathons all the rage at the time.
The sport, which initially featured male and female squads playing on the same team, took off in the 1940s and '50s, selling out arenas nationwide. Organizers attempted to televise games and add scripted elements like those seen in wrestling, but by the 1970s, many fans had lost interest.
Roller derby began its modern revival about 10 years ago as an all-female, skater-led, amateur sport. The Women's Flat Track Derby Association began as the United Leagues Coalition in 2004 to rejuvenate the sport and has 133 full-member leagues and another 81 apprentice ones. A few years later came the men's association.
The Tampa Bay men's league has attracted former speed skaters, hockey players and jam skaters, who combine dance, freestyle and gymnastics. A few have girlfriends or wives who play for the Derby Darlins.
During practices, the seasoned skaters work with Moore running drills and playing scrimmages. The newbies learn basic moves at the end of the rink. Both groups fall, get up and fall again. They sweat through T-shirts and anticipate pain the next day.
The group requires skaters to master minimal skills before they can play. Eventually, they hope to have multiple teams, like the Derby Darlins.
"We're looking for as many people as possible,'' said trainer Tim Vaughn. "Whatever your skill level is, if you have an interest, we'll work with you.''
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John Hunter, 40, is just the kind of guy the group wants. He speed-skated competitively as a kid at the Southland Roller Palace in Pinellas Park (now Astro Skate). Hunter recently got back in the roller rink with his 11-year-old son, Bryson. A few months ago, Hunter, a manager at Gold's Gym in St. Petersburg, saw a flier at a rink for Tampa Bay Men's Roller Derby. A few practices, and he was hooked.
His son helped him pick his derby name, Bounty Hunter. He chose number 12X after his shoe size and was a slam dunk for a spot on the team.
"This is what I've been looking for my whole life,'' he said. "I can hit people with pads on, and I can skate. Thank you, Jesus!''
Earlier this month, Philthy Phanatic, Sigmund Fault and other newbies graduated from the skills training. Moore, the coach, watched proudly as they skated 25 laps in five minutes, ground their wheels to a halt and bumped butts.
Just like the women taught them.