Out of Uniform . . .


Todd Vanderwerff & John Hult

In August of 2003, a Chinese businessman paid $341 for dirty sheets. Dirty sheets, soiled towels, pillowcases and pajamas, actually. The dirty laundry was a gift for the guy’s daughter, who-like millions of screaming soccer fans worldwide-is a David Beckham fanatic so dedicated to her beloved Real Madrid forward that the stench of his soiled linens is tantamount to the fragrance of a rose in full bloom.

The athletic prowess of a David Beckham, a Randy Moss or a Williams sister brings fame, accolades, superstardom and enough cash to buy your entire hometown. During their formative years, most young boys and many young girls play in their backyards certain that they absolutely, positively will become the next Randy or Serena. Reality sets in with age, but the spirit of competition sticks like Beckham sweat on Chinese bed sheets.

Many SDSU students who never don an official Jackrabbit jersey nevertheless embody the starry-eyed athletic and competitive spirit in friendly, muted form while participating in any number of competitive social gatherings across campus and around town.

Some of them are sponsored by the school. Some are sponsored by bars and local businesses. Some are sponsored by no one at all and function as a loose collective of sporting enthusiasts.

From the ultra-competitive intramural basketballer to the trash-talking foosballer to those three guys skipping class to toss Frisbees on the Larson green, the spirit of social sport is alive and well among SDSU’s unofficial student athletes.

Lo-Fi High

When junior Steve VanHeerde came to SDSU, he knew he would miss playing high school football. He still goes home for the occasional game.

He still watches the kids in their uniforms, putting on the helmets, playing at being men. He watches the turf fly, hears the crowd roar, smells the salty popcorn.

Once upon a time, he was one of those kids, suiting up and hitting the field to find out just what he was made of. Now, he’s not And he misses it.

At games now, he avoids the temptation to run out on the field, presumably to score the winning touchdown or tackle the guy who’s broken loose and is heading for the end zone.

But most people who end up playing college football are preternaturally talented. Some are eyeing the pros, where they hope to find success, Super Bowl rings and cereal boxes with their mugs on them. They at least hope to find a steady paycheck, doing what they love.

VanHeerde, however, knows he’s not a Marshall Faulk or a Warren Sapp. He’s majoring in agronomy, for God’s sake, and there aren’t many NFL stars who spend their down-time figuring out which soils produce the best crops.

In short, VanHeerde’s football days were over when he left Sioux Falls and made the short drive to Brookings two years ago.

Or so he may have thought.

Like most other institutions of higher learning, SDSU sponsors intramurals, which students who love competition but don’t have the skills necessary to compete at their sports’ highest levels the chance to play.

For VanHeerde, intramurals were the perfect place to continue his fledgling athletic exploits.

“I like the chance to get out and play competitive athletics against other students,” VanHeerde said. “This way, you get a chance to go out and have fun.”

VanHeerde plays on the football, softball and basketball teams sponsored by his fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. While the handful of fraternities and sororities at SDSU field fiercely competitive teams, any student can start a team with the right paperwork.

And students sign up in droves.

Loose affiliations of roommates, best friends, love interests, floor buddies and mortal enemies join forces to take down other loose affiliations of wanna-be engineers, artists and dairy farmers in weekly knock-down, drag-out games.

The winners only get bragging rights, but there’s something in human nature that loves bragging rights and telling friends how much better you are than them.

Intramurals, for better or worse, fill that need in many SDSU students.

They certainly fill that need for VanHeerde and for Steve Heimes, who plays for Farmhouse, Alpha Gamma Rho’s arch-rival.

“It’s a chance to beat one another by playing by the rules … to just go out there and see who the better athlete is,” Heimes said. “It’s a challenge you don’t get at SDSU in any other way.”

A couple of years ago, VanHeerde and Heimes met on the field when their two fraternities played in football. As VanHeerde recalled it, AGR was down by two touchdowns and he and his teammates were looking for anything that could help them win. In a situation like that, the AGR teammates decided to go for the long ball.

“We threw a good 35 or 40 yard pass and it just was uplifting. After that is just switched momentum and then we won,” VanHeerde said.

Heimes remembers a time when his co-ed softball team went up against a team that had many players from SDSU’s football team in the championship. The game turned into a home run derby, with both teams cranking them out of the park. While Heimes’s team ultimately lost, but

“When you’re playing with top athletes, it’s pretty fun especially when you can go out there and (keep up) with them,” Heimes said.Slapdash Superstars

Just beyond intramurals, student competitors get even more intense. Foosballers might be the most intense of them all. There are no sponsored teams in foosball-even the weekly, 4:30pm Saturday tournaments at Jim’s Tap have teams that disband immediately afterward. Your partner for the first game is your enemy moments later. All you have to do is switch sides.

The little guys on the foosball table are so important for junior construction management major Joe Turback that he keeps a set of them at home. When he and his three roommates throw parties, the table is never empty-no matter how long the parties last.

“There’s always somebody at the table,” Turback said. “It gets pretty competitive.”

Turback explains the endearment of the foosball table and the Pandora’s Box of competitive energy it unleashes quite simply. It’s the speed.

“You really get into the game,” Turback says. “It’s a lot more fast-paced, you know? And then you get pissed because you missed a shot and you just get more determined to get it right.”

Foosball isn’t the only speed sport that inspires speed freaks to get serious about non-committal competition. It may be an afterthought in the U.S., but ping-pong is one of the most popular sports in the rest of the world. Goran Petrovic, a Yugoslavian immigrant from Serbia/Montenegro and a senior Electrical Engineering student, calls ping-pong “one of the top six sports in my country.” He takes his table seriously, too.

He and an international cadre of students from India, Bangladesh, China, Russia and the U.S. don’t have their own table, but they do buy nets for their favorite table in the Larson Commons. Once, Petrovic’s Aunt bought him a paddle worth about $80. That’s on the cheaper end of the pro ping-pong scale.

The group takes the game much more seriously than the organizers of the yearly intramural tournament do.

“A lot of people don’t even know about [the intramural tournament],” Petrovic said. “I’ve got five or six guys I e-mail, then we get together. It’s fun-much more fun than the stupid intramural tournament. The guy who runs it doesn’t even know the rules.”

If the guy who runs SDSU’s intramural ping-pong tournament doesn’t know all the rules of ping-pong, chances are he knows even less about another popular international sport: cricket.

Ravikanth Darbha, an Electronic Engineering grad student from India, plays both. Ping-pong is the distraction for the winter months; summer is for cricket.

“We can only do that in the summer,” Darbha said about his cricket-playing friends, most of whom live in the same apartment complex on 8th & Medary Ave. Cricket enthusiasts have been gathering just across the street in the Pugsley Center’s parking lot for years.

“I was so excited when I heard that we played in the summer,” Darbha said. “There’s no other sport we are used to.”

Cricket is a lot like baseball with a flattened bat. Players on two teams play overs, not innings, and they run wickets (six of them), not bases. There are tons of little differences, but the object is basically the same: smack the hell out of a little ball with a wooden stick and run. It is mainly a social activity, but the competition factor is still a big one for the players, many of whom-like Ravi-played on their high school or college cricket teams. There are no trophies, obviously, but friendly wagers are not unheard of. Often the EE students form one seven-man team (the pros have 11 per side) and the other majors form another. The losers pay for pizza.

Barroom heros

If SDSU intramurals are the ol’ college try at the ol’ high school spirit, the city’s dart, pool and bowling leagues are high school reunions.

Thinking about Bar sports can call to mind images of middle-aged men in beards and middle-aged women in cowboy boots throwing darts between swigs of beer, smiling hearty smiles that stick to their faces and swinging their hips to Credence Clearwater Revival songs. Earnhardt t-shirts are everywhere. Every third head has a trucker hat on it. The guys wearing the hats don’t know that hip little shits like Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher are wearing their gear, and they don’t care.

There is something incredibly pure about these gatherings. Skills are earned, matches come and go, yet the laid-back community competitors are more concerned with being there than being the best.

“As far as dart league and pool league, it’s not necessarily to go out and compete-that’s what we try to emphasize,” said Troy Hicks. Hicks runs pool and dart leagues and owns the Lantern Lounge, a downtown establishment that personifies the laid-back bar atmosphere as well as any you’ll find. “We don’t want people to go out for blood.”

Both the Hicks and the Music Service (Skinner’s, Safari, Jim’s Tap and Cubby’s) Leagues are quite egalitarian. On the Hicks pool league sign-up night, the longest talk of the evening was about handicapping.

The countrified bar sport stereotypes are a bit extreme in other ways, too. Guys and gals from 21 up who work all sorts of jobs cough up $6 to the Hicks League on Wednesdays to play pool and Thursdays to play darts. Play runs from Sept. 26 through March, with 4-person dart teams and 2-person pool teams playing in Brookings, Estelline, White, Toronto, Aurora, Nunda or Arlington. For all the easy breeze in the air, this stuff is a serious commitment.

It’s one a fair number of SDSU students are willing to make. Hicks still tries to make sure that the students understand the level commitment, but said that he’s learned not to worry as much.

“They usually do really well,” Hicks said. We’ve had more problems with the Brookings residents than with the college students.”

Players bound to miss are also bound to find a replacement (or at least inform their teammates). Like intramurals, however, bragging rights are the real spoils of victory.

Last year, the Hicks league pool champs got $350). After the banquet and trophies are paid for, it’s divvied up all around.

“Everybody gets a chunk,” Hicks said.

Bar leagues aren’t limited to bars, however. The Prairie Lanes has a college league that runs for 16 weeks. The league fills so quickly that Lanes’ co-owner Les Nelson decided this year to add an extra league on Wednesday nights. The Monday night leg of the college league is already full.

“It’s as big as anything we’ve got” Nelson said. “It’s all called a mixed league.”

In bar sports, everything is mixed. To varying degrees, the dart, bowling and pool leagues are about young and old, men and women, semi-pro and semi-apathetic. It’s life for everybody living it. It’s church for churchgoers and atheists alike. It’s … not quite so dramatic. It’s probably safe to say, though, that whatever it is that makes us want to compete hangs around for a long after we get content to watch Randy Moss and not be him.