Not many games begin with someone asking you to donate your mother. But, then again, I suppose not many games are like this one.
It’s Saturday at St. John’s University and the Johnball Club meet again at its winter rendezvous. A player donates the name of his mother as the four bright, inflatable balls are launched into the sky. The crowd yells, “Jackie Peter-,” and then finishes the name by screaming the last syllable, “-son!” as the first ball is hit with a player’s bat.
The game has begun, and an encouraged insanity ensues. More than thirty students are running at one another striking the large vinyl balls with their varied plastic bats– bats they had purchased for this exact purpose. You can hear people yelling, “Courage is your best weapon!” and “Don’t mess with Kentucky!” The latter are referring to the deflated ball in the center of the playing area; the one that depletes all three of your lives on contact. (To get a better idea of what Kentucky really is, look no further than the words of my friend Adam Kunkel: “Kentucky is the physical manifestation of the epitome of all evil.” Strong words for a deflated ball.)
If you were to call the scene ridiculous, I wouldn’t blame you. But there’s no doubt that these “Johnballers” are enjoying themselves tremendously. Players’ smiles stretch to their cheeks as they run around laughing, dancing, dodging, high-fiving; playing a unique game that has become more than just a weekend ritual.
Adam Kunkel, the Johnball Club president, brought Johnball to CSB/SJU in the spring of 2011 after a semester of telling his close friends about it. His hopes were to see it catch on with fellow students on campus. And catch on it did. What once was around fifteen students playing Johnball every weekend has more than quadrupled as the Johnball Club has gained over a hundred members since its start in November 2011 as an official student club. The club now has a gathering every weekend altering between the St. John’s and St. Ben’s campuses. Tournaments are free, open to the public, and always a whole lotta fun.
Kunkel and other players alike assure that Johnball is an accessible and simple game, fit for any number of people as well as any age and gender. “The game has a simple objective of spiking a Johnball with your bat at other players. A ball touching any part of your body other than your bat is an out,” Kunkel explained, highlighting the straightforward setup of the game. “Anyone is welcome to show up and play. Whether experienced or new to the game, young or old- you’re always welcome to join. Some people only give Johnball a fleeting glance, see all the running around with bats and balls, and they’ll assume that it’s this crazy complicated game. But it’s not at all. It’ll literally only take you a few seconds to grasp the concept and rules of the game.”
Every week the Johnball Club at CSB-SJU sends out an e-mail to the entire student body advertising the next tournament. And the league captains are always sure to make the e-mails just as goofy as the sport itself, quoting fictional characters such as Kermit the Frog or a very honest and deceased Abraham Lincoln. (One of their recent e-mails humorously “quoted” Napoleon as saying “Glory is fleeting, but Johnball is forever.”)
Created in 2005, Johnball is still very much a youngling. Yet, it has already exploded– reportedly, there’s over a thousand people out there that have directly participated in the game. (The actual number may be much, much larger than that, but the sport’s grown so much it’s just about impossible to even make an educated guess).
Johnball was birthed eight years ago in Lakeville, MN. The soon-to-be-game-inventors, John Hilsen and his friend William Bird, were at a going-away party for a older, beloved neighborhood couple. Hilsen and Bird, being rambunctious young boys, picked up varied sporting equipment scattered around the backyard at the party and began hitting a large ball with bats. They began bouncing it and then played a simple game of seeing how long they could keep it afloat. It didn’t take long for them to start launching the balls at each other. This dodgeball-inspired game evolved into a sport the two creators would often play with their friends – a fairly ridiculous tradition that came to honor three values: courage, heart and honesty.
“Honesty has always been huge with the game. I mean, HUGE. We knew the game just wouldn’t work without it,” recalls John. “I can remember years and years ago, when it was just a few of us guys playing Johnball, William and I were playing a game with maybe one or two other friends. Someone hit the ball out of our playing area, down a hill. William went down to retrieve it, and was temporarily out of sight. When he came back, he was like ‘The ball hit me down there. I’m down to two lives now.’ And thinking back to that moment now, I’m really proud that we had right away established this system of top-shelf sportsmanship and honesty. But back then, we thought nothing of it really- it was just how we all played the game.”
The name Johnball references its co-creator Hilsen. The name was meant to be temporary and was a quick and lighthearted reference to “Calvinball” of the Calvin & Hobbes comics- a similar high-spirited, anything-goes kind of game. The name stuck, despite John’s attempts to bequeath the game with a new moniker. “I had pages and pages of new names I had brainstormed,” said Hilsen. “And I would be like ‘Hey guys- what about Bodgeball? You know, a combo of “bat” and “dodge”?” John laughs. “No one was for it.”
Johnball began to spread across the Midwest as friends of Hilsen and Bird along with the creators themselves began to share it with friends. And their friends in return spread it further. “A lot of our friends who played in high school took it to college, and people who experienced it for the first time at college are now taking it home. And it seems to just keep spreading,” Hilsen said.
So… what makes Johnball special?
“The heart” is Mark Steingraeber’s answer, a SJU junior. Steingraeber refers to the prevelant spirit of game, which is centered around a high-intensity love of fun as opposed to an overly competitive need to win.
Jake Pekarna, a sophomore, had the following praises for the game: “My parents visited me recently and we walked past a Johnball match taking place outside my dorm. Kunkel ran up to us and asked if we would like to play. It took a few moments for me to realize that he wasn’t just talking to me.”
This aura of inclusiveness is something Adam Kunkel feels strongly about: “When I can see my brother– a person with mental and physical disabilities– actually get someone else out in a real and competitive way, it fills my heart with joy. That’s a special sport.”
Though it may seem so, Hilsen and Bird aren’t aiming for Johnball global domination. Hilsen said Johnball probably will never be the “next big thing” and that’s ok because that’s never been the intention. Hilsen above all wants Johnball to keep its same ridiculous vibe that has entertained and fostered friendships for years. “I hope the goofiness, the absurdity, never dies. I hope people never get too serious or competitive with it”.
Hilsen said he hopes the Johnball community becomes even stronger and more connected in the future. He hopes to hear leagues say, “Hey, Minneapolis isn’t too far away… let’s go join them for a game of Johnball sometime.” But in the meantime? “It’s always a game people will have to play with their buds,” Hilsen says.
So if you need an outlet to donate your mother or haven’t tested your courage in a while, then this may just be your niche.
See a bit of CSB-SJU Johnball League in action: