Health & Fitness

Back to the playground: Adult kickball takes off in the Triangle

Justin Wadsworth of the Raleighwood Ballers plays in a Stonewall Kickball game in Raleigh. The league has grown from 150 players its first season, in 2013, to about 500, not counting its canine mascots.
Justin Wadsworth of the Raleighwood Ballers plays in a Stonewall Kickball game in Raleigh. The league has grown from 150 players its first season, in 2013, to about 500, not counting its canine mascots. newsobserver.com

They told me I would be sore the next day, but I didn’t completely believe them. It’s just kickball, right?

I played kickball during P.E. in middle school and did fine. Plus, I’m a pretty active person. So when the ball rolled my way, I kicked it – hard – and sprinted the bases.

And then I was sore for a few days.

“People are not afraid to eat dirt or slide into anything they can,” Ralph Johnson says. “We had somebody break a collarbone last season; we’ve had broken limbs. And they still come back for more.”

We’re at Halifax Mall in downtown Raleigh, and Johnson’s kickball team, Sir Walter, is having its regular Tuesday night practice. Johnson, team co-captain, is also on the board for the Stonewall Kickball league. A branch of national LGBT nonprofit Stonewall Sports, the Raleigh league has grown from 150 players its first season, in 2013, to about 500 today – not including dogs, like the three black labs Sir Walter considers its mascots. There are currently 24 teams in the league, made up of all-male teams, all-female teams, co-ed teams and both gay and non-gay players. Play is open to anyone who enjoys the sport.

And Stonewall isn’t the only league in the Triangle. There are WAKA leagues in Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Morrisville and Wake Forest. And Tri Sports has kickball teams in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Many of the team members have not played kickball since grade school. Yet, like kids on a playground, they’re back at it to have fun, to get exercise – and just as importantly, make friends.

Friendly fire

“The friendships and the bonding experiences you’re having as an adult playing kickball, I haven’t had these since I was a kid playing outside on jungle gyms,” Johnson says. “That’s what this is all about.”

Sir Walter co-captain Robby Lawson agrees. He’s accustomed to recognizing people on the street, just from living in Raleigh the past 11 years. Now, though, he has something to talk about.

“Last Tuesday we scrimmaged another team,” Lawson says. “We brought out cookies and Jello shots and balloons and we went out to dinner afterwards.” It’s not unusual, either, for Stonewall teams to play each other, then go out together to establishments that sponsor the league – like Legends, Bad Daddy’s or The Borough.

“Besides just the physical benefits, you also have the mental health benefits,” says Julia Buchanan, N.C. State University coordinator of fitness and wellness outreach. The social aspect reduces stress and improves moods, she says. Physically, one practice and one game a week – the usual for league players – is about halfway to the 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity the American College of Sports Medicine recommends, she says.

Moderate physical activity includes walking, housework or gardening – it doesn’t have to involve a gym membership, Buchanan says. “We promote anything that is going to be enjoyable.”

‘Not afraid to mess up’

The players on Sir Walter, accordingly, come from a variety of backgrounds in regard to sports.

Johnson was intimidated by group sports as a kid, so he didn’t participate; Lawson, however, has been a longtime tennis player.

Rick Wellington, who plays for The Kick Daddies, has participated in sports leagues before – though he admits that the last time he played kickball specifically was during the Carter Administration.

“I played gay volleyball throughout the ’90s in the National Gay Volleyball Association and did a lot of travel,” he says. Yet Wellington had to go to Atlanta or Washington, D.C., or even as far as Chicago to find other volleyball teams.

Stonewall’s scope in Raleigh – and its inclusivity – impressed him. Though Wellington is on a different team, he stopped by after a workout to practice with Sir Walter. His own squad, The Kick Daddies, is made up of men 40 and older – guys, like him, who have largely settled down.

The welcoming atmosphere, Johnson says, has drawn in a variety of people. “We have teams with husband and wife duos, girls who don’t want to be hit on by guys, guys that just want to have fun,” he says.

And then Johnson excuses himself to take a kick. Sometimes he makes it around all three bases, and sometimes he doesn’t make it to first, but he seems just as happy either way. After all, there’s no pressure to perform and there’s no pressure to score.

“I’m not afraid to mess up. If I goof up, it’s a laugh,” Johnson explains. “It’s fun, so why not? I think it’s reminiscent of childhood, but in a good way.”

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