For seasoned athletes, regardless of age and a constant clock, the imperative is to stay the program. There needn’t be an expiration date stamped on the mind, either self-imposed or by general affirmation. Put another way, if a person enjoys a healthy mind and body, if joints still flex with comparative ease and relaxation, it is possible to play with until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it really is a game for the ages! The sport of the high internet, a remarkably fine, vigorous and aggressive sport, when played well, when played with the rules. The uninitiated need only watch college volleyball or specialist shore or Olympic volleyball.
To illustrate and to mention an exemplary case in point, Steve and Gigi have played for ages, since 1974 to be true. The terrific game proceeds to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it is a type of obsession, and one which has continued unabated for over 40 years. Now at age 72, Steve, and 68, Gigi, they are still in its grip.
In a way, it all started at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a present between extremes, it appears always to race involving foreboding and optimistic expectation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with enthusiasm, roped in, originally by the thought, but in the long term, consumed by the game itself, obsessed.
The ringing phone was loud and insistent. Steve refused to proceed. Glaring with annoyance in her eyes, Gigi put down a book and walked fast, almost ran to subdue the obnoxious thing.
Steve paid no attention initially, irritated by the device’s persistence, its capability to interrupt.
What? That is good.”
Steve’s attention moved slowly, as did his gaze, to a dialogue that was one-sided and mysterious. She turned. She paced.
Gigi asked to the tool, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with an increasing level of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm appeared to improve the current running through the wire.
Who’s that?” The question fell flat as though inaudible, insignificant.
Steve? No. Perhaps at picnics, or at the backyard with family.”
he asked. Another feckless question, no response expected or given.
“Where? And it begins in January? That is next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we could do as couples with friends. Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the schedule and time.”
Steve asked. “What were you referring to?
“I just love the idea,” Gigi responded. You and I, the O’Connors and the Keegan’s will play volleyball in a co-ed league. The six people. We begin next month. We are going to play in a north side school. It is near Sherman on Green Tree Road.”
“Wait a moment,” Steve started. “We have never played. We don’t understand the game. Can they have strict rules? Are the other teams in the league seasoned, talented?
“Ach… do not worry,” said Gigi. “I played in college, and we are going to learn. We are going to get better. It will be great fun. We will have exercise, time with friends. It is going to be terrific. I’m really excited about this. Are not you?”
And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he may have offered in opposition. But, within the solitude of his ideas, there was this:”I am married for, what, four or so months. I am just getting used to things. Now I am at a volleyball league. How long does this last.
Despite an inauspicious start, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one which would last for 40 years and beyond, started in 1974.
Six novices appeared on a wood-plank floor in the gymnasium of a north side Milwaukee college, some nervous, some serene and positive. They understood that much. The opposition won the first support. The ball was a meteor, something taken from a cannon. Among the six made contact with the ball, palms up, lifting the volleyball a few feet . It dropped to the ground, between front and rear rows of players. The ball seemed embarrassed.
A shrill whistle wrenched their collective focus from the shock of the function and its feckless receipt to the referee’s ladder of authority.
I mean, a number of us played a little in high school, but that was some time ago.” The answer came from Gigi.
“Well,” the referee began, with a nod of apology to the opposing team, now standing and staring at the neophytes, arms akimbo, a look of supreme annoyance in their collective expression. “First thing you need to know about league volleyball, as well as the principles that apply, is you get a service with your arms outstretched like this, hands clasped together in some fashion.” She revealed the”passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they might learn the appropriate arms and arms configuration. “And when you put the ball into your hitter, you might not catch and throw the ball, but instead… well, allow me to show you.”
Not one of them remembers that first outing with any feeling of pleasure or satisfaction, since they were ruined, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to this kind and individual referee, then to the opposing team members, as they slunk away in the court that first, fateful evening of league volleyball. They might not have scored one point, unless their opponents made a mistake. Even that chance is lost — likely by design — into the element of memory which protects one’s fragile mind.
Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan in a day camp long ago. The four of them — two sets of brothers — were all close in age, and a lasting friendship between and one of them started almost instantly. Little did they know, then, how volleyball would bond their friendship even more closely.
At 8:00 PM or so the next day, Thursday, the phone announced its summons, adding as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. Gigi hurried toward the repulsive instrument.
Gigi’s perceptible half of this dialogue was as usual provocative, causing Steve to put aside a novel. She started,”Hi Mike. They are? I didn’t understand that. Wow, that’s terrific. And they’re prepared to work with us? When? Saturday! Where?”
Steve asked. A rare response, not known for laconic discourse.
They have been playing league volleyball for ages. That is what Mike called to inform us.”
“They’re prepared to coach us, teach us how to play, how to bump and place. Drills. We are meeting them (a west side Middle School) on Saturday at 11:00 in the morning. The six people… and Jimmy and Carol of course. This is just fantastic!”
“I am calling Joan,” said Gigi, as she walked away from his unheeded start of a demonstration, a questioning of any Saturday programs they might have made, duties. Steve’s mouth stayed open, quiet and ineffectual, his hands raised, index finger pointing upwards, a mime hailing a cab.
Saturday arrived. Steve and Gigi, having donned shorts and sweat pants, T-shirts and shoes, motored off to the college, named for a famous poet. There were eight assembled on the ground of the”borrowed” gymnasium. The men were excited to start”the lesson,” more so the bodily exercise part of”volleyball camp 101.”
Jimmy captured everybody’s attention without preamble. In a commanding voice he began,”First let me show you the ideal way to bump-pass a volleyball. You can practice this with one another, or against a wall. It’s a fantastic drill. I advise you to do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here is how you get a serve. It is really important to maneuver the ball right to your setter. Bear in mind, it all starts with the pass. I mean, if you pass the ball right into the setter, she, or he, can then put to one of your hitters. If you do it correctly, if you begin with a fantastic pass, the remainder flows easily. You will score points.”
They handed to one another, passed against walls . For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — became regular training partners.
Carol was, nevertheless is an exceptional setter. She demonstrated. “Frame the volleyball in this way.” She put to herself, hands just above her head, framing, head tilted toward the ceiling. “In a way you sort of grab the ball with mainly your thumbs, index and middle fingers. Bend your knees slightly when doing so. Your body type of acts like a torsion spring. Your arms and hands — in one fluid movement — match the ball and send it up to the batter. No, no,” she coached, responding to one who tried the method badly. “Flex your wrists like this. They too get the ball in a sort of spring action, like passing and catching in the same movement”
The remaining novices practiced the method. Drilling and setting and passing to one another, back and forth, over and over. Let us try to play a match. Jimmy and I’ll stand the half of you.”
Said Steve, responding in shock amazement. That is not fair.” It was. They murdered the”new children,” the two of them, beating them embarrassingly so. “They’re really great. Unbelievable.” Trite, but the only words that appeared able to escape Steve’s flabbergasted brain. Only the pair of them!”
The clinic sessions went on for months, stretching into months on a series of Saturdays. They practiced and practiced and drilled some more. Finally, they, both novices, started to”get it,” to comprehend and then implement the departure, setting and hitting techniques. And they practiced the overhand serve, or the underhand or sidearm provider, and, of course, receipt of support. They practiced”digging” the ball, or getting and sending aloft a hard-driven function, or a hitspike or kill, the latter term currently used most widely in volleyball circles, especially by professional announcers. They truly wanted to learn how to perform, the ideal way — not like”backyard” hacks that”carry” the ball or get service with feckless, against-the-rules open-handed lifts — but like”real” volleyball players, Olympians and college varsity players and beach volleyball pros. They never stopped playing and practicing, until — like so many who’ve fallen in love with the game — all six were hopelessly hooked.
The new group of six continued to play at the Wednesday night league, really starting to win games, not a lot, but a few. They learned a whole lot of trivia regarding volleyball, the internet and the court, its measurements. The net is all about 8-feet high, or to be exact, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for girls. The court is roughly 60-feel long, 30-feet broad.
As they started to acquire skill from hours of training and drilling, their confidence grew, along with a certain degree of bravado. They chose to name that team. Due to the learning experience, and since the school’s name appeared to some of these remarkably obvious, they dubbed themselves,”Poet’s Pride.”
Steve doubted if the namesake would have been proud; more importantly, they were proud of these, a pride of lions ready to challenge rivals and to pursue their quarry relentlessly. They would become emboldened, fearless, a group of big cats, powerful and proud. The team wanted a sign of hard-won dedication and skill, a symbol of collective pride. “Wait! T-shirts! We must have team uniforms,” declared John with authority.
Soon they’d team jerseys, white and green”uniforms” with the recently adopted name emblazoned on left chest place in white lettering. They were beautifully attired for conflict. They not only had the training, the acquired ability, the chutzpah and heart, they had the appearance. Uniforms, unity of purpose, precision and a keen sense of momentum, a bravado that continued until the next time they were roundly trounced by an opposing group.
The group that vanquished theirs, on one memorable event contained a remarkable oddity. All were conscious of it, but it was Steve, always bright and observant, who had been ready to give voice to his group’s collective astonishment. “See that man? His name is Milan, I believe.
“Uh, no,” John responded. “But he’s definitely a heckuva lot older than the rest of us.”
“He is in his mid-forties,” Steve continued.
“Come ,” said John. “I mean, he looks much older than us, but mid-forties. Can someone that old actually still play league volleyball. I mean, he is their best player.
“He is about 46,” explained Steve. “That is what one of his teammates told me.”
“That’s outstanding. Do you think we will continue to be capable of playing volleyball at his age? I mean, that guy plays like he is 26, not 46. Very good god!”
“Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and respect that”old guy,” possibly the best player either of them had ever seen, live and in person. And he and his staff had just beaten Steve’s team flat, which makes it look way too simple.
But then, in the next week’s match,”Poet’s Pride” rebounded. They recovered confidence, momentum and the winning side of the ledger. Such is the down and up, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it did not matter as much as playing, becoming better, gaining expertise. In the long run, of course, to many who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they started to win championships. And they won a lot of these, together with useless decorations, finally replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and a lot more desirable sign of volleyball achievement. Not one of them remembered or even cared about the win / loss record of the first pivotal season. It launched most of these — some of them — into a lifelong love affair, an innamorata, a secondary love perhaps, but real, consuming and enduring.
“Set Three” –“Sand and Unusual”
Not satisfied with indoor volleyball, exclusively, usually played on hardwood courts, the newly formed team of six decided to venture into spring / summer sessions, outside court drama, and eventually onto the sand of”beach volleyball,” well, to be true, sand volleyball, because most courts available for league play were — and are increasingly now — in back or side enclosures of tavern and pub properties. It started in the Summer of 1975.
Amusingly illustrative of her growing passion for the game, Gigi had asked her pediatrician,”Can I play volleyball without jeopardizing my baby in the first trimester? The third? Can I dive on the court for hard-hit spikes?” The doctor, while judicious in his guidance, ultimately gave into Gigis demand for honest answers and undermine.
Gigi continued to play until a week before she delivered the couple’s first-born child, a girl. Their teammates purchased their newborn daughter a very small T-shirt. It was white and green, and imprinted on the left side of the front were the words,”Poet’s Pride.”
In one of the outside playground seasons, teammate, John, captured an out-of-bounds hit from the resistance, simultaneously shouting,”Time!” They had been locked in a tie, but the timed session was running short, and John believed his team could re-group and win that season-ending championship match. The thing was, nevertheless, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any touch of the character causes a point for the opposing team.
The match and the championship were dropped in that case. Deflated but ever optimistic, Steve’s team solved to learn by their mistakes. “There is always next year.” The words were spoken with faint confidence and without a lot of enthusiasm by some of the six as they retreated in the courtroom, heads bowed and vibration.
As summer surrendered to collapse and fall into the invasive chill of winter, the prideful group of ever-improving volleyball combatants played in many different places, high school and middle school gymnasiums — such as one which has been part of a religious order’s facilities in suburban St. Francis — grade school gyms, everywhere that was dedicated on a weekday evening to league play. They played in an indoor sand facility, constructed especially for co-ed team volleyball. Wherever league play and obsession beckoned, they would enjoy the normal three game set, and then repair to a host’s tavern or a sponsoring centre’s pub for post-game beverages and apparently endless conversation about the day’s play, teams and the ability, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were philosophical and analytical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not really”their lives,” at least a significant and crucial element of these lives. And volleyball — it was Gigi who observed the obvious –“is like life itself.
As if calculated to show the assertion, teammates would come and go. Some lost interest and dropped out of the game. Partners, wives and husbands divide and eventually divorced.
Personalities in volleyball are as varied as the teams and individual players . Fond of these as Steve especially was — certainly more than most — nicknames were attached to certain players and their idiosyncratic behaviors. John, the first catalyst to start playing the grand match, was a lefty, became an fantastic hitter, or grasp of the”kill,” and consequently was dubbed,”Captain Southwind.” “Florence of Arabia” was famous for her dramatic dives onto sand courts in her valiant attempts to dig hard-hit spikes, producing little sand storms as she landed and then climbed up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had enormous feet and was always imperiling opponents. He would jump, land unceremoniously and frequently commit”foot fouls,” sometimes wounding feet and ankles in the process, causing opposing players to howl in pain and issue loudly, frequently obscene protestations.
“Can you see that?” Someone would call time and start a harangue in the referee. “He may have broken my foot. Look closely at the (expletive deleted) game, fer crying out loud!” Referees, such as the players , were occasionally well educated and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or fair and sometimes downright inept. Needless, possibly, to include, player protests and complaints could often assault the ears of individual referees, and very frequently players could be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the match.
Steve and Gigi’s involvement has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a excellent selection of teammates and fellow fans. After some 20 years, or so, into their group volleyball experience, having gained and lost their first and lots of subsequent teammates, they finally reunited with their teachers, their first”teachers,” Jimmy and Carol.
Gigi and Steve struck Carol in a social function, possibly at a coffee shop, might have been a grocery store. “Are you still playing volleyball?” Carol asked.
Gigi replied. “We will play until we are can not play any longer.”
“Maybe’til we are dead,” Steve added, aiming to get a little comic drama.
“Jimmy and I’d like to have you two join usas a group, the four of us,” Carol said. “What do you believe?”
Like a set of stereo speakers, obnoxious twins doing a gum commercial, they responded almost in unison,”We would really like to. … ”
In Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1994, there was a centre constructed almost exclusively for volleyball and the co-ed league play happening it had become in the late 1980s, into and during the decade of the 90s, and well beyond, obviously. That fine sports complex was a relatively long driveway for the four newly reunited teammates, but they would share the driving responsibility, each couple alternating months. They started their”four-pack” experience soon after the volleyball venue in Waukesha opened its doors.
They were four players at a six-person league. The center contained six complete volleyball courts; it was and remains an exceptional facility. The floors were made of a”forgiving” rubberized material, easy on the knees, simple on aging bodies diving to dig”kills” delivered by talented opponents. The four-person team won, perhaps, eight of ten championship rounds as many seasons or seasons of play. The four of them had”aged gracefully” to the terrific sport. If they’d lost a little bit of speed and quickness, they made up for it in”play” Jimmy was possibly the best positioning hitter among legions of fellow players, in fact one of the finest many players had ever seen, and many commented on it with incredulity. He had been the master of this”long dink,” a way of sending the ball into the other hand or corner of the courtroom, an”uncovered” space. Carol and Gigi were and are still excellent setters, great occasional hitters and adept at protection, positioning and”drop shots.” Steve was and is a capable defensive and back row player, and a consistently competent hitter.
Within a brief period of time through its history, the volleyball center in Waukesha added an enclave of sand courts in its own”backyard,” and the four-person team won summer-league championships on this venue also. They frustrated opponents, many if not most of them half of their age at the moment. They would be warming up, passing, setting and spiking the ball to one another as opponents appeared on the court. The four”more experienced” players can see, and frequently hear younger competitors snickering, commenting without pretense or disguise.
“My god,” one would start,”look how old those men are. Is that their entire team? This will not take long.” And they would grin and snicker and chortle into cupped hands.
Following the four beat their”six-pack” opponents conveniently, opinions, expressions of surprise and post-match banter were often remarkably similar. Too polite, on most occasions, to question ages straight, they would always ask,”How many years have you been playing?” Or,”How long have the four of you’re together, I mean, playing volleyball for a team?”
And like seasoned, aging warriors, with dignity and aplomb, the four could answer their questions , even paying compliments, as elder states-persons or teachers may offer to young pupils or callow youths who have come into newly acquired knowledge with a sense of wonder and astonishment. A secondary goal was to keep the younger gamers interested, motivated and encouraged to increase their skills.
They’ve a fantastic buddy and fellow volleyball player, Gene, who’s 70-years-old. Gene is master of the”pancake dig” a technique of diving level for a spike and receiving a hands under the ball as it reaches the ground, causing the ball to pop up, ideally, to the setter. Abie is in his late twenties. Many of their present, fellow gamers are in their twenties or early to mid-forties. In 72, Steve says that he expects to play”until I am dead, or very nearly there.”
Jimmy and Carol, Steve and Gigi stopped their four-person team and league play at the conclusion of the 2008, maybe it was 2009. It was their final sand-court season in a tavern in the industrial center of Milwaukee’s”River West” neighborhood. That team encounter ended for diverse reasons, but they still talk about their”seasons in the sun,” their championships on sand.
Gigi and Steve have not given up the game, not by any stretch, but discovered, another league, instead a”co-ed volleyball recreation program” for adults. Gigi, Steve and Carol are, as far as they know, the only three active players one of their first cadre of fellow volleyball devotees. Much like heavy sweaters on a heating spring afternoon, they shrug off the admonitions of those who indicate,”You are all nuts for continuing to play with league volleyball at your age.”
Each reply to people who question their sanity is generally remarkably similar:”If I feel great, if my body reacts to the physical needs of volleyball, why should I stop playing? If I am still able to compete with the younger gamers, there is no reason to stop. I’ll play until I am physically unable to get and pass, set, dig a hard-hit kill try and hit the ball with some authority over the internet…”
Many — the truly seasoned players that are also avid audiences — comprehend the game’s finer points, like the fundamental 4-2 serve – receive system or spinning, or the 5-1 rotation normally found in school campuses. Their existing corps of players, however, eschews the more complex systems and concerns itself, using a simplified discussion over whether to perform”center up” or”center back,” meaning the courtroom position of the number two player, back row center, and that participant’s responsibility for”kills” or well-placed long shots. In Steve’s age, at this juncture in his”volleyball career,” he just wants to perform well enough, skillfully enough to give the opposition a competitive competition.
On his 70th birthday, he played his usual Monday night volleyball session. Many fellow players noticed that Gigi implemented a spectacular dive to dig the resistance’s kill, Carol hit the ground with a dig and a roster. Both recovered their feet in time for another play. They are 68 and 71 respectively. Remarkable! On this very occasion, a group of young audiences witnessed the game. With stunned looks, their hands flew to their faces. Gigi is almost offended by such responses to her”floor ”
“I would not be playing competitive volleyball if I could not dive to get a kill,” she says in response.
As for Steve, he dove, rolled, scored a few kills himself, dug a variety of tried kills, served a couple pros and played a respectable match. “What a perfect way,” he remarked,”to gain entrance during the septuagenarian gate.”
After passing through that gate and enjoying rigorous volleyball for 2 solid hours on a Monday evening — a session that starts after 7:45 PM! He strutted like a proud young rooster out to the high school’s parking lot and into his car for the drive home. But soon after climbing inout of sight and earshot of his fellows and driving homeward, he groaned in the aches and pains of this session’s battle, then when he struck the door of his home and managed to wrestle the cap off the bottle, swallowed three aspirin! A weekly and very necessary ritual.
In many ways, volleyball is its own ritual, a type of faith to those obsessed, even after 40 years. Through it and their history as enthusiastic participants — not just as players but as audiences of faculty, Olympic and shore volleyball — Steve and Gigi have appreciated its various stages of development, made lasting friendships, reveled in its own culture and its camaraderie and gained hugely from its health-enhancing, vigorous exercise. Quit? Not yet. Their new purpose, they say , is to play with until Gigi reaches age 70. “Then, who can say? Eighty? Eighty-five? Stay tuned. Maybe we’ll begin a blog, possibly film a documentary,” says Steve. The obsession continues to hold and enthrall, and will, both triumphed,”until something unexpected comes along and breaks the spell.”