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 psyche, 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’s possible to play until Medicare kicks in, and for many, well beyond that venerable age. For its many devotees, it truly is a game for the ages! The game 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 professional 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 accurate. The great game continues to consume their disposable leisure time. For them, it is a type of obsession, and one that has continued unabated for more than 40 years. Now at age 72, Steve, and 68, Gigi, they’re still in its grip.
Obsession is an apt description. In a way, it all started at the bell, a telephone bell, and like a current between extremes, it seems always to race between foreboding and hopeful anticipation. Spurred by that opening bell, they soon became prizefighters fired with enthusiasm, roped in, initially 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 quickly, almost ran to subdue the obnoxious thing.
she asked with extravagant sarcasm.
Steve paid no attention initially, irritated by the instrument’s persistence, its power to interrupt.
What? Yeah, we’re both fine, just hanging out. That is good.”
Steve’s attention moved slowly, as did his gaze, to a dialogue that was one-sided and cryptic. Her eyes widened. She turned. She paced.
Gigi asked to the instrument, a question wrapped in incredulity, yet with an increasing level of excitement. Enthusiasm seemed to boost the current running through the wire.
“What,” he said. Who’s that?” The question fell flat as if inaudible, insignificant.
Steve? No. I don’t think so. Perhaps at picnics, or at the backyard with family.”
he asked. Another feckless question, no response expected or given.
“That sounds just great,” Gigi said with growing excitement. “Where? And it begins in January? That is next month! Yeah, yeah… exercise, something we can do as couples with friends. Alright, we’ll talk on Monday and you can let us know the schedule and time.” She hung up the phone.
“Was that John O’Connor?” 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 began. “We have never played. We don’t know 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 school, and we’ll learn. We are going to get better. It’ll be great fun. We will have exercise, time with friends. It is going to be terrific. I’m really looking forward to this. Aren’t you?”
“Volleyball,” he said, a strong note of apprehension in his tone. And that was the sum total of any objection or argument he might have offered in opposition. But, within the privacy of his thoughts, there was this:”I’m married for, what, four or so months. I’m just getting used to things. Now I am in a volleyball league. How long does this last. My god, life’s a runaway freight train; it moves along way too fast!”
Despite an inauspicious beginning, reluctance on the part of at least one participant, their volleyball-playing career, one which would last for 40 years and beyond, began in 1974.
Six novices appeared on a wood-plank floor at the gymnasium of a north side Milwaukee school, some nervous, some serene and positive. They knew that much. The opposition won the first service. The ball was a meteor, something shot from a cannon. Among the six made contact with the ball, palms up, lifting the volleyball a few feet . It dropped to the floor, between front and rear rows of players. Even 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. “Illegal hit,” the referee shouted.
I mean, a number of us played a little in high school, but that was a while ago.” The reply 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 on their collective expression. “The 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 manner.” She demonstrated the”passing” technique, tossing a volleyball to each in turn so that they could learn the proper arms and arms configuration. “And when you put the ball into your hitter, you might not catch and throw the ball, but instead… well, let me show you.” She demonstrated the “setting” technique.
Not one of them recalls that first outing with any sense of pleasure or satisfaction, as they were destroyed, unremittingly. They expressed thanks to that kind and individual referee, then to the opposing team members, as they slunk away from the court that first, fateful evening of league volleyball. They may not have scored one point, unless their opponents made a mistake. Even that chance is lost — likely by design — to the element of memory that protects one’s fragile mind.
Steve met brothers Mike and Jimmy Keegan at a day camp long ago. The four of them — two sets of brothers — were all close in age, and a lasting friendship between and among them began almost instantly. Little did they know, then, how volleyball would bond their friendship even more closely.
At 8:00 PM or so the following day, Thursday, the telephone announced its summons, inserting as always to Steve’s ears a tone of urgency, possibly fomenting unpleasantness. As usual, he remained unmoved. Gigi hurried toward the repulsive instrument.
Gigi’s perceptible half of the conversation was as usual provocative, causing Steve to lay aside a novel. She began,”Hi Mike. They are? You’re kidding. I didn’t know that. Wow, that’s terrific. And they’re willing to work with us? When? Saturday! Where?”
“Huh?” Steve asked. A rare reaction, not known for laconic discourse.
Returning to the living room, the echoing “Huh” and Steve, Gigi said, “Jimmy and Carol are excellent volleyball players. They’ve been playing league volleyball for years. That is what Mike called to tell us.”
“Yeah,” Steve responded.
“They’re willing 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 great!”
“I’m calling Joan,” said Gigi, as she walked away from his unheeded start of a protest, a questioning of any Saturday plans they might have made, duties. Steve’s mouth stayed open, silent and ineffectual, his hands raised, index finger pointing upward, a mime hailing a taxi.
Saturday arrived. Steve and Gigi, having donned shorts and sweat pants, T-shirts and sneakers, motored off to the school, named for a famous poet. There were eight assembled on the floor of the”borrowed” gymnasium. They greeted one another. The women chatted. The men were eager to start”the lesson,” more so the physical exercise portion of”volleyball camp 101.”
Jimmy seized everyone’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 each other, or against a wall. It’s a fantastic drill. I suggest you do this a lot.” He demonstrated. “Here is how you get a serve. It is really important to pass the ball right to your setter. Remember, 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 good pass, the remainder flows easily. You’ll score points.”
They passed to one another, passed against walls to themselves. For Steve — the wall, a garage roof, the side of a building, his wife, Gigi — all became regular training partners.
Carol was, nevertheless is an excellent 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 this. Your body type of acts like a torsion spring. Your hands and arms — in one fluid motion — match the ball and send it up to the batter. No, no,” she coached, responding to one who tried the method poorly. “Flex your wrists like so. They too receive the ball in a kind of spring action, as if catching and passing in the same motion.”
The rest of the novices practiced the method. Drilling and setting and passing to one another, back and forth, over and over. “OK,” said Carol. Let us try to play a match. Jimmy and I will stand the six of you.”
Said Steve, responding in shock amazement. That’s not fair.” It was. They murdered the”new kids,” the two of them, beating them easily, embarrassingly so. “They’re really great. Unbelievable.” Trite, but the only words that appeared able to escape Steve’s flabbergasted brain. Just the pair of them!”
The clinic sessions went on for weeks, stretching into months on a series of Saturdays. They practiced and practiced and drilled some more. Eventually, they, both novices, began to”get it,” to understand and then execute 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 receiving and sending aloft a hard-driven function, or a hitspike or kill, the latter term now 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 who”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 practicing and playing, 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 beginning to win games, not a lot, but a few. They learned a good deal of trivia regarding volleyball, the net and the court, its dimensions. The net is about 8-feet high, or to be exact, 7′ 11-5/8″ for men, 7′ 4-1/8″ for women. The court is approximately 60-feel long, 30-feet wide.
As they started to acquire skill from hours of practice and drilling, their confidence grew, along with a certain degree of bravado. They decided to name that first team. Due to the learning experience, and since the school’s name seemed 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 band 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 have to have team uniforms,” declared John with authority.
Soon they’d team jerseys, green and white”uniforms” with the newly adopted name emblazoned on left chest place in white lettering. They were beautifully attired for conflict. Now they not only had the training, the acquired skill, the chutzpah and heart, they had the look. Uniforms, unity of purpose, precision and a keen sense of momentum, a bravado that lasted until the next time they were roundly trounced by an opposing group.
The team that vanquished theirs, on one memorable event contained a remarkable oddity. All were aware of it, but it was Steve, always bright and observant, who had been willing to give voice to his group’s collective astonishment. “See that man? His name is Milan, I think.
“Uh, no,” John replied. “But he’s definitely a heckuva lot older than the rest of us.”
“He’s in his mid-forties,” Steve continued.
“Come ,” said John. “I mean, he looks a lot older than us, but mid-forties. Can someone that old actually still play league volleyball. I mean, he’s their best player. He’s exceptional.
“He’s about 46,” said Steve. “That’s what one of his teammates told me.”
“That’s incredible. Do you think we’ll continue to be capable of playing volleyball at his age? I mean, that guy plays like he’s 26, not 46. Very good god!”
Steve pulled a quizzical face, shrugged and shook his head. “Who knows,” he said, as we both turned to stare at and respect that”old man,” perhaps 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 easy.
But then, in the following week’s match,”Poet’s Pride” rebounded. They regained confidence, momentum and the winning side of the ledger. Such is the up and down, the ebb and flow of league volleyball play. Win or lose, it didn’t matter as much as playing, getting better, gaining experience. In the long run, of course, to most who play competitive sports, winning DOES matter, and in time they started to win championships. And they won a lot of them, together with useless trophies, eventually replaced by T-shirts, a much vaunted and far more desirable sign of volleyball achievement. None of them recalled 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, enduring and consuming.
“Set Three” –“Sand and Storm”
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 accurate, 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 sport, 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 advice, ultimately gave into Gigis demand for honest answers and undermine.
“Just be cautious,” said Dr. Ken. Gigi continued to play until a week before she delivered the couple’s first-born child, a daughter. Their teammates bought their newborn daughter a tiny 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 their outside playground seasons, teammate, John, caught an out-of-bounds hit by the opposition, 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, however, if one contacts a ball hit out of bounds, that is, any touch of the character causes a point for the opposing team.
“Point,” the referee shouted. The match and the championship were dropped in that case. Deflated but ever optimistic, Steve’s team solved to learn by their mistakes. “There’s always next season.” The words were spoken with faint confidence and without much enthusiasm by a few of the six as they retreated in the court, heads bowed and shaking in disbelief.
As summer surrendered to fall and fall into the invasive chill of winter, the prideful band of ever-improving volleyball combatants played in a variety of venues, high school and middle school gymnasiums — including one which has been part of a religious order’s facilities in suburban St. Francis — grade school gyms, everywhere that was devoted on a weekday evening to league play. They even played in an indoor sand facility, built 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 evening’s play, teams and the ability, or lack thereof, of individual players. Players were philosophical and analytical, endlessly fascinated. Volleyball became, if not actually”their lives,” at least a significant and key element of those 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. Fellow players with whom Steve and Gigi developed friendships came and went, moved away or disappeared from their spheres of consciousness.
Personalities in volleyball are as diverse as the teams and individual players . Fond of them 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 game, was a lefty, became an excellent hitter, or master of the”kill,” and consequently was dubbed,”Captain Southwind.” “Florence of Arabia” was famous for her dramatic dives onto sand courts in her valiant efforts to dig hard-hit spikes, creating small sand storms as she landed and then rose up triumphantly. “Sasquatch Sam” had enormous feet and was always imperiling opponents. He would jump, land unceremoniously and frequently commit”foot fouls,” sometimes wounding ankles and feet 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 at the referee. “He might have broken my foot. Didn’t you see that? Pay attention to the (expletive deleted) game, fer crying out loud!” Referees, like the players , were sometimes well trained and excellent, in tune with the game and its rules, or mediocre and occasionally downright inept. Needless, perhaps, to include, player protests and complaints would often assault the ears of individual referees, and quite often players would be cautioned or even threatened with expulsion, at times ejected from the game.
Steve and Gigi’s participation has gone on and on, despite injury, pregnancy and the proclivities of a excellent selection of teammates and fellow enthusiasts. After some 20 years, or so, into their group volleyball experience, having gained and lost their first and lots of subsequent teammates, they eventually reunited with their teachers, their first”teachers,” Jimmy and Carol.
Gigi and Steve encountered Carol at a social function, possibly at a coffee shop, might have been a grocery store. “Are you still playing volleyball?” Carol asked.
Gigi replied. “We’ll play until we’re can’t play any longer.”
“Maybe’til we’re dead,” Steve added, aiming to get a touch of comic drama.
“Jimmy and I’d like to have you two join usas a team, the four of us,” Carol said. “What do you think?”
As if a set of stereo speakers, obnoxious twins doing a gum commercial, they responded almost in unison,”We’d love to. … ”
In Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1994, there was a facility built almost exclusively for volleyball and the co-ed league play phenomenon that it had become in the late 1980s, into and during the decade of the 90s, and well beyond, of course. That fine sports complex was a comparatively long drive for the four newly reunited teammates, but they would share the driving duty, each couple alternating months. They began their”four-pack” experience shortly after the volleyball venue in Waukesha opened its doors.
They were four players in a six-person league. The center contained six full 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 sessions of play. The four of them had”aged gracefully” to the terrific sport. If they had lost a bit of speed and quickness, they made up for it in”smart play.” Jimmy was perhaps the best positioning hitter among legions of fellow players, in fact one of the best many players had ever seen, and many remarked on it with incredulity. He had been the master of the”long dink,” a way of sending the ball into the other hand or corner of the court, an”uncovered” space. Carol and Gigi were and continue to be excellent setters, great occasional hitters and adept at protection, placement and”drop shots.” Steve was and still is a competent defensive and back row player, and a consistently competent hitter.
Within a brief period of time during 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 that venue also. They frustrated opponents, many if not most of them half their age at the time. They’d be warming up, passing, setting and spiking the ball to one another as opponents appeared on the court. The four”more seasoned” players could see, and often hear younger opponents snickering, commenting without pretense or disguise.
“My god,” one would begin,”look how old those guys are. Is that their entire team? This will not take long.” And they’d grin and snicker and chortle into cupped hands.
Following the four beat their”six-pack” opponents handily, opinions, expressions of surprise and post-match banter were often remarkably similar. Too polite, on most occasions, to question ages directly, they’d always ask,”How many years have you been playing?” Or,”How long have the four of you’re together, I mean, playing volleyball as a team?”
And like experienced, aging warriors, with dignity and aplomb, the four could answer their questions respectfully, 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 aim was to keep the younger players interested, motivated and encouraged to increase their skills.
They’ve a fantastic friend and fellow volleyball player, Gene, who’s 70-years-old. Gene is master of the”pancake dig,” a technique of diving flat for a spike and getting a hands under the ball just as it reaches the floor, causing the ball to pop up, ideally, to the setter. Abie is in his late twenties. Many of their present, fellow players are in their twenties or early to mid-forties. At 72, Steve says that he expects to play”until I am dead, or very nearly there.”
Jimmy and Carol, Steve and Gigi ended their four-person team and league play at the conclusion of the 2008, perhaps it was 2009. It was their final sand-court season at a tavern in the industrial center of Milwaukee’s”River West” neighborhood. That team experience 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 sport, not by any stretch, but found, another league, rather 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 original cadre of fellow volleyball devotees. As with heavy sweaters on a heating spring afternoon, they shrug off the admonitions of those who indicate,”You’re all nuts for continuing to play with league volleyball at your age.”
Each reply to people who question their sanity is usually remarkably similar:”If I feel good, if my body reacts to the physical demands of volleyball, why should I stop playing? If I am still able to compete with the younger players, there is no reason to stop. I’ll play until I am physically unable to receive and pass, set, dig a hard-hit kill try and hit the ball with some authority over the internet…”
Many — the truly seasoned players who are also avid audiences — comprehend the game’s finer points, like the basic 4-2 serve – receive system or rotation, or the 5-1 rotation normally found in school campuses. Their current 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 player’s responsibility for”kills” or well-placed long shots. At 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 noted that Gigi executed a spectacular dive to dig the resistance’s kill, Carol hit the ground with a dig and a roster. Both regained their feet in time for another play. They’re 68 and 71 respectively. Remarkable! On that very occasion, a group of young spectators witnessed the game. With shocked looks, their hands flew to their faces. Are you hurt?” Gigi is almost offended by such reactions to her”floor ”
“I wouldn’t be playing competitive volleyball if I couldn’t dive to get a kill,” she says in response.
As for Steve, he dove, rolled, scored a few kills himself, dug a variety of attempted kills, served a few aces and played a respectable game. His teammates feted Steve with a happy birthday song, a card and, of course, cake, homemade cake, decorated in a volleyball motif. “What a perfect way,” he remarked,”to gain entrance through the septuagenarian gate.” Steve has always been rather poetic.
After passing through that gate and enjoying rigorous volleyball for two solid hours on a Monday evening — a session that begins 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 shortly after climbing in, out of sight and earshot of his fellows and driving homeward, he groaned from the aches and pains of this session’s combat, then when he hit the door of his home and was able 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 kind of faith to those still obsessed, even after 40 years. Through it and their history as enthusiastic participants — not only as players but as spectators of faculty, Olympic and shore volleyball — Steve and Gigi have appreciated its various stages of development, made lasting friendships, reveled in its own society and its camaraderie and benefitted enormously from its health-enhancing, vigorous exercise. Quit? Not yet. Their new purpose, they state , is to play with until Gigi reaches age 70. “Then, who can say? Eighty? Eighty-five? Stay tuned. Maybe we’ll begin a blog, perhaps film a documentary,” says Steve. The obsession continues to hold and enthrall, and will, the two insist,”until something unexpected comes along and breaks the spell.”