It’s about 98 degrees in the shade. I’m standing in unadulterated sunlight with my classmates spread out in different positions across a gray gravel, diamond playing field. Mandatory P.E. time in elementary school was just a special hour of the day dedicated to putting a spotlight on those of us who weren’t born with an ounce of athletic talent. That’s where I come in. “Move in! She can’t kick!”
The red rubber ball rolls towards me, and I kick it high. Now, I’m pretty proud of myself for actually kicking it and getting some air under the ball. But, it’s caught. Easily. Another pop fly. Low snickers ensue.
In the last 20 years, I’ve come to learn that many people have this shared kickball experience from our school days. It leaves a pretty dark, lasting impression of participation in competitive sports. Now in a stage of something resembling adulthood, we don’t care so much about what people think, and we actually play sports for fun regardless of our athletic prowess.
Enter the rising popularity of intramural kickball leagues. Kickball is known for being a highly accessible team sport that doesn’t necessarily require a specialized skill set. Across the country, local government organizations and departments have responded to the demand for a variety of organized sports open to the general public. In 2012, the City of Greensboro opened a season for its first spring kickball league, and in the time since, the demand has led to opening an additional fall league in 2016. The spring league has seen a steady increase in the number of teams, with 2017 topping out at 50 teams, and similar growth is expected with the next fall league.
Assistant Athletics Director for the City of Greensboro, Toni Byrd, who manages the kickball program, speaks with pride and enthusiasm for the “fastest growing program [that] the Parks and Recreation Athletic Department offers.” She explains how in each season, teams are divided according to experience and competitiveness into different days of the week. “Everybody wants to win, but people just want to have fun,” says Byrd of the importance of grouping the right teams together. Players range in age from 18 to 65, and teams are composed of both newbie beer-leaguers and former athletes alike, so effective management of the leagues is essential to ensuring that the experience is a good one. The best part about managing the kickball program, Byrd says, is having the opportunity to watch new teams get better. In the course of its first season, a rookie team will learn better communication and each player’s niche. Coming into the next season, they are much more prepared and strategic in their approach, and their record will reflect it.
Byrd frequently receives requests for creating new teams. While many current teams are made of groups of friends, there are a growing number of corporate teams representing the area’s economic and business growth, including, but not limited to, Tanger Properties, Greensboro News & Record, 102 Jamz and TEKsystems. In a similar trend, various teams are made of young professionals from around the city, such as lawyers and pharmacists.
Players love the friendly competition and the bonus exercise in playing. Aimee Stevens, current captain of the Monday league team, “Where My Pitches At?,” laughs as she says that her team is competitive “so [they] like winning the best.” She explains how the experience varies from person to person: “For most people, I think it’s just a good time to get out with your friends.” That sentiment is echoed by Emily Miceli, of the Tuesday league team, “Blood, Sweat, and Beers,” who feels that “the best part about playing is being on a team with friends and watching [their] team improve over time.”
Following their quarterfinal win, Jolie, Justin, Ashley, and Blake of the Monday league team, “Ballsagna,” discussed how the program is a good avenue for former high school athletes. “We all grew up playing sports,” Jolie says, and Blake adds that “the opportunity to be competitive again is really what drew [him] to it.”
Players from both teams also commented on the added value of playing with other teams who are fun and respectful. The first thing you notice at the game are the cheers and encouragement shouted to teammates as you approach the field. It was overwhelming.
“Competing is fine, but so is being cordial,” says Blake, and Aimee described meeting teams on the field who became better after expelling negative teammates who hampered their overall performance. This atmosphere couldn’t be more refreshingly different from those elementary school days.
The kickball field has become an unexpected meeting place for different groups of people in this area and for new Triad residents, adding some reality to the idea that sports can bring people together. Players develop close ties to each other and enjoy the heat of competition while getting in extra exercise in some of the city’s quality public facilities. Byrd sees the development of this kickball program in the bigger picture and as a successful extension of the City’s mission “to build better lives [and] better communities,” which is really the heart of competitive team sports.
Registration is open for the Fall 2017 league through July 21. Information and forms can be found at the Greensboro Parks and Recreation website.
Photos by Kamala Lee.