CHOCTAW – You know game time is near when the drumbeats begin from either end of the stadium. It’s a steady cadence – boom! boom! boom! boom! – and then the teams begin to enter Warrior Stadium at Choctaw Central High School from either end zone, led by the drum corps.
All the athletes, some barefoot and some wearing sneakers, hold sticks, which many click together with the beat of the drums. As the teams, 50 players strong, begin to pass one another in single file, they click one another’s sticks instead of shaking hands.
It is a ceremony that has taken place for centuries, long before American athletes played football, baseball and basketball. Seconds after the ceremonial grand entrance, 30 players from each team remain on the field and the others head for the sidelines. A referee in the middle of the field throws up a small orange ball – and then, well, and then all hell breaks loose.
Welcome to the World Series of Stickball, played annually as part of the Choctaw Indian Fair, near Philadelphia. As the P.A. announcer tells the packed stadium: “Cheer loudly, this is no place for the bashful!”
Yes, and the field is no place for the timid, either. There is a 12-foot-tall, four-inch wide pole at either end. These are the goals. Players use their sticks, made of hickory with a woven cup at one end, to advance the small, orange ball down the field and somehow touch the goals. You should know each team protects its post as if it were their first-born child.
Of all sports, it is probably most like lacrosse, which is said to have evolved from stickball. It is similar to American football in that contact is allowed and collisions often occur. It is similar to basketball in that no protective equipment – other than an optional mouthpiece – is worn. It is similar to baseball in that there is a stick involved. It is similar to soccer in that using your hands to touch the ball is strictly forbidden. It is similar to most other sports in that hand-eye coordination is required to catch the ball with the sticks.
The World Series of Stickball is similar to the World Cup of soccer in that the players play with extreme passion. One huge difference: There is no fame or fortune at stake in stickball. There is no Major League. There are no million dollar, guaranteed contracts, certainly no signing bonuses.
Says Thomas Ben, the 47-year-old Commissioner of the World Series of Stickball, “There’s no money in it, not much publicity. It’s all about the love of the game and bragging rights.”
Ben, a former player himself, calls stickball “the granddaddy of all American sports. It’s our traditional game and we take a lot of pride in it. ”
The earliest written record of stickball dates back to the mid 17th century, although there is evidence the sport was played long before that. Native Americans from many different tribes played. The early “fields” were sometimes miles and miles long. You might have 100 – or even 1,000 – players involved at a time. The games sometimes lasted several days and were played to solve disputes between the respective tribes.
Better a game than a war, right?
This is not to say that major injuries – and even death – didn’t occur during the games.
“Stickball has come a long way,” Ben, the commissioner, says. “It is a lot safer now. It can still be a bit brutal but it’s fun.”
The World Series involves Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, mostly from Mississippi, but also from Oklahoma. There are divisions for youth, men, women and even for men and women over 35 years of age.
Fighting during the games is strictly forbidden. Using your stick as a weapon will get you thrown out of the game – and the entire tournament.
“The sport requires speed, endurance, agility, strength and most of all toughness,” Ben says.
Paramedics watch – and are on call – at one end of the field. Jeremy Pogue, one of the paramedics, says he has treated players for lacerations and broken bones, as well as pulled muscles and muscle strains in the past.
“No major injuries this year, knock on wood,” he says.
He should have knocked harder on the wood.
The writer witnessed two games, one for teens and another for men. Both were fiercely contested and low-scoring. The game for teens went into “sudden death” overtime, with 15-year-old Cohen Keats scoring the winning goal. Keats says he learned the game from his father, who learned it from his father. Stickball is clearly a game handed down from generation to generation.
“I love it. I just love it,” Keats said afterward. “I even like getting hit because it gets my adrenaline going. Sometimes, it even feels good to get hit.”
And sometimes it doesn’t.
The second game, a men’s game featuring the two men’s teams that have won the 2016 and 2017 World Series championships, was delayed for 20 minutes while paramedics treated 28-year-old Mario Chickaway, who apparently suffered a broken femur (thigh bone), when he was tackled from behind after catching the ball with his sticks. Officials said the injury occurred on a “perfectly legal” hit.
After the ambulance departed the field, the team from the Pearl River community went on to defeat a Koni Hata community team 2-1 in the semifinal game and will play in the World Series championship game Saturday night.
For Wes Wallace, a 39-year-old Pearl River player from Edinburg, it was his fifth game in two weeks.
Some people play golf and some play tennis for hobbies. He plays stickball. When he is not playing stickball, he works as a construction manager. He is a Mississippi State graduate with a industrial technology degree who has been playing stickball for 20 years.
“Yeah, it can be pretty rough out there, but I just enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a great way to release energy.”
Perhaps. This writer will take his word for it.
See a slideshow of photos from the Stickball World Series by Eric J. Shelton here.