Almost four years ago--as I sat in a dusty yard behind a motorcycle clubhouse, sipped very cheap beer and watched grown men rip around that glorified dirt patch on buzzy, two-foot-tall minibikes--my life changed. Fortunately, due to my longstanding policy of treating all motorcycle club members with extreme respect, this change was for the best. In fact, I can thank those boys for the fact that I have a book hitting shelves at quality merchants near you this week.
The Renegade Sportsman, which Riverhead Books publishes on June 1, owes its inspiration to the sporting hospitality, creativity and merely-a-flesh-wound daring I glimpsed that now-distant summer day. My cousin is a member of this club, which is not the sort of "motorcycle club" that requires scare-quotes to indicate that its members engage in extracurricular activities that may or may not conform to statute. This is an actual motorcycle club, composed of daredevil amateurs who love their bikes, the physical hazards those bikes make possible, and the rowdy fellowship that combination encourages. These gentlemen (and ladies) are, as my cousin likes to say, Sportsmen.
As I drank my Pabst--purchased for $1 from the bar bolted to the living-room floor inside the clubhouse--the word resonated in my head. Sportsmen. How different this scene was from the drab world of standard American jockdom; how little it shared with the default fan culture that is turning us all into fat dudes obsessed with fantasy football. I felt epiphany's hot, meaty grip as an entire alternative universe of sports snapped together in my mind.
Over the next two years, I embarked on a safari through America's sports underground, the DIY frontier that lurks beyond the borders defined by cable highlight shows, newspaper sports pages and talk-radio hosts. I discovered a whole nation of freethinking, freewheeling athletes and fans not content to let the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NCAA define their sporting lives. Out in the world of the Renegade Sportsmen, the very meaning of sports was up for grabs.
As I did my research, friends would often ask just what I was working on. I would often mumble something to the effect of "a book about weird sports." Later, I realized this was wrong: I was working on a book about inventive and independent sports--in fact, about a whole sports world that was being invented (or reinvented) by hands-on participants and fans, without wealthy owners or cash-rich sponsors, without superstars or media attention. And yes, these sports were often different than their mainstream, big-league counterparts, but that was not the point. The point was, they were, in many ways, better.
The Renegade Sportsman provides a document of this movement. It also contains the rather unfortunate incident in which I donned a tight-fitting red tunic and blond mullet wig and went on a seven-mile run alongside numerous large, similarly cross-dressed men and their female accomplices. We stopped at many, many taverns along the way, and consumed many, many beers, and then I lost my wallet and had to sneak home on mass transit without a ticket. This was my introduction to the Hash House Harriers, a gloriously dissolute international "drinking club with a running problem." Readers will also find me half-naked on the side of an Iowa backroad at 4 o'clock in the morning, semi-insane with sleep deprivation and waiting for the leaders of the brutal Trans-Iowa endurance cycling race. At other points, my head was jammed between rugby players' thighs, and I was almost flattened by careening roller derby women. I tried to learn fencing--the sport of the sword, not how to construct outdoor enclosures--only to be humiliated by adolescents. I successfully ran my own croquet league franchise, The Jaguar Realm, straight to the bottom of the standings.
In other words, Renegade provided a surfeit of strange experiences. It also imbued me with fresh appreciation for America's sloppy, weedy, fertile grassroots--our national strategic reserves of democratic whimsy and dirty-fingernailed enterprise, which keep our culture alive. Working on the book was like traveling back in time to the 1840s, the rambunctious era just after modern sports emerged from the pre-industrial mire but just before the hyper-organized Victorians got around to writing rules for everything. In the sports underground, you can watch a game take shape before your eyes: roller derby and bike polo, for example, are becoming full-fledged international sports without help from TV or corporate backers. You can find heroic athletes, hustling impresarios and manic visionaries--like the guy who convinced me to paddle across a Superfund-listed river in a listing rowboat full of other people's shoes.
Most of all, my reporting reminded me that sports are, after all, pretty damn cool--especially when a true Sportsman takes them on with a DIY spirit and an appetite for adventure. If The Renegade Sportsman succeeds in inspiring a single start-up flag-football league, wildcat darts tournament or late-life pentathlon career, the journey will have achieved its ultimate objective.