by Drew Johnson • The door to the legendary Roy Wilkins Auditorium doesn’t even open for an hour, yet eighty people are waiting as my wife and I step into line. In another half hour, the line will double and then double again, until the RiverCentre staff will ask the RollerGirls to open the doors early. A line of over three hundred people messes up the flow of the public through Saint Paul’s convention center and to the Xcel.
One ticket check later, the missus and I are through the line and into the swirl of the Roy (“The exact geographical center of derby”) on Minnesota RollerGirl night. My wife nabs a pom-pom from a dark-haired woman in an orange lab coat cut for speed, and we almost stumble over a player wearing sparkly red, and thickly draped with promotional tee shirts (“Free tee shirts to the first two hundred!”). We ask for a small, and she points us to Frau, a short-haired women in sparkly red athletic gear standing in a whirlwind of people, breezily fending off fans with a smile and a tee shirt. Shirt in hand and a check of the merchandise table later, we head into the auditorium to beat the crowds. By 7:30, the Roy will be packed with four thousand paying derby fans, so it’s good to not be in the lobby when the rush begins.
Out come the announcers, the pre-show, the explanations, the rules (“Don’t spill your beer!”), and the tee shirt gun. The edges of derby, with friends and family volunteering to take care of things while the players get ready, make derby feel like a mixture of performance art and a caricature of twentieth-century sporting life. Each team’s gear is a mixture of glam and function, punk woman and safety. Hard-shell helmets and fishnet, tats and kneepads.
Then the game begins, and all thoughts of camp are thrown to the river.
The hits, the falls, the brilliance are real. The players of the Minnesota RollerGirls have resurrected a dead sport and redeem it—game by game—from the depths of 1970s late-night television hell. Jammers speed around the oval track at dizzying speeds, while blockers make it their duty to send them into the crowd. Every time a jammer laps a player on the opposing side, her team gets a point. Most points win. The ball—in this sport—is the jammer herself. The game is dangerous—no middlema—and players frequently pull muscles and sprain ankles. Even the audience can get hit by a blocker shoving an uncertain jammer off-course, but those sitting at trackside see those moments as opportunities to become the playing field as they bend to take the rush of skates and skirt coming at them, cushioning their fall.
After a brief half-time show from a local band, the RollerGirls return to finish the game. Forty minutes of hard-fought roller derby are exhausting. As we sit at trackside, we see the fatigue and adrenaline wash through the players. Bench coaches frantically try to keep a lid on a lead or work out how to come back from a deficit. And as in any sport, the crowd calls out to their favorite players in support. The players call right back with a wink, or a gesture, or a scream to the back seats—and then they’re off again, recharged by their fans, ready for that last push. The final whistle blows and the teams—so ready to attack each other on the track moments before—suddenly slap hands and cheer each other on.
The fans stream out of the Roy, leaving the volunteers to take down the track, the advertisement from local businesses, and the bleachers. My wife and I get on our bikes and head up the hill to home and son. As we ride, my wife favors her left leg as she massages the bruise left from an incoming jammer. She tells me how Mary Tyler Roar apologized after the match for plowing into her, and we laugh. We both know she’s the lucky one tonight.