AMERICAN FORK Herschel Kelly wasn't too excited when one of his teachers suggested he try a sport he'd never even heard of. After all, his other athletic experiences hadn't been very successful.
"My parents tried to make me play baseball, but being sight impaired, I kept getting knocked out," he said. Eventually, he gave up on athletics.
That is, until January when Jalayne Engberg told him about goalball.
"He was practicing with the girls, and so when we heard about it, we came down (from Logan) and lit him up," said Chris Dodds, the captain of the Utah Explosion and Kelly's teammate. "After that, he came up from American Fork to Logan every weekend just to play."
And just a few months after what his teammates called "his baptism" Kelly is one of six players representing Utah in the 2008 U.S. National Goalball Championships being played this weekend at American Fork High School. Goalball is a sport created after World War II for combat veterans who'd lost their sight. It has gradually grown in popularity and Dodds earned a bronze medal at the Athens Paralympic games representing the U.S.
"Goalball is so unpredictable," said Dodds. "Sometimes you have the illusion a ball is going where it's not. ... I love it because it's not an adapted sport. And I don't want to take anything away from those other sports ... but this is its own game. It's our game."
It's a game that is very difficult to describe. Two teams stand at opposite ends of a court guarding a goal that spans the length of the court. One squad rolls, as fast and as hard as it can, a weighted ball that has bells in it at the other team, and those players throw their bodies on the floor in an attempt to block the ball.
"Suicidal dodgeball," is how Marty Langworthy likes to describe it. "It's hard. You feel it in the morning."
Utah Explosion coach Tony Jepson said the intensity is just one more reason many young people enjoy goalball.
"It's a real vigorous sport that you have to train for, you have to work out for, you have to learn strategy," Jepson said. "It's not for wimps. ... And we're thrilled to have (the national) tournament here in Utah."
The Utah men defeated the New York Knights 14-6 in the tournament's first match, but the Utah women lost their first match. Admission is free and there is even a demonstration room where anyone can give goal ball a try. Organizers hope people turn out to support the local athletes and take advantage of the opportunity to see a unique and exciting sport.
Pool play continues today at 8 a.m. and continues until 9 p.m. The medal rounds start on Saturday, with the gold medal round for the women scheduled for 4 p.m. and the men playing at 5 p.m. The U.S. Paralympic team will be announced after the awards, and Dodds, who now lives in Riverton, will be on that team. He said representing the U.S. in Athens was everything he dreamed it would be and more.
"Going through that tunnel was amazing," said Dodds, who is signing posters at the event. "The biggest crowd I'd ever played in front of was about 200 people and there were 70,000 people there. You start getting a little nervous."
Dodds is clearly the team's veteran, but his teammates said he takes direction and feedback as well as he delivers it. After all, they point out, they're blindfolded and they need each other if they're going to be able to sing on Saturday.
"If we get into the gold or silver match, we'll sing in a loud, obnoxious way," said Langworthy. Dodds said the group was a little nervous the first time they advanced into the medal rounds and he broke out in song to calm their nerves.
"You could tell some of them were about to wet themselves because they were so nervous so I called them together and started singing," he said. The tune was 'You've lost that loving feeling' and his teammates not only calmed down, they joined in. They said they do it every time now and refused to jinx themselves by doing it early.
But win or lose Saturday, those who participate know they've already benefited from their efforts on the court."It's the only team sport I know," Kelly said. "Most other sports a blind person plays are individual, like swimming or wrestling. In goalball you get to work with other people toward the goal of winning."