How is it, I thought on a recent mid-week afternoon, that I now find myself here, on a field at a college that I never attended, straddling a broom, eluding various balls as they're being thrown in my direction?
How? Because my boss is a jerk.
And not necessarily a jerk to me, at least not at this particular moment. But he was a total dick to the College of Charleston's quidditch team, who are now, unfortunately, probably not the City Paper's biggest fans. Chris Haire, my managing editor, called the sport the "Best Indication that College Kids Have Way Too Much Time on Their Hands" in this year's Best of Charleston issue. The snub sparked a heated online debate between our tried-and-true commenters and quidditch players and fans.
"I just think it wasn't a fair piece," says Laurin Grabowsky, the team's co-founder. "I feel like he had this platform that he could have used to actually come and see what it is that we do and what we're about, but he didn't. He just had this opinion that wasn't founded. He really had no idea what we do or how quidditch works."
Which is true. Chris Haire has never played the game. While he's admittedly a Harry Potter fan, he's a generation away from the Millennials who were raised on its folklore. But he's got a one-year-old at home, so instead of coming out to the field himself, he sent me.
The CofC quidditch team is a part of the International Quidditch Association, a nonprofit organization unaffiliated with the books or films, and it's made up of almost 1,000 teams around the world. Our local branch holds their practices on Wednesday evenings in the courtyard behind the Addlestone Library. They last about an hour, sometimes longer if a match is coming up, but that's plenty of time to attract a sizable crowd of onlookers, some of whom will whip out cell phones and photograph the team in action.
When I arrived on campus, I headed toward a group of kids in athletic wear, figuring they were the ones I was looking for. A girl in a tank top and jeans introduced herself to me as Laurin. She's the girl you'll see in the video of the team that CofC proudly posted on their YouTube page.
Laurin is pretty into Harry Potter. She didn't have to outwardly admit this for me to figure it out, and it doesn't end at starting a quidditch team. It became especially obvious when she recounted how she and her sister drove down to Florida for the opening day of the Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando this past June, arriving at 4 a.m. and then waiting seven hours just to get in. She was able to give some pretty juicy tips on how to bypass the line to the Hogwarts ride that I refuse to share with you.
Laurin founded the team with Andrew Edahl. "I actually had the idea freshman year, but I was lazy and had lots of stuff on my plate. I still registered for the IQA," Andrew says. Laurin found his name next to CofC's listing on the organization's website and got in touch. They'd never met before, but she asked if he was still interested in forming the team. They got together at a Starbucks and started planning. This was 2009, and the team's first semester of existence was a pretty slow one. But once things started getting concrete, they had 50 people show up for their initial major organizational meeting. "We were just like, wow, people are interested, or at least think we're crazy and want to see what this is about," he says.
The quidditch team had the option to become a club sport or stay with the Student Government Association as an organization. They did the latter. If they were a club sport, it would put a lot of limitations on them that they just don't have the luxury of, like knowing a semester in advance where and when they'll be traveling — their games are organized on the fly (no pun intended). Laurin also believes they can get more funding as an organization anyway; the school won't cover equipment or uniforms, but they get money for traveling, and they can supplement the funds with bake sales and T-shirt sales. And once they became a real school club, they were allowed to put up posters on campus and advertise in e-mails sent out by the student activities board, attracting more people to the team.
I had e-mailed Laurin a few days before the practice to prepare her for my arrival, and she had warned me to wear bug spray. I smartly complied. On campus, players are rubbing their arms and legs with dryer sheets in an effort to dispel the swarming midges. Still, I am scared of who might be more ferocious: the gnats or the quidditch team.
It is a bit awkward milling around with some of the players as they wait for practice to begin. They joke around and gossip about a team couple. Their age range is 18 to 25, which I fall into, and they're all students. They know about the City Paper scandal. To break the ice, I timidly ask a small group why they decided to join the quidditch team.
"Because I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, and I wanted to get involved in something so that I could meet a bunch of people," says Jana Kitch, a CofC freshman and the team's secretary. This strategy worked out for her. Apparently, no one on the team really knew each other before they started playing officially last fall, but driving 17 hours to New York for the Quidditch World Cup in October and sharing beds in a Bronx hotel room does wonders for team-building.
The World Cup, which attracted teams from all over the country and Canada, was the team's first game. Ever. And they won six out of their seven matches, eventually finishing 12th out of 45. There will be more than 80 teams at the next one, where they're hoping to do even better.
Since then, they've played tournaments regionally, one at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and even at my alma mater, the University of Florida in Gainesville. They play college teams, but also high school teams; this practice was one of the last before a match against Chapin High School near Columbia.
Back at CofC, a large mass of players return to the courtyard, carrying brooms and pieces of brooms, the goal posts, and baskets of bludgers (red kickballs) and quaffles (usually a slightly deflated volleyball). They can't play just yet though, since there's a guy taking a snooze in the middle of their practice field. "If they know what's best for them, they'll get out of the quidditch team's way," one of the players jokes.
Some of the bigger guys on the team have experience playing more "legitimate" sports, like rugby and soccer. Some of them have never even read the Harry Potter books, like Elliot Nelson, though he has seen the movies. "I needed a hobby, and one of my roommates and I just randomly saw the posters and thought it would be fun to do."
They begin with a quick warm-up game called Paranoia, which is very similar to dodgeball. Laurin says it helps them develop a "healthy sense of paranoia at all times," which is put to good use later. You've got to be prepared to be hit in the face by a bludger at any moment. She gives them a few minutes, and then she announces, "Hey, you guys want to play quidditch?"
Imagine if dodgeball, capture the flag, and rugby had a baby, and you'll have an idea of what quidditch is like. Yes, I know that it is biologically impossible for three separate things to have a baby, but we're talking about a sport originally intended for wizards. Quidditch could almost be mistaken for another field sport, perhaps one you didn't quite understand the rules of, if it wasn't for the brooms. They're a bit conspicuous.
The quidditch squad divides into two separate teams and takes their place at opposite sides of the field in front of the respective goals. Before the team became officially recognized by the school, they weren't allowed to fundraise, so Laurin, Andrew, and another player had to use their own money to build the goal posts, fashioned out of PVC pipe, wooden planks, and hula hoops.
The players get on their knees and face their heads to the ground, an honor-code tactic so no one sees the snitch while that person goes off and hides. Someone shouts "Brooms up!" and the action begins. The chasers are all over the field, trying to get their hands on the quaffle or at least tackle an opposing player before they can toss it through the goal. The beaters are more introspective, holding onto their red bludgers until it's absolutely necessary to use them. As I stand on the sidelines with Laurin, it seems like every five minutes one of the balls is landing in the fountain behind us, pausing the game play while someone ventures over to fish it out. Luckily, I manage not to get hit in the face. Yes, they do accidentally hit unassuming bystanders pretty frequently. It even happened to the City Paper's photographer that afternoon. "That makes it really dangerous for the spectators, but also more fun, because you never know if you're going to get hurt, even as a spectator," Laurin says.
Players are injured constantly. "It's really physical," she says. "We tackle a lot. And it's unique in that it is a co-ed sport ... the guys don't hold back at all." At a tournament in Winthrop, they accidentally broke one girl's thumb. Another chipped a tooth.
The CofC quidditch squad doesn't wear fantastical wizard outfits. They never do — except for the time they fashioned capes out of hotel towels in New York. And there's no Slytherin or Gryffindor houses. "That's another thing that people are surprised at. We're not intramural on campus. We don't have teams or houses or anything like that. We just have one team," Laurin says.
The players are "riding" a mismatched fleet of brooms. I see a white PVC pipe, a Swiffer-like green thing, and even a mop that someone scrounged up somewhere, possibly from a janitor's closet. They've got a couple of the fancy brooms that a company called Alivan's produces specifically for the IQA. CofC's are the cheapest ones, costing only about $35 each, but some go up to $80. These more expensive brooms tend to be thick and harder to break, but household-style aluminum ones — the Swiffers in particular — snap in half at least once every game. This adds a significant level of danger to the sport. One of CofC's players got hurt when his broom broke and sliced his thumb open, and I don't even want to imagine what would happen if someone fell abdomen-first onto a jagged shard. "That's why a bunch of the teams had objections to going for NCAA status, because we could go for NCAA status. It only takes 50 university teams to get that," Laurin says. "But we don't want to because we just know that the rules would get completely scrutinized. Someone would get sued. We'd be wearing padding ... basically the entire sport would have to be redone because of how potentially violent it is. It's so dangerous — which makes it more fun."
For now, the team signs waivers when they travel. She thinks they'll eventually buy a bunch of PVC pipes so no one will get hurt.
One of the most drastic differences between Harry Potter's quidditch and CofC's quidditch is the snitch. In the books, it's a lively golden-winged ball that zaps around the field until it's caught, ending the game. In real life, it's usually the quickest member of the team, in this case a guy named Austin Jur. They don't employ the snitch at practice, so during these scrimmages he'll play chaser or bludger to keep his skills up. After only about 10 minutes of practice, he's managed to rip his plaid button-down. It's too bad. He really liked that shirt.
"It's that little golden ball that's just there to piss people off essentially," Austin says of his role as the snitch, modified for the real-world play. "Two seekers are designated, one from each team, to go out and hunt the snitch down, and the snitch has to hide for an extended period of time. You have to come back and just kind of run around frantically while fighting off the two seekers and fighting your way from them capturing the flag that's on your back."
The snitch can go anywhere, and the seekers (a role that Austin also fills for his team) can go anywhere to find him. They'll adapt the field's parameters to wherever they're playing. For example, behind Addlestone Library, the snitch would be limited to the city block. Yes, the whole entire city block — the boundaries can be as big or as small as the players want.
Austin likes to hide in devious places. He says there are rules, but you don't really have to follow them. "There's never a time when you can't be creative and say, 'You know, I feel like breaking the rules here. Let me find a creative way to do it so no one will get mad at me.' "
Laurin explains that the snitch also acts kind of like a court jester. They're encouraged to bring the action back to the field so the audience can watch the chase. They can climb trees. Sometimes people steal bikes, or unicycles like one team did at the World Cup.
In the book, matches can last years, since they only end once the snitch is captured. Once, Austin was gone for 30 minutes because no one remembered to call him back. During most games, it's usually only a few minutes before the snitch gets caught. In our less-magical world, Laurin's team used to have rules to keep the games long, but that idea was soon vetoed. "If the games are short, that's just a testament to how good your seeker is. So we don't really mind if they're 30 seconds or they're 35 minutes," she says. "It's just based on how good the play is and how evenly the teams are matched."
When it seems like practice is mellowing out, and the players are tired and therefore less intense, I decide it's probably the right time to get out on the field.
I'm not the only novice here. Nikki Palazzo found out about quidditch when the team came into the yogurt shop where she worked. She saw their shirts and "freaked out at them" and told them she'd show up. She went in for a few minutes, and when she came back, Laurin asked her what she thought.
"It was fun, but I couldn't tell whose team I was on," Nikki says. "There were lots of people, and I didn't really know what I was doing at all, so I felt like a letdown. But that was OK. They were all very kind about it. It was bundles of fun."
I'm handed half of a broken broom, the top half complete with bristles, and I meet up with my appointed team. We get to the ground, and I fake my way through their pre-game ritual, and then it's brooms up. Elliot takes me under his wing, and I follow his lead. Clutching a broom between my legs feels awkward of course, and I imagine it's even more cumbersome for the male players. For me, the experience is very phallic. "You forget about it after awhile, actually," Laurin says. "It's awkward the first time just because you feel stupid. You feel like you look like an idiot. But once you realize that, yeah, you do, and we know that, and we're in on the joke, then it's just like second nature."
She's right. Once I begin running, after the feeling of straw chafing against my inner thighs wanes, the broom is almost unnoticeable during the height of the action.
I'm utterly confused, but only because I'm running through a clusterfuck of new faces and I can't tell who's on my team. After the first point is scored by our opponents, Elliot tells me to head to the sidelines, where he'll throw me the quaffle. Moments later, he does. With one arm occupied by the broom, it's difficult to grasp the quaffle, but I make my way to the goals. I have a feeling the other players are going easy on me, but that doesn't stop me from succumbing to nerves and passing the ball off as soon as possible to a girl I correctly guess is on my side. She shoots at the goal and misses.
The game lasts a couple more minutes. My team loses. The players break, and some begin packing up there stuff. The remaining members decide to use the red rubber bludgers for their destined purpose and play a game of kickball.
"I think that once you come and see us — most of the naysayers are the ones who have no idea what the sport's like. They think we're out here in a bunch of capes wearing quidditch robes, Hogwarts attire, and that we're shooting spells at each other with fake wands," Laurin says. "But no. It's an athletic, demanding, intense, physical, violent sport. We've had rugby players, lacrosse players, soccer players. It's really hard to do, and it requires a lot of skill."
As I make my way out of the courtyard, I pass the sizeable group of students, kids on cigarette breaks from their library study sessions, entirely bewitched by quidditch.
Frankly, I wish I could have played a bit longer (or, at the very least, that I knew what I was doing to get the full effect). And I'm eager to return to my muggle job and regale Chris Haire with the tale of my adventure.
"I think that once the naysayers, if they give us the chance and come out and see us, I think immediately they'll switch sides," Laurin says. "It's so much fun to watch, and it's so much fun to play that it's hard to not have a smile on your face watching or playing."