The Bad News Bulldogs

A quest for (Special) Olympic gold, starring one burned-out journalist turned coach and a volleyball team that couldn't spike straight.

Near Naples, we stop at a BP station. Michael wanders to the snack counter, helps himself to a hot dog and a soda, then wanders out without paying. Gustavo, meanwhile, is having trouble understanding why the clerk won't accept a five-dollar bill for the nine dollars' worth of sandwiches he's buying. Michelle makes up the difference, but before we leave, she spots mold on Gustavo's sandwich and goes back for a refund. At this rate, we're likely to forfeit our first match.

We speed up I-75 and arrive with an hour to spare. The team is groggy, but each member is accounted for and uniformed, waiting in a University of South Florida gymnasium for their turn on the court. A few minutes after 2, a wild-eyed organizer informs us we're waiting in the wrong gym. We sprint outside to the adjacent gym, arriving moments before the referees declare a forfeit.

It hardly matters. Our opponent is from Brevard County, an all-star team formed by cobbling together the best players in its Special Olympics volleyball circuit. Aptly named the Brevard Spikers, the team has twin towers who can soar above the net, complemented by shorter, quicker players who show impeccable technique in their bumps and sets. Even their satin jerseys and matching shorts make us self-conscious — the Bulldogs wear matching cotton T-shirts with generic black shorts.

Jason's frustrations boil over against Brevard.
Jason's frustrations boil over against Brevard.

Behind Jason's serve, we win the first several points, but after the Spikers break him, they go on a furious rally. In a flash, the first game is over. We've lost, 25-9.

The next game, Jason decides to take on the Spikers by himself. He flies all over the court, knocking over teammates in a desperate effort to swat the ball back. Against Victory Living, the rallies rarely lasted beyond a few hits. Now, the ball's flying back and forth six, seven times per point — until finally the Bulldogs can no longer keep up. We lose the second game 25-10.

As the deficit builds in the third and deciding game, the Bulldogs are in disarray. Jason is yelling at everyone else for missing shots. Lisa is pouting. Andrew is completely flustered. Though he's one of the best players, he's begging to come out, which means that Austin wants out too. Everyone on our side of the court is moping. The Spikers smell blood. They win the third game 25-12.

We have another match the following morning, and since it's a best-of-three series, we need to win to play again that night for the state championship. But as the Tamarac Bulldogs limp back to the hotel, optimism is scarce.

"The second-place team are still champions!" Eddie announces, shattering the funereal silence of the minivan. As noted, he's a far better actor than a volleyball player. And it's easy for Eddie to be cheerful. The highlight for him isn't the competition; it's the pageantry. Opening ceremonies are slated for that night.

I find that sharing a hotel suite with Anthony and Eddie reminds me of my college apartment, minus the alcohol. We argue about the first round of the NBA playoffs — they're Heat fans, and I like the Bulls. There's locker-room humor, as Anthony considers what romantic leads he'll pursue and Eddie interrupts his own speculating to say, "I completely forgot. I can't talk to ladies. I'm getting engaged!" (He's in a long-distance relationship with a young woman in Albany, New York, named Brea. "Like the cheese," Eddie likes to add.) In a development that seems astonishing at first, then inevitable, I discover that Anthony and Eddie are both fans of the heinous early '90s sitcom Full House.

I'm not surprised when one of the two forgets to put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub — I've made the same mistake. But I am a little surprised when the next guy lays out our entire supply of towels to soak up the puddles, then takes his shower while also forgetting to put the curtain on the inside of the tub.

Predictably, Eddie is mobbed at that night's opening ceremonies. He honors each and every request for an autograph and recites his Ringer catch phrases on cue. Flashing cell-phone cameras follow his every move. When a local TV crew shows up, Eddie gives his second televised interview in as many days.

Though neither one of us has slept much lately, Eddie and I stay up late to watch his television appearance. Eddie proves himself a worthy ambassador of the Special Olympics, telling the reporter, "There's a sense of camaraderie and friendship and how we all become one big team." But that's the extent of his sound bite. "How about my movie?" Eddie asks the TV, accusingly. "They cut my movie!" (Eddie gets a share of the residuals from The Ringer, so promoting the film comes naturally to him by now.)

The next morning, the Bulldogs seem refreshed and focused for their rematch with Brevard County. In our pregame huddle, I exhort the team to trust one another. If you can't hit it over the net, keep the ball alive for your teammate. "Remember," I say, "we're all on the same team."

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