A ratty blue tarp is wrapped tightly around a huge sphere in a Lauderhill driveway. It takes up a full parking space and is nearly as tall as the simple white house behind it. It looks like a captured UFO.
As Joel Waul throws aside cinder blocks to remove the tarp, he appears otherworldly himself. The scraggly, baby-faced 28-year-old wears Oakley sunglasses with built-in headphones, a loose black do-rag, and a soft ponytail. He snorts in laughter at some joke in his head.
When he tosses the tarp onto the pavement, the pencil-eraser-like smell of warm rubber becomes overpowering. "Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I can't even believe this is in my driveway," he says. "It's like, 'What the heck, man? What did I do?' "
The world's largest rubber band ball stands six feet, seven inches tall and has a circumference of 26 feet. It took five years to build, weighs more than 9,400 pounds, and contains about 730,000 rubber bands. The Tim Burton-esque landmark is incongruous in a modest neighborhood dotted by boarded-up houses. Since he doesn't often unveil the ball in daylight, his neighbors collectively freak. "This dude built a big ball out of rubber bands!" 19-year-old Jessica Mincey shouts into her cell phone. "It's as big as a van. I don't know why!"
A middle-aged woman named Darlene Bush saunters up as she relights a stubbed-out cigarette. "Late at night, when I look out the window or step outside to smoke, I see him walking 'round and 'round this thing," she says, miming Waul wrapping rubber bands around the orb. "I wish more people around here would do something with their brain."
Last week, the ball transcended South Florida. Folks from Ripley's Believe It or Not! winched it onto the bed of an 18-wheeler and transported it to join the company's collection in Orlando. "I'm not sad at all," Joel says. "What I'd really like to do is let it roll down the streets of San Francisco. It would smash everything in its way!"
Joel has always been a strange kid. He was born in Jamaica in 1981 to medical receptionist Maureen and well-known reggae keyboardist Franklin Waul. One year later, Mom moved Joel and his older brother, Toby, to Brooklyn. When Joel was a teenager, they migrated to South Florida to be close to his grandmother, Binette. Dad, who's currently touring with Ziggy Marley, was never really in the picture. "He would call every so often and say, 'I'm going to be playing on Jay Leno or on Letterman,' " Joel recalls.
Joel was a gentle loner whose fascination with fire sometimes worried his mom but never got out of control. He earned decent grades at Plantation High School and excelled in art and science. But after graduating, he was more interested in getting a job and playing videogames than enrolling in college.
Joel works nights organizing stock at the Sawgrass Mills Gap. He lives alone and rent-free in a house that belongs to his aunt. Reserved in person, he's a daredevil on the internet, where online buddies sometimes persuade him to do strange things. Once, he attached 76 clothespins to his face in a "beard of pain." Another time, he pierced his face with more than 800 acupuncture needles, which he contends "isn't that painful but is just time-consuming."
One evening in April 2004, over a fast-food dinner with Toby, Joel watched an episode of the now-defunct Ripley's Believe It or Not! TV show that changed his life. In it, a one-ton rubber band ball was dropped from a plane into the Mojave Desert to see if it would bounce. It exploded instead, but Joel was hooked: "My first thought was, I could build a rubber band ball like that. I could build a bigger one."
That night, he found a shopping bag full of stray rubber bands and got to work. He named his fledgling creation after the McDonald's chicken item he had just eaten: Nugget. From the beginning, he aimed to eclipse the Guinness-verified world record, which was then 3,120 pounds.
Joel began pilfering rubber bands from work and buying 50-pound bags from Office Depot. After a month, Nugget was up to Joel's knees and weighed 300 pounds. By July 2004, the ball had reached his waist. "He'd be sitting there, watching TV with his gloves on, with a huge pile of rubber bands at his feet, tying them together for hours," remembers his friend Jason Gilzean. "We'd tell him: 'You need to get some ass, man.' "
As Nugget's weight topped four digits, rubber bands became a huge expense. Joel raided his savings for more than $2,000 to spend on bands from a Pennsylvania wholesaler. "We probably get a hundred letters a year from people claiming they're building the world's biggest rubber band ball," says Lou McKibber of the Dykema Rubber Band Co. But only one or two others had ever sought the quantity Joel was looking for: "Anytime somebody wants to buy a thousand pounds at a time, you know they're serious."
Joel's ball soon outgrew his house, so he rolled it into the backyard. Then in January 2006, an Oregon man, Steve Milton, began building his own ball. Helped by his wife, three kids, and a much larger bankroll, he soon assembled a 4,600-pounder. In a publicity grab, OfficeMax bought the new record-breaker for $50,000, Milton says, and exhibited it around the country.
Joel, whose ball lagged behind Milton's by more than 1,000 pounds, burned for revenge. He was determined to double the new record. In March 2007, physical therapy specialist Stretchwell Inc. agreed to send him more than 5,000 pounds of industrial-sized elastic loops. They arrived by semi truck, and Joel soon began adding up to 400 pounds a day, often toiling at night so as not to attract his neighbors' attention.
Even when his ball surpassed Milton's, Joel kept working. At 5,000 pounds, it outgrew his backyard, so he smashed it through a fence and rolled it into the driveway. He decided Nugget was too "soft" a name and redubbed it Megaton. Joel and Toby, the ball's unofficial marketer, had it transported by crane and truck to a car show in Orlando, where they sold silicone wrist bands that read "Rubba Ban Man."
In October 2007, he turned down an offer from Ripley's to buy the ball. He wanted to continue growing it. Recalls his mother, Maureen: "I would say, 'OK, it's taking up almost two car spaces. Don't you think it's big enough now?' After a while, I figured, 'He'll know when it's big enough for him.' "
In August 2008, Guinness officials descended. They lifted Megaton onto a truck scale and determined it weighed 8,200 pounds, earning Joel entry into the hallowed book. Since then, he has added 1,200 pounds for good measure. "Nobody's going to touch that for a while," he declares.
His old foe, Steve Milton, hasn't surrendered. "I'm glad he finally got there," he says of Joel's record. "On the other hand, I saw my ball as an art project as well, and I don't think his really looked that great."
This summer, Joel accepted Ripley's offer to buy Megaton. It joins a collection that already includes the world's largest balls of string and barbed wire. Though its permanent home is still undecided, Joel says he's been told it might end up in a new Ripley's museum in South Korea or Mexico.
Neither Ripley's nor Joel will disclose the sale price, but it's ample enough to fund Joel's next dream. He plans to attend the International Stunt School in Seattle, a three-week program where students are set on fire upon graduation. He hopes to set the record for longest time spent as a human fireball, which currently stands at two minutes 38 seconds.
He's already begun practicing. His girlfriend, 21-year-old Widelyne Bourjolly — whom he wooed using his fame as the world's premier rubber band ball guy — does not approve. "He keeps burning himself," she says. "I think that's weird."