Longform

The Bad News Bulldogs

Page 3 of 7

So Lisa gets her way, and in these rare instances where her prayer technique scores a point, she whirls to say, "See?" But when she misses, she bows her head and says "I suck!" under her breath.

Kerri is Lisa's best friend on the team. Her intensity is infectious, if occasionally excessive. When another player blunders, Kerri vents her frustration, and her outbursts affect the confidence of players like Lisa.

Gustavo's powers of attention are sporadic, but the lanky 19-year-old can hit a leaping two-handed spike for winners all over the court. He just can't hit a ball lower than his shoulder. Also, at practice, he tends to shoot the volleyball at the basketball hoop, as if he's forgotten which sport he'd come to the gym to practice.

Then there's Eddie Barbanell. Eddie isn't a great volleyball player, but he leads the league in photo ops after his star-making turn in The Ringer, a 2005 Farrelly brothers comedy in which Johnny Knoxville's character tries to fix the Special Olympics. Eddie misses the first several practices because he's wrapping a short film called Sky Squad Eagle Eight, about a group of mentally challenged superheroes.

Do any of these superheroes play volleyball, I wonder?


For all the practices, our regular season will consist of just two matches, one month apart.

The first meet is in March, at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. It ranks as a disaster. Kerri insists on shouting instructions at Gustavo between points. A fine impulse, except that when the opposing team serves, Kerri is still yapping at Gustavo, and neither of them notices the ball sailing past.

Our star, Jason, who works two jobs, has overslept and never shows. Lisa misses a few shots early on, and her confidence is shot. Andrew is frustrated. As for Eddie, before the match even starts, he's greeted by junior high volunteers who shout out his ad-libbed lines from The Ringer, such as "Oh, Mylanta!" and "You scratched my CD!"

During the match, he's distracted by the notion that someone here has purloined his sports goggles, which he left in the bleachers. Eddie has an inimitable way of stressing the most important words of a sentence: "Coach Tom, I need my goggles or my mommy is going to kill me." I find that his words stick in my head for hours — perhaps because of the poetic rhythm, or maybe just because he tends to repeat the same thing about a dozen times.



Anthony, who is Eddie's best friend, also has an off-court distraction. He's batting his eyes and waving shyly at the cute girls in the stands. During points, he behaves more like a spectator who's mistakenly wandered onto the court; when the ball comes his way, he politely steps aside. The moment it lands, he realizes his mistake and slaps his forehead.

Our opponent is Victory Living, a Fort Lauderdale agency for adults with disabilities. The players are taller and more athletic than us, but the real menace is a short, balding player who looks a little like Al Roker and wields a cruelly consistent serve.

My Bulldogs aren't calling for the ball, and it falls at their feet. Half my team is yelling at the other half, which is sulking. No amount of sideline encouragement — I alternate between "Good try!" and "It's OK!" — can lift the team's spirits.

It occurs to me that my team looks poorly coached because, frankly, it is. In Special Olympics, competing alone is supposed to be heroic. One prefers to win but doesn't mind losing. It's the coach's responsibility to instill these noble principles in his athletes, even if he can't teach them a single thing about the sport. Judging by the shouting on the court and the dejected expressions of my players after the match, I've failed.

We get throttled.

I manage to greet them with babbled words of praise, but I'm not fooling anyone. This sucks. We suck. I suck.

It doesn't help that in the minutes after we shake hands with Victory Living players, Anthony and Eddie are orbiting me, asking hopefully, "Are we still going to State?"

I tell them, "Yes, but it will take lots of practice." In my mind, I don't really believe that will make a difference. To earn a berth in the Summer Games, we have to win next month's match in West Palm Beach, against the same Victory Living team that just routed us. Fat chance.

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Thomas Francis