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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After catching a short pass, the midshipman rushed toward the goal. Sean McDonnell, a brawny junior, raised the mini soccer ball and hurled it at the lacrosse goal a yard or two away. The keeper froze. Goal.
Two dozen spectators clapped and cheered. It was a beautiful moment in a brutal sport.
Played on a grassy field overlooking the Severn River on April 26, this was the annual championship game of fieldball, a sport peculiar to the Naval Academy. As an intramural, the victors could expect little more than notoriety: status as the top dogs of the academy's most violent pursuit.
At an institution that extols the "warrior spirit," fieldball is one of its purest expressions — a rules-free zone where mids can take out their aggression. Yet this epitome of contact sports is played with little to no protection. Cuts and bruises are routine. And players occasionally suffer broken ribs, concussions and other serious injuries, a situation that is increasingly out of step with growing concern for sports safety.
By the time McDonnell scored, almost halfway through the match, the game had already lived up to its billing: a contest between the academy's toughest men. (Although technically a co-ed game, very few female mids play.) Shirts were torn. One player had blood on the side of his face.
The odds-on favorite was the team from 23rd Company — nicknamed the Fighting Hellfish. The student body of 4,400 is divided into 30 companies, each with its own intramural teams. The Hellfish, sporting a roster of big-boned bruisers who showed up in their makeshift uniform of blue shorts and brown T-shirts, had emerged as a leading contender after an undefeated season of 26 games. That includes two defeats of their opponents: 21st Company.
That fact and their growing lead notwithstanding, Midshipman 2nd Class Taylor Cooper, who kept time for the Fighting Hellfish, was reluctant to say his team would win. "I really don't want to say anything yet. I don't want to jinx it."
21st Company had come back from behind to win in their last game, he pointed out. "You can never tell how it's going to go."
'There are no rules'
The sport casts a long shadow in academy tradition, if its exact origins can't quite be dated. The intramural office's records go back only to 2000. It is most likely a holdover from an earlier Annapolis era, a throwback to the rough-and-tumble days when mids organized their own boxing smokers and had traditions like heaving juniors into the river. Many mids — especially burly ones — discovered fieldball after being pressed by their upperclassmen to play. Others learned about it through academy legend.
Midshipman 2nd Class Warren Juba said he found out about the game from his father, a 1981 graduate.
"He told me that that's where he got his scar on his jaw," Juba recalled. "He really liked the game. He always used to tell me about it. He had the ball and was tackled and got hit in the jaw by, I think, somebody else's head."
According to lore, the only other place that fieldball is played is in the New York State Penitentiary. A spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Corrections said their lead activities coordinator hadn't heard of it. "Most of our guys play some flag football," she said.
Unnecessary roughness doesn't draw a penalty in fieldball. Late hits don't rate a whistle. Hard-fought plays often end with an elbow or a takedown. There is no referee calling the shots, which is exactly the point.
Right before the championship game, both team captains met at midfield. Unlike most other sports, with rulebooks and regulations, fieldball details are hashed out on the field. The team captains agreed to eight-minute quarters, but disagreed about the rules of possession after a tackle. A best of three rock-paper-scissors resolved it.
The lack of established rules is central to the game. That's because from 6:30 a.m. reveille to 11 p.m. "Taps," midshipmen lead highly regimented lives. Fieldball is their chance to write the rules.
"The idea behind fieldball is that there are no rules," said Midshipman 2nd Class Jacob Cavey, a player whose team, the 10th Company Titans, was knocked out of the playoffs early. "There's technical violations where you can't go out of bounds or go over the half, but as far as horse-collaring or shot-blocking or some of these rules you see in football, you don't see them in fieldball."
Over time, an informal set of rules has emerged, Cavey said. There are nine players on a team: four on defense, four on offense and a goalie. In keeping with its impromptu ethos, it is played with an 8-inch soccer ball and lacrosse goals at each end of the short field.
Both the defense and offense are stuck on their sides; no one can cross the midfield line. The goalie can't use his hands. As far as scoring, a thrown goal is one point, a kicked one is two. Players moving with the ball have to keep both hands on the ball, a rule that prevents stiff-arming and also helps when you're hit, Cavey pointed out.
"Other than those rules, you can hit anything," Cavey continued. "You can hit somebody without the ball."
'They're wrecking us'
After McDonnell's goal right before the half, the Fighting Hellfish went into the 2-minute break with a comfortable lead: 11-1.
On the other side, Midshipman 1st Class Mike Guibas gathered his team from 21st Company (nicknamed the Blackjacks, naturally). Guibas stood out. He was sidelined due to surgery on his nasal septum the week before the game. So instead of wearing a white T-shirt like the rest of his team, the team captain donned a dark blue suit and gold Tommy Hilfiger tie as a joke. His hair was combed back. He looked like famed basketball coach Pat Riley.
But facing the 10-point deficit, his sense of humor was gone and he was incensed.
"They're [expletive] wrecking us," Guibas told his tired team. "Seriously, guys, on D, you need to have a hand on them. Like, we're talking lacrosse, keep a stick on them. Same kind of defense. Don't give them any cushion. All they're doing is, they're getting too much cushion."
Heads nodded. The first half had been largely played on their defensive side. Because the ball is started behind the goal of the team just scored on, a strong offense has a good opportunity to regain possession. That's how the Fighting Hellfish had developed a big lead.
"Play relentless," he continued. "Let's do this. Sixteen minutes. That's it. Let's go. Intensity on three."
He counted, "One, two, three —"
"Intensity," the huddled players bellowed.
As Guibas stalked to the sideline, his players jogged back to their positions, steeling themselves for two more quarters.
After Guibas' halftime pep talk, his team revived. A little more than halfway through the third quarter, his team had scored seven points to make it 13-8, a scoring run led by Midshipman 1st Class Mike Porcelli, a former varsity soccer player with unmatched speed. But as the scoreboard narrowed, the volume and intensity ratcheted up. Elbows got thrown. Tackles landed harder, later. Stoppages grew frequent.
"I find it remarkable they're able to play at this level and not need a referee," observed Capt. Andy Jarrett, the 5th Battalion officer who oversees both of the companies on the field.
Which is to not say that a ref would hurt. In the third quarter, a controversy arose about whether the ball went out of bounds. As with most fieldball disputes, after some vehement argument on both sides, the calls for "Play on" drowned everything else out and the game resumed.
'I can't see anything'
In this rough sport, the most thankless position is goalie.
A goalie can only use his body to block shots, which are often thrown or kicked at point-blank range. He wears a lacrosse helmet and grabs it with his hands, elbows up. He wears a jockstrap. And even on a warm spring day, like today, he wears a gray academy sweatshirt and sweatpants to reduce post-game swelling.
When a shooter rushes in, the goalie hops toward him, legs together, blocking as much of the net as possible. He is a flesh-and-bone backstop.
"The goalie in this game is not a glory-filled position at all," said Guibas, who was responsible for his team's assignments. "You're really blocking every shot with your body and like I said, that ball that we play with, it's not a soft ball at all. It's not forgiving."
"For us, we just took an underclassman and said, 'Hey, you're going to be our goalie,'" Guibas continued. "He ended up being not a bad pick."
The Blackjacks' goalie was getting a good workout as the game entered the final quarter. Their comeback had stalled, while the Fighting Hellfish kept sending the ball to the back of their net. Tempers flared. The Blackjacks' team was mostly led by seniors like Guibas. They were facing the fact that they might lose their last chance for the fieldball title.
Four minutes into the last quarter, Midshipman 1st Class Mike Malandra, a Blackjacks senior with a high-and-tight haircut, staggered over to the side and bent forward.
"Hey, hey — look me in the eyes. Are my pupils dilating fast?" he asked Guibas, on the sidelines. "I'm concussed. I can't see anything."
"Hey, then get off the field," Guibas replied.
The stunned player thought it over for a second. He furrowed his brow, like he was trying to focus his eyes. Then he walked back into the game. A few minutes later, he was playing again.
(After the game, Malandra went to the hospital, Guibas said. He was diagnosed with a concussion.)
Injuries are not unusual. Two weeks earlier, paramedics carried a freshman whose hip was dislocated by a tackle off the field, two midshipmen said. Guibas said there had been several concussions this season on his team and that a game or two before, a freshman suffered a fractured rib from a tackle and was still out.
Except for the goalie, this full-contact game is played without helmets and protective gear. Some mids wear mouthguards. There is no on-hand first-aid kit. Instead of these precautions, an informal response has evolved for emergencies, Guibas said: A midshipman runs up the hill behind the field to the medical clinic and gets help.
Guibas acknowledged the game is rough, but drew the line at calling it dangerous.
"You run into each other tackling, and sometimes guys will bump heads or you get tackled to the ground and you hit your head or you snap your head back," he said. "But injuries like that are not common."
And fans point out that the sport's rough edges are a good training ground for future military officers.
"You couldn't invent a better game for the warrior ethos," Jarrett, the battalion officer, said during the game. A 1989 graduate, Jarrett said he had played on a championship fieldball team; sturdy and muscled, Jarrett still has the physique.
After 32 minutes, the game came to an end. The undefeated Fighting Hellfish had won, 19-11. Both teams shook hands, to clapping from the spectators.
"Now they're all brothers again," Jarrett said, looking over the battle-worn mids. But he added a caveat: "When these guys come back for their 20-year reunion, they still might give each other a hard time."