Cruisin’ for a bruisin’

By Amanda Murphy

The year was 1982, and roller derby was in the prime of its existence, keeping adults and children alike plopped in front of their TVs, admiring the often theatrical display.

That’s when the roller derby bug bit Charles Gamble a.k.a. Chasmanian Devil, who sits on a bench at the Lombard Roller Rink, 201 W. 22nd St. in Lombard, Ill., recalling his senior yearbook and what he put as his dream occupation: professional roller derby player.

His foot in a boot from an injury sustained during a training session, Gamble dreamily stares at his teammates doing skating drills and talks excitedly about how he hopes to be back in the rink in two weeks. Although it’s 30 years past his senior year of high school, the youthful spark of adoration is still visible in his eyes as he lives out his teenage dream.

Gamble is a member of the Chicago Bruise Brothers, the city’s men’s roller derby team that formed in September 2011. Looking at the group of 23 men one would initially see a hodge podge of decades, backgrounds, shapes and sizes. But looking beyond the gray hairs or the beer bellies, the characteristic that outshines all the others is their spirit.

It’s that quality that Robin Edelman, Windy City Roller volunteer and Bruise Brothers founding member, said will keep the team skating and not disintegrating like the other attempts to form men’s teams have in the past. The Bruise Brothers isn’t the only men’s roller team that has formed in the past five years, but Edelman, otherwise known as Digger, said she thinks it will be the one that lasts.

The idea of a men’s roller derby team may not seem that unusual, but since the sport’s revival in the early 2000s, derby has become one of the few women-dominated sports. The boys aren’t trying to step on any toes, Gamble said, but are just trying to get in on the fun. Chicago already has a number of women’s teams, including the Windy City Rollers, the Aurora 88s and the Outfit, all of whom have lent their support and help to the Bruise Brothers.

“We’ve traded bruises with the girls already,” said Paul Heinecke, better known as Princess A Pauling and another of the team’s founding members. “We just haven’t done it where there’s a scoreboard involved.”

In many ways, the Bruise Brothers is really just a branch of the women’s teams, with many of the players being husbands, boyfriends, friends or brothers of female roller derby players. Such was the case for Jae Cox, husband of a Windy City Roller who goes by the name Boo Meringue, who joked that he was pressured into giving it a try. Only on his second practice, Cox said he enjoys playing the sport and now understands what his wife goes through.

Being able to play nice with each other in a sport that emphasizes rough and tough seems to be an ironic contradiction, but it’s one that Gamble said has allowed for the success of the team. In the case of the Bruise Brothers, they were able to build relationships because they were not afraid to ask for help from the more experienced and knowledgeable women’s derby teams in the area. Edelman said failing to do so doomed many of the other male teams that tried to start.

“So much of what we have accomplished is because we reached out to the WCR or the Aurora 88s,” said Heinecke, as Windy City Roller Rose Feratu barked orders at his teammates in the background. “It’s become a mutual respect because we support them as much as they support us.”

The team is still in its infant stages as players literally baby step into learning the difficult task of maneuvering on quad skates. The Bruise Brothers is essentially open for all to join, so it isn’t uncommon for someone to step into the rink without really knowing what to do.

“We have a few guys who have a lot of skating experience and a few guys who have a lot of derby experience,” Heinecke said. “But for the most part people have come in with very little to no skating or derby ability.”

Since its beginning in September 2011, players have focused on the basics of the athletically demanding and often brutal contact sport. Although the practices in the last seven months have focused on the more mundane tasks of derby, Paul Heinecke, one of the founding members, said the payoff should be worth it in the end.

“We are just now getting to the point with our skating ability that we are safe to scrimmage with other teams,” Heinecke said. “If there’s one thing that we stand for it’s that safety comes first.”

The Bruise Brothers may be the first men’s roller derby team to stick, but it isn’t the first in the country. Since the sport’s revival, both women’s and men’s roller derby teams have been popping up around the country. Heinecke said when the team is ready, they will reach out to play other men’s team across the country. Although that time might be a few months away, he said they could get plenty of practice scrimmaging the girl’s teams around Chicago.

As the team skates around the track, most sporting a t-shirt made for Bruise Brothers, one would notice a witty name taped or printed to the back like Perry Hotter or Brass Monkey. Staying true to the nature of the sport, the boys already have their alternative monikers picked out, and you will rarely hear them refer to each other by anything besides their derby name.

“I’m not sure most of these guys actually know my real name,” Heinecke joked.

Putting the fun and games aside, Edelman said the serious interest of the players is another aspect that continues to help the team grow. Their practices take place once a week on Wednesdays at the Lombard Roller Rink. Because most of the players are city dwellers, many of the players carpool to practice, something Edelman said helps to promote bonding, similar to taking the bus to a high school sports game.

Edelman said it’s the friendly and positive energy of the team that contributes to the team’s upward growth. As team member numbers continue to climb and their skills improve, the Bruise Brothers give the impression that Chicago might have finally found a men’s team that will go the distance.

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