Circle rules football was just a lighthearted game with a bizarre set of rules and a yearning for mainstream acceptance. Then it got deadly serious.
The Wednesday of the circle rules football season opener in May 2013 is blue and cloudless. The bright sunlight bouncing off the East River is almost blinding. Like most circle rules games, this one will be played at Bushwick Inlet Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The official start time is six p.m., but when I arrive a couple minutes early, there are only two guys and a girl hanging out, chatting. One of the men is Colin Weatherby, twenty-nine, the captain of Aristocracy/Flying Mordecais—a combination of what used to be two teams. Today, they face off against the Slow Polks.
Weatherby is sitting with the only female player here today, Mairin Lee, a small brunette, who is executing a deft switch from her work dress into athletic clothes. Circle Rules is a co-ed game, but it’s hard to recruit women. I ask Lee if the guys treat her nicely. “They do at first,” she says, grinning. She’s developed a reputation as a player to fear. “I played a lot of sports growing up – soccer, basketball and volleyball. I would say it’s about as much contact as, if not a little bit more than, soccer.”
Other players are quick to second how hard-core the sport is—especially in contrast to the lighthearted way it has been covered by most media outlets that have discovered it. ESPN’s video overlayed bouncy noises on the footage. The New York Times put its story in the Fashion and Style section. It doesn’t help circle rules’ artsy, hipster image much that the game is played by mostly creative types, many of whom have beards, in Williamsburg. With a yoga ball.
The Circle Rules field is circular, measuring about 164 feet in diameter. In the middle is the “key”—a circle that holds the goal. Today, the goal is constructed of PVC pipe planted in umbrella stands and lashed together with leather ties. There’s no net. One team scores by putting the ball through the goal in one direction; their opponents score by putting the ball through the other way. Founder Greg Manley chose to have a circular field because, as an actor, he often found himself in a circle with other actors and he enjoyed the sense of all the players facing inward to a center point.
Back in 2006, Manley, twenty-eight, invented the game for an experimental-theater project at New York University. It was meant as an exploration of the drama and theatricality in organized sports. Manley wanted to come up with something that lacked the “angry competitiveness” of typical sports, he told Wired in 2011.
You can bounce or dribble the yoga ball like a basketball, kick it like a soccer ball or carry it in one hand like a waiter being chased by an angry chef. But holding it with both hands or sitting on it results in a penalty. Basically, the ball has to be vulnerable to being picked off by another player, which keeps the play moving fast and unpredictably around the field. There is a logic to playing with a yoga ball. “If you played with a smaller ball, the game would just be so fast, you would convert goals on every pass,” Weatherby says.
There are two variations of the game. In the casual version, called Small Rules, there are three or four players to each team and no goalkeepers. This version is best suited for a Sunday pickup game in the park—it’s a little less scary. In the Big Rules version, there are two goalkeepers in the key, one from each team, and the goal is twice as wide. The goalie’s job is to block shots from the opposing team and wrestle the opposing goalie to the ground to keep them from blocking shots. Players who have wrestled in high school or college come in handy. “It can get pretty vicious,” says Nate Mumford, a twenty-eight-year-old freelance photographer with a bushy red beard. “There is no mat, and no pads.”
The sport could have stopped after the inaugural game, but Manley didn’t let it die. Friends recruited friends and the game grew. In 2009, Circle Rules won “best in festival” and “most likely to be played again” at the IG Fest in Bristol, U.K., which is dedicated to new sports. There are now four teams in New York City, with others in Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Minnesota and across the pond in England.
“It’s such a young sport, people haven’t quite figured out all the best strategies and positions,” Mumford says. “The biggest obstacle is just figuring out how to make a circular field work to your advantage. There are a lot of tactics from other sports like soccer and basketball that really translate well. So, if you have the background, you get a little bit of a head start. But not completely.”
It’s 6:27 p.m. when they start tonight. The winning team gets to either pick a direction and who kicks off first or choose a goalie. Aristocracy opts for choosing a goalie, Stuart Hillman. He reveals his weight, and the other team chooses a player within fifteen pounds of that. The league has found it to be fairer to match up goalies of similar weight, since they spend so much time wrestling each other.
The wind is whipping off the East River now. The Aristocracy puts their hands in the center and cheer, “Quite right caw!” (A combination of the two cheers of the former teams that make up this one.) There’s a soft starting kick from the goal to the edge of the field. A minute later the first goal is scored. Within sixty seconds, another. All players are on their toes, switching from defense to offense mode in a nanosecond. This is probably the only field game where you can take a shot at the goal and see the other team score off your shot a second later.
Deadly serious players bark instructions and call out positions. Dribble, kick, dribble, punch, throw. It looks like basketball with its around-the-back and bounce feints and picks, or like rugby in the chaotic movements of players and long throws.
I expected silliness, but the game is actually a beautiful thing to watch. The ball is always moving back toward the center, as if drawn by a magnet. Movement is elegant, deliberate and large.
Most people come to the game through friends, but many people pick it up from curiosity when they walk by, stop and ask questions. That’s how Stuart Hillman, the forty-one-year-old Aristocracy goalie, joined. “The league was just friends and friends of friends,” founder Manley tells me later. “And one day Stu walked up and was like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ He was kind of an oddball, but he came back the next week. And he came back the next week. Every week, for years. He became one of the most loved and helpful leaders. Any art opening, any play, Stu would be there. You could count on that.”
The orange sun dips behind the black city skyline and the shadows lengthen. With three minutes left, the score is close and the play is getting desperate. The referees admonish the players to calm down. The final score is thirteen to twelve. Aristocracy wins.
* * *
The second game of the season is played on another great spring afternoon. It’s sixty-five degrees and the sun has burst through the rain clouds just in time for the commuters piling out of the L train’s Bedford station.
As play swirls around the key, the goalies engage in a struggle in the center. They continue to wrestle even as the ball flies toward the edges of the field. “Goalies, cut it out!” the ref warns. They disengage.
Today, Aristocracy is up against the fearsome Rebel Rousers, who are gathering on the other side of the field, suiting up in red uniforms. Leading their team to two undefeated seasons is Daniel Wright, a tall twenty-eight-year-old who’s developed a fearsome reputation during his three years of playing. He smokes on almost every break, and it’s rumored he only sees out of one eye. (I confirm this with him later, though he says it doesn’t impair his play at all—it’s been that way since birth, and his other eye is 20/20.)
There’s also, inevitably, shit talking. As two players skirt the edge of the field, fighting over the ball, I hear one of them say something about “being a bitch.” A player limps off the field with a hurt knee, sweating and panting hard. “Excuse me? What the hell is this game?” a passerby asks him. “Is this, like, a Brooklyn thing?” inquires another. The injured player half snorts, half sighs, and replies, “Ye—Yes. It was started in Manhattan, though.” He explains the basic rules as he bends over his crimson-and-purple knee. The Rebel Rousers score again.
With two minutes left, the Rebel Rousers lead by three. The field lights are on, illuminating the soccer players warming up on the other side. The sun has dropped below the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the air is turning purple-gray and cold.
Fifteen seconds remaining. Mumford kicks the ball toward the key. Lee tries to deflect it in but can’t get a good piece of it. Red has the ball, shoots it, misses, and as the ball bobbles back and forth tantalizingly in front of the goal. The ref blows the whistle three times. Game over.
Aristocracy has lost, but they are amped up. “Stu! Fuck Yeah!” Lee says as she jogs off. “We’re going to close in on them,” she says to me. “I think three is the closest we’ve ever gotten to them. I think we’re going to do it this season.”
True to his reputation, Daniel Wright scored thirteen out of the eighteen Rebel Rouser goals. “He’s got that shot,” Weatherby says. “I don’t know how he does it.”
Mumford’s knee is bloody. At the end of the third quarter, so was the ball. He scored his last goal with a kick, he says, sending it through the goal streaked with Aristocratic blood.
* * *
The 2009 The New York Times article is a rather patronizing take on the “absurdist” theater of circle rules football. The article quotes Professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht of Stanford University and author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, who said that when artists get involved in sports, “they become terribly anxious that they could be confused with the quote-unquote normal fans. So intellectuals, when they play games, they cannot just play normal games. It has to be intellectualized.”
I read back this quote to Hillman, who is a software developer, as we walk toward the nearby bar DBA. “I think it’s bullshit,” he says. “All sports are art. The difference between sport and art is really societal construct.” What follows is a ten-minute treatise on the intersection of sports and art, with similarities in performance, audience participation, graphic design…
“I know that we take it seriously, because we really like the game,” adds Weatherby. “It’s fun to be part of something that’s like a clean slate. All of us can play this game, and there is no hierarchy of the guys who’ve played in high school and the ones who didn’t.”
As we sip cans of beer in the back of the bar, the guys allow that the fledgling sport faces some challenges. The founder, Manley, is a puppeteer with the War Horse tour, so he’s not here for the start of the season. Without him, things have fallen apart a bit. Pickup games on Sunday, which are posted along with other updates on the Circle Rules Facebook page, keep getting canceled because no one goes. The league’s website is outdated. Hillman has been left in charge, but he’s busy and he’s lost the password. “I think I have it in my email somewhere,” he says.
“Circle Rules is fighting an uphill battle because there’s the added element of it being an extremely weird game,” Weatherby says. “It’s just very different. It’s the John Coltrane of sports.”
* * *
A couple weeks later, a few days after I turned in a lighthearted story about a quirky sport, the accident happened.
Hillman was again playing goalie when he fell backward and hit his head on the ground. “He didn’t want to come out at the time,” his teammate, Matt Shroyer, tells me later. “He was acting normal.” Hillman did come out, but went back in again. After the game, he asked everyone to come with him to the bar, even though he had a bit of a headache.
When the team got to the bar, Hillman immediately laid down. It took some convincing from his teammates, but they eventually got Hillman to agree to go to the hospital, and called a cab for him.
By the time the car arrived, Hillman’s teammates had to help him out of the bar. Lee and Shroyer, thirty-one, got in the cab with him. As they drove over the Williamsburg Bridge, Hillman started vomiting. Then he started telling Lee and Shroyer what his medications were. When they got off the bridge, the seizures started.
They were aiming for Beth Israel but got lost and ended up going to Bellevue Hospital. About a block away, Lee turned to Shroyer and said, “We need to be there now.” The cab pulled up to the hospital, and Lee and Shroyer got Hillman out and set him down on the ground. Shroyer ran inside the ER yelling for help. A stretcher came out, and as they entered the hospital and followed Hillman down corridors, “Fifteen doctors streamed out,” Shroyer says. Turns out they took the best possible wrong turn, because Bellevue is one of the premier neurosurgery centers in the United States. Also, a Circle Rules player happens to be the chief of emergency services and was there when Hillman arrived.
The doctors quickly determined that Hillman had a subdural hematoma—bleeding on the brain’s surface under the skull. Doctors began brain surgery immediately, where they removed a large portion of his skull. “The doctors told us that if he were sixty or seventy, they wouldn’t have bothered to do the surgery—they would have let him go,” Shroyer says. “His parents bought plane tickets expecting to come here to make sure his organs went to the right place.” By the time his folks had boarded the plane, however, they knew that their son had made it out of surgery alive and were hoping for the best.
Hillman spent a few weeks in the neurosurgical intensive care unit. After a week, the breathing tube came out. He slowly got back his ability to speak. Two of his siblings drove him to a rehabilitation hospital in Columbia, Mo., near his parents, for several more weeks of recovery before he finally moved to his parents’ home.
Hillman, physically at least, is almost back to normal. He walks with measured steps and slurs just slightly when speaking. But it’s unclear whether he will ever put his life back together the way it was. “My understanding is that there’s no reason to think he’ll ever go back to work,” Shroyer says. Hillman’s mother, Laura, is more optimistic. But, she concedes, “we still have a ways to go.”
* * *
A few months after Hillman’s accident, I show up to the Harvest Tournament in Prospect Park. A couple of games are going on when I arrive. They’re playing Small Rules, without goalies. Manley, the founder, is on the pitch, playing in a butcher’s apron and fake mustache. (They dress up in costumes for the tournament, since it’s around Halloween.) When his game is over, he agrees to talk to me and we sit down side by side and watch the next game.
I ask him if he’s proud to see what he built, with all these people playing in a tournament. “I come here and I see a great community, and also a storm of logistics that I missed out on,” he says. “The last three years we’ve had fewer teams come out to the tournament every year.”
A year and a half ago, when Manley was about to leave on tour with War Horse, he was struggling to figure out how to elevate the game to a new level. “The game had plateaued,” he says. “I was running out of ideas.” He handed the administration of the league to a player who was very good at organizing his own team, but “I didn’t realize how much I had just kind of internalized how to run the league, and I couldn’t teach what I knew,” he says. Manley sent the Circle Rules website password to several players, but nobody really took ownership. Things stagnated.
“As much as we want it to be Ultimate Frisbee or roller derby or one of these alternative sports that have really taken ground, as it survives now, it is essentially a satellite pub league,” Manley admits. “I’ve been trying to do just word-of-mouth development. And that has given me a lot of great friends, and a really great, supportive community. You saw that when Stuart was injured. Everyone really came together.”
The league was shaken by Hillman’s brush with death. Many rallied around him, visiting him in the hospital and supporting him. But two people dropped out of the league altogether. Shroyer admits that one had been warning about the danger of the goalie rules for years.
When Manley got the call about Hillman, he was in North Carolina. He was planning on flying back up to New York City the next week but hopped on an earlier flight.
“When I went to see him, like the rest of the league, I was devastated,” he says and sighs. “I also feel…not responsible for his injury, but responsible for doing what I could to prevent that kind of thing from happening in the future. Stuart loves Circle Rules Football. He wanted to talk about the game as soon as I saw him that Monday. He said, ‘You just need some new rules.’”
That Monday, the teams’ heads called an emergency meeting and changed the rules so that goalies no longer wrestle; they just jostle each other like soccer players would on the field. The exact wording has gone from “Players are allowed full contact which each other” to “Players are allowed full, open-handed contact with each other.”
“There are terrible injuries in every sport,” Manley says. “Nevertheless we wanted to make sure that people felt safe playing the sport again.”
When I called Hillman after some short back-and-forth over email, his mother ended up taking the phone and speaking with me. During Hillman’s recuperation, she met many of the Circle Rules players who came to visit at the hospital, and she talked to them about the sport. She was struck by the range of players, from petite women to what she calls “very large, brawny men.” Stuart Hillman’s slight physique befits that of a software engineer.
She doesn’t seem angry about what happened, but disappointed, like a teacher who has discovered the poor decisions her young charges have been making. “What I sensed was that the sport had evolved,” she says. “Many people told me that initially it was much less contact. One girl that played said it was more like a ballet at first. Several girls told me that they no longer played it because it had just gotten too rough.”
She’s happy that the league changed the rules so quickly, but thinks that the goalies should also be required to wear helmets as well. “Circle Rules Football started out as not a contact sport, but clearly evolved into a contact sport, and it needed to have been treated as a contact sport,” she says.
Manley is thoughtful, but neither defensive nor guilt-ridden when I ask about whether he thought that wrestling goalies was a bad idea.
“There was no suggestion of an alternative,” he says. “I knew there was merit to [the complaints]. But we didn’t have the foresight to make a bold change. I thought hard pads like in American football would encourage harder hitting. I would have loved to have a mat, but transporting a big foam mat was not possible. Every year we spent the most time when we went back to the rulebook examining the goalie rules. This last year when we worked on it, we felt like we came up with something that was safe.” They didn’t change the contact rules for the goalie, but gave more leeway to the referees to monitor the goalies and tell them to dial it back if need be.
“And we were wrong,” Manley said.
As for Hillman, with his persistent short-term memory loss, my conversation with him wasn’t long. He takes time to answer questions, processing. But he does say, slowly, “I’m still pretty positive about it. It wasn’t something that, that they had any control over. It’s just an unfortunate learning experience.”
“We’ve been much more receptive than the NFL to all the concussions that they’ve been having,” Manley points out. “At the end of the game, it needs to be fun. Even if people are cursing and yelling on the field, it needs to stay on the field. It’s just drama. After the game, you should be able to laugh and have a beer with the other team. That happened for ninety-five percent of our games. Ever since Stuart’s injury, it’s happened one hundred percent of the games. People realize it’s not about wins and losses. It’s just about us looking out for each other and having a good time. As far as the game grows, I hope that that perseveres, that sense of community.”
It’s not clear where the league is headed now; where the motivation, money and enthusiasm will come from to stay alive and thrive. Sign-ups for spring were posted on March 11 and games start on April 9. Manley is heading off for the next leg of the War Horse tour, so he won’t be around to supervise.
A few weeks before the tournament this past fall, Manley sent out an organizing email asking for people to get teams together to play. Two days before the tournament, Stuart replied to the email chain. All he said was, “I guess I won’t be able to make it this time.”
* * *