Speedball – not the drug

Ever heard of speedball? No, not heroin and cocaine together in the same syringe, also sometimes called snowballing, or powerballing (or moonrocks when smoked). Nor am I referring to the type of paintball called speedball.

This speedball combines, into a single sport, the dribbling and kicking of soccer, the catching and throwing of basketball, and the kicking, passing, and catching of football. By being fairly unknown and requiring such varied skills, the game is a great equalizer for students in junior high and high school physical education classes, where it’s primarily played.

“Those kids who are athletic struggle with it because of the different rules and kids who are not as gifted thrive in the game due to its craziness,” said Jen Marshall, physical education teacher and health teacher at Levi P. Dodge Middle School in Farmington, Michigan. “I love the fast-paced tempo of the game and the students like it because it’s something different for them to play.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the game has been around since the early 1920s. It was developed by Elmer D. Mitchell at the University of Michigan Director of the Department of Intramural Sports at the university and an Associate Professor of Physical Education. It’s said that he wanted an active team game that could be played outdoors in the fall, combined many of the elements found in other sports, and was inexpensive to administer. His students knew basketball, but didn’t like soccer much. Football, meanwhile, didn’t get enough of the players involved on a continual basis. Thus, speedball was created.

How to Play

Speedball can be played indoors or outdoors, typically by two 11-person teams. Outdoors, it’s usually played with a soccer-type ball, while indoors a rubber ball is used. Some games consist of four 8-minute quarters, while others two longer halves.

Players roam around the field of play in continuous motion wearing flag-belts like those we’ve all used when playing games like, flag football or capture the flag. Two key concepts within speedball help explain what players do while running around: the “air ball” and the “ground ball.”

An air ball means it’s caught in the air off of the foot of you or another player. Once the ball is in your hands, you can run, throw it, pass it, or try to score. If the opposing team pulls the flag off your belt while you have the ball, then the other team gets to take an indirect kick from that spot on the ground. Though if desired, this rule can be reversed and the carrier keeps possession and gets a kick. In some variations, players can only take one step if catching the ball while stationary and just two steps if catching on the run.

It’s worth noting that, as is the case with many obscure and “unofficial” sports, rules can vary and even be changed based on how play is progressing with those involved, or the specific skill being focused on.

“We make a couple of modifications to the game to make it work with the different dynamics in a class, from year to year,” said Bill Miller, physical education teacher at The Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio. After first playing it as a student at The Ohio State University, Miller’s been teaching speedball to the school’s upper and middle PE classes for about 20 years.

So, then what about ground balls? A ground ball is when the ball touches the ground and is stationary, rolling, or bouncing. At this point, speedball somewhat turns into regular soccer. The ball cannot be played with the hands or any part of the arms, and must be kicked or bounced off the body. Players dribble the ball with their feet down the field to score or set up an air ball to a teammate.

There is one form of ball movement unique to speedball: the overhead dribble. A player can throw the ball up and then run and catch it before it strikes the ground. It’s essentially an air ball to one’s self. But the rules usually allow a player to do this only once during his/her possession of the ball. And again, rules vary, so some don’t even allow the overhead dribble at all.

Like in soccer, the goalie is allowed to pick up the ball off the ground anywhere in the penalty box. The goalie can run out of the box and attempt to score, but his/her flag belts can then be pulled like any other player.

Scoring is done in one of three ways:

•      Field goal: 5 points for kicking the ball through the uprights of goal posts (or whatever is being used as goal posts, whether it’s the area above soccer goals or tape on a gym wall).

•      Drop kick: 3 points for kicking a soccer goal (i.e., kicked under the cross bar and between the uprights) from a ground ball or a missed field goal.

•      Touchdown: 1 point for running over the goal line for a touchdown or throwing the ball to a teammate behind the goal line.

In some rules the points will instead be 3, 2, and 1, respectively, or even be reversed. For example, if a PE teacher wants students to work on their running and throwing more than kicking, he or she would make touchdowns worth more, and the students would thereby be more likely to try for those instead. However the scoring is set up, there’s a lot of it.

“It is extremely high-scoring and one team is never really out of it, since multiple points can be awarded for different kinds of goals,” said Miller.

The game starts with either a free kick or (like in basketball) a jump ball from the center of the field or court.  A jump ball can also be used to put the ball back into play after the score has been tied up, if there are off-setting penalties, or when the referee cannot determine who gets the ball.  After a score, like in soccer the scored-upon team gets the ball at half-field for a kick off.

Beyond breaking these various rules, other violations are mostly of the common-sense kind. Illegal use of the hands, pushing, a hand ball, or intentionally pulling off the flags of a player not in possession of an air ball result in an indirect kick off the ground for the other team. Unsportsmanlike conduct, delay of game, or dangerous play penalties give the opponent a “free play” where they can run, pass, shoot, or kick the ball, uncontested.

But hold on: amazingly, that’s not yet all the rules! When playing outdoors on a soccer field, a few more soccer-like aspects are added.  For example, missed shots at the goal result in goal kicks, throw-ins are done when the ball goes out of bounds, and corner kicks are awarded when the defense kicks or throws the ball over their own end line. All just like soccer.

There are also a few indoor-specific rules. All penalty kicks are indirect regardless of the infraction. (For those oblivious to soccer rules, “indirect” means the ball has to touch someone after the kick before points can be scored.) The goals are typically tumbling mats standing up at opposite ends of the gym, or large rectangles outlined by tape on the walls. And while players can catch air balls off the side walls, if the ball touches the ceiling, play stops and the team that didn’t hit the ceiling is awarded an indirect kick directly under the spot where it hit.

Complicated? Yes. But Worth It.

“I remember a lot of kids having problems keeping the rules straight – especially in terms of when you can touch the ball with your hands,” says John Van Slyke, a Milwaukee resident who played in his school days. “Of course, when you’re in junior high, having your classmates mess up and get frustrated is at least half the fun of any activity.”

The complicated nature of speedball is certainly a challenge, but for its proponents that’s far outweighed by the strengths: uniqueness, quick and frequent possession changes, and the ability to incorporate everyone into the flow of the game.

“The thing kids like about speedball is that it is a ‘new’ game [to them] that employs a unique and challenging combination of so many different skills that they learn growing up playing various youth sports,” says John Pamperin, teacher in the School District of Belleville, a small rural district located in south-central Wisconsin. “It can be very competitive, yet encourages teams to learn to work together. The game also accommodates a variety of athletic ability levels.”

But with complicated rules, no professional league, and seemingly few intramural leagues, speedball might be one sport that is destined to remain relatively obscure.

“It’s a great sport to tie a lot of skills together, but I remember it as something we learned how to play and then only went back to infrequently,” says Van Slyke. “Because it’s a mash-up of sports with many rules, it can be confusing. Who wants to have to think that much when playing something for fun?”

If you think you’re up to the challenge, get a few friends together and try speedball. (But not the drug. Drugs are bad.)

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