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Bill Clinton and I both attended the 1997 game between the Wizards and Seattle SuperSonics that opened the building now known as Verizon Center. The president sat in owner Abe Pollin’s suite. My butt filled a seat upstairs, somewhere around Row Z.
During a break in the game, people with T-shirt cannons ran onto the court and shot garments into the grandstands, one at a time. I noticed all the shirts were being
shot to one side of the arena—the side opposite Clinton.
I’d heard at the time that the one-sidedness was a result of the Secret Service asking that nobody aim their T-shirt shooters at the prez. And I remember thinking that such a request would be silly. I mean, how dangerous could a T-shirt cannon be?
After all these years, my thinking on the matter has just changed: I’ve seen the T-Shirt Gatling Gun.
That’s the weapon of mass distraction now being used by the Georgetown Hoyas at home games.
And you thought Allen Iverson was a big gun: The gadget can shoot a dozen shirts 12 stories high in a matter of seconds, machine-gun style. Each shirt launch comes with a big whoosh followed by a puff of vapor from one of the rotating barrels.
Though the team looked impressive in an early-season win over Savannah State and last week’s romp over Syracuse—the two Hoyas games I’ve attended this season—nothing about the level of play left me as awestruck as the T-shirt gun.
It’s dangerous. It’s scary. It’s hilarious.
And now I’m with the Secret Service: Sometimes, T-shirt cannons can be a security matter.
“The first time we used [the Gatling Gun], the tape that was holding the shirts together was getting blown off, it’s so powerful,” laughs Marc Goldman, who has MC’d the timeout entertainment at Hoyas home games for several years. “Everybody loves it. We used to just have cheerleaders out there throwing T-shirts, and though everybody would still go nuts for the shirts, they’d only be able to hit people in the lower deck. But now every seat in the building is really within range.”
Expanding the reach of T-shirt cannons is a major goal of those who toil in the “dead-ball entertainment” realm. So says Todd Scheel, the brains behind the T-Shirt Gatling Gun.
“All the premium items have always gone to the lower bowls, really,” says Scheel, owner and president of FX in Motion, based in the Milwaukee suburb of New Berlin, Wisc. “The fans in the upper deck have always felt left out. So what all the teams are asking for now is something that’ll reach the roof.”
The T-Shirt Gatling Gun sure seems like it’s capable of doing that. The first time I saw the thing in use, I’d have bet it could reach the Capitol dome from the Verizon Center floor.
Scheel says his assemblage of PVC pipe, two CO² tanks, a car battery, and steel bars on wheels—which he leases to teams for as much as $3,500 a season—grew out of other products his company has been hawking to pro and college teams.
For the past few seasons, for example, he’d been trying, and failing, to convince his customers that what they really needed was a long-range, multichamber hot dog cannon. Some dead-ball entertainers had already been using hot dog cannons—the New York Mets have shot wieners into the grandstands for years—but Scheel saw plenty of room for innovation.
“Some people are just wrapping hot dogs in a paper towel and stuffing it in a T-shirt cannon,” says Scheel with obvious disdain. “You can’t just shoot that out. By the time somebody gets it, they just end up with a smashed hot dog. I’ve told people, ‘I’m not eating that.’”
But the multishot hot dog cannon that Scheel developed in the back room of his shop utilized plastic capsules—“like the ones at a drive-in teller, sort of”—to protect the integrity of the foodstuffs and allow storage of a napkin and condiments. And, again, it shoots a dozen dogs into the stratosphere in the time it would take to scream, “Let’s go, Hoyas!”
But so far, nobody has taken a swing at Scheel’s pitch for the Hot Dog Gatling Gun. Then, before last season, one of the teams that turned it down, the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, rang Scheel up and asked if he had a multifire T-shirt shooter. He didn’t, except in his head.
“I knew I had the technology already developed from other things we’ve worked on,” he says, “so it was a matter of putting it together.”
After the Grizzlies took possession of the first T-Shirt Gatling Gun, Scheel leased one to Marquette University, a longtime client of his company’s.
And, according to Mike “Mex” Carey, spokesperson for Georgetown’s athletic department, his school became enamored with the T-Shirt Gatling Gun last year after seeing it during a men’s basketball road trip to Marquette. This season, Georgetown became one of 16 teams to use the rapid-fire implement to fire up its crowds.
Scheel, 45, wouldn’t get into the technology behind the T-Shirt Gatling Gun, saying that he “didn’t want to help out the competition.” But he promises that no matter how edgy the T-Shirt Gatling Gun appears, it’s not unsafe.
“Some people asked us why it looks like a second-year shop project,” he says, “but that’s intentional. We’re going for that Mad Max look, stripped down where you see the barrels spin, you see the shirts shooting out. But it’s not dangerous. Our products are used at fixed angles, shooting upwards, and we don’t allow floor-to-floor shots. We haven’t actually put the speed gun on the T-shirts like we have with the Ball Blaster (a device promising to “deploy 100 mini basketballs in 20 seconds at 100 miles per hour at a 60-degree angle”). But I know that even if you got hit with a shirt, you won’t smile, but you won’t get hurt.”
Scheel says that the feedback so far leads him to believe that only the horrific economy has kept the T-Shirt Gatling Gun from erupting into a national phenomenon.
But he’s already started working on new toys to add to his arsenal of confetti blowers, parachute droppers, T-shirt shooters, and, of course, the rapid-fire hot dog launcher.
“I got all sorts of ideas,” he said. “My dad knows what I do at work, and asked me, ‘Are you ever going to grow up?’ No, I’m not. I’m a big kid getting to play with big toys in big arenas. It doesn’t get any better! I can’t wait to get back to the shop again and blow things up with compressed air.”
So, I ask Scheel, is there any hope for the curmudgeon—or “purist,” as I refer to these folks who’ve tired of the onslaught of non-game entertainment—who hopes to one day attend a sporting event and see only a game?
“No matter what I do or what things we come up with, a game is always truly going to be about the game,” Scheel says. “But we live in an MTV world, and we need more stimulus to keep us entertained. We don’t feel like we’re detracting from the game. We’re adding to the game. What are you going to do during the timeouts anyway? Discuss what just happened?”
Come to think of it, neither I nor Bill Clinton would mind having a hot dog or 20 shot at us.