Johnny LeHane wants your inner child out to come out and play.
Recently, LeHane, 26, started playing kickball again. And now he’s got a lot of other big kids playing with him. Most guys that age wouldn’t be secure enough to flaunt their interest in playground games. Then again, most guys that age wouldn’t go by Johnny. But LeHane thinks he’s onto something.
“Everybody loves kickball. Everybody. Ask them!”
Like the rest of the adult world, the Northern Virginia resident and Web site engineer hadn’t played the game since fifth grade. But while at a friend’s party last winter, he had a revelation in which the sight and even the smell of that red rubber ball filled his head; his mind’s ear recalled the “da-doink!” noise that can be made only by a foot meeting a kickball.
Amid all the recollecting, the party became secondary. So LeHane went home and started bringing his epiphany to life. He sent out e-mails to friends asking if they’d be interested in joining him for a game of kickball, and he set up a dedicated Web site (www.members.aol.com/dckickball) to get word out. The response was overwhelming. As LeHane says: Everybody loves kickball.
“Very quickly, it got to the point where too many people wanted to play,” he says.
To deal with the crush of wannabe kickers, LeHane incorporated the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA) and made himself the president, CEO, and secretary of what he believes is the country’s first and only kickball confederation created exclusively for grownups. WAKA stopped signing up players after filling out 18-man (and -woman) rosters for eight teams, with names like Big Kids and Playground Avengers.
He quickly found an enthusiastic sponsorthe Irish Times pubto provide T-shirts for all WAKA teams. He even threw together an official WAKA rule book, culled from softball regulations and playground memories: 11 players on a side, three outs per inning, no “bouncies” when pitching, and no “ghost men” when kicking.
Two weeks ago, LeHane rolled out the first ball of WAKA’s first regular season. On Wednesday and Thursday nights through June, WAKA kickers will convene on the Constitution Avenue side of the Washington Monument and try to find plots of grass not yet squatted on by the ubiquitous softballers. They’ll set up makeshift kickball fields, roll out the red rubber ball, and kick back as all of the Mall fills with smiles.
The interest in WAKA snowballs week by week. At last Wednesday’s games, a Gen-Xer who identified himself as Jules strolled over from an adjacent softball field to tell LeHane to keep up the good work.
“I got a message from a friend who said she’d be playing kickball on the Mall tonight,” Jules said. “I figured she was talking about softball. I never heard of this. I guess she wasn’t kidding, huh? What a great idea!”
LeHane has heard that before. He figures a lot of softball players would switch over to his side if given the chance.
“I couldn’t hit a softball unless it was as big as my head,” says LeHane. “But I can kick a kickball. Anybody can. You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me how they’d rather be playing kickball. I’m sure nostalgia’s the biggest kick for most people. But also, it’s really a great game.”
Because of the incredibly high approval rating, LeHane’s plans for his young brainchild keep getting
loftier. Though his project was originally conceived as a local endeavor, he now envisions kickball leagues being set up under the WAKA umbrella in cities across the U.S., with winners of each affiliate invited to participate in a national tournament.
If adult kickball gets as big as LeHane thinks it can, he’d like to turn a profit; the trademark symbol appears several times on every pamphlet and piece of paraphernalia produced by WAKA.
He also covers all the bases from a legal standpoint: Nobody can play kickball with WAKA without providing LeHane with proof of health insurance and signing a liability waiver. At every league function, LeHane carries around a sack containing all the proper papers, just in case.
None of the technicalities impinge on Tim Salvador’s good time. Salvador, 26, is captain of Kick Da Boogie, one of WAKA’s eight founding teams. He is also one of four alumni of Herndon Elementary in Fairfax County on the roster.
“That means we played kickball together there, too,” Salvador says.
The ex-schoolmates’ love of the game is as strong as ever. After finishing their regularly scheduled contest last week, Salvador and his Kick Da Boogie buddies stuck around to play a pickup game against some stragglers.
The approach he and his lifelong pals have toward kickball isn’t what it used to be, however. For starters, none of them really care about winning anymore: “It’s just about getting together now,” Salvador says. Another thing: At Herndon Elementary, cigarettes and beer weren’t as integral to the endeavor as they are now.
But despite his laid-back approach, Salvador swears he’s just as high on the idea of taking WAKA beyond D.C. as LeHane is.
“We’re ready for a kickball world championship here. We could have it at RFK,” Salvador says, a Bud Light
in one hand, a smoke in the other. “I bet ABC Sports would come….Or maybe just the ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Commission].”
Even a joke about a world adult kickball championship shows how much LeHane’s idea has matured since that winter party where it was born. So much, in fact, that LeHane gives himself and other WAKA purveyors occasional perspective checks.
“It’s a tough balance,” he says, with a hint of embarrassment. “I really do think getting adults to play kickball is a great idea. But, as I occasionally have to remind people, it’s still just kickball.”
And if enthusiasm for kickball ever wanes?
“Well, a lot of people want me to do something with dodgeball,” he says.Dave McKenna