HOW THEY ROLL: INSIDE THE DERBY WITH THE DRUID CITY DAMES
Meredith Fuller wasn’t expecting to find a new family when she went out to dinner at Avenue Pub with her husband in January. It was simply a trip to one of her favorite local restaurants.
Then she saw the poster hanging in the women’s restroom.
Fuller didn’t mention the poster to anyone. Neither her husband nor her daughters knew why she went to Super Skate the following Monday night.
A few hours later, Fuller’s youngest daughter got a text from her mother: a selfie of Fuller holding up skates and pads. It was Fuller’s way of announcing that she was the newest member of the Druid City Dames – Tuscaloosa’s very own roller derby team.
First played in the 1930s, roller derby is a contact sport in which two teams of five skate counterclockwise on a track. Each team has a “jammer” who attempts to score points by lapping members of the opposing team.
It didn’t take long for Fuller to fall in love with the sport. It took her even less time to fall in love with her new teammates – a diverse group of more than 20 women of all ages, from all backgrounds, who come together at least twice a week to hit the rink and forget their outside lives.
“I’ve never been with a group of women who are so supportive in my life,” Fuller said. “If I need anything, I know that I can count on any of my teammates. We’re all that way with each other. It’s a family and I’ve only been in it four months. I feel like I’ve been in it the whole time.”
What is now a family for so many women started as a call for interest on Facebook in 2015. After competing with Birmingham’s Tragic City Rollers for several years, Megan Gunter and Kelly Wolfe wanted to start a derby team in Tuscaloosa. The Facebook post has since grown into a robust organization that serves as an outlet through which women empower and strengthen each other while satisfying an itch to compete.
“When we’re out there playing, we don’t realize how different we are from each other”
In many ways, Emmie Gragg is nothing like her teammates. Instead of focusing on her career or worrying about children, Gragg is concentrated on maintaining a high GPA while earning a degree in chemical engineering. As the 21-year old heads into her senior year at the University of Alabama, Gragg is in a distinctly different stage of life than the majority of the Druid City Dames.
As little as Gragg and her teammates would appear to have in common, they’re bound together by striking similarities.
Like most of her teammates, Gragg grew up playing sports. She also grew up as a self-described tomboy. The same scrapes and bruises that other girls found repulsive, Gragg found interesting.
“I’ve always felt very gritty and tomboyish and sometimes crude like, ‘Oh, look at this gnarly bruise,’” Gragg said.
Fuller was the same way as a child. Instead of trying out for cheerleading or volleyball, she tried to join her middle school football team when she was an eighth grader. Although the school system didn’t allow her to go through with it, the desire to play a physical sport never went away.
“I grew up a tomboy and all of that,” Fuller said. “My mom was not shocked when I told her about joining the Druid City Dames.”
Besides having a background playing sports or being a tomboy, the ultimate unifying factor for members of the Druid City Dames is their relative newness to the sport. Most of the team’s members knew little to nothing about roller derby before joining. The process of learning the ropes tends to be a bonding experience.
“These are some of the most supportive and encouraging women I’ve been around, considering you’re just meeting and we’re all learning this new thing at the same time and we’re all juggling kids, jobs,” team member Paula White said. “We all bring different things to the table, yet we still take the time to be very supportive for each other and try to take care of each other.”
White joined the team in its infant stage in November of 2015. She’s a mother of a 22-month old son and commutes to practice from Hoover.
The Druid City Dames is a member of the Women’s Flat Track Roller Derby Association, which requires new team members to pass a written test and a skills test before they’re allowed to compete. It usually takes several months and many practices for new players to master the required knowledge and rink skills. The Dames hold two recruitment periods a year, so there are almost always several new skaters attempting to prove themselves.
The bonding doesn’t stop when once new players are settled in, though. It continues during every practice and bout.
“It’s interesting because when we’re out there playing, we don’t realize how different we are from each other,” White said. “We’re all out there taking the same bumps and bruises and hits and we’re bonding all through that time.”
“It felt great to be able to go out and hit somebody – legally, of course”
The Dames have their own personal Facebook group that allows them to connect with each other and stay up-to-date on team happenings. But over the years, the group has transformed into a medium through which members of the team swap war stories and share pictures of their impressively disgusting battle wounds.
“If people get a bad bruise, they’ll post it on our private Facebook page and people will like it and comment their own bruises or say, ‘You should have seen mine,’” Gragg said. “That’s not something people think is normal, but that’s our normal.”
Roller derby is an inherently physical sport. Knocking down opponents is encouraged, as long as it’s within the rules of the game. Throwing elbows and using stiff arms aren’t allowed, but almost any other hits are. The only places that players aren’t allowed to hit someone are in the back or head. A player’s entire front, back legs and sides are fair game.
“You’re able to use pretty much your entire body to knock people out and knock people down,” Gragg said.
Knocking down opponents is one of the most fun parts of the game, but it’s also one of the most difficult. It requires the perfect combination of nimbleness and power.
“Since you’re on skates, it’s a weird combination of having to be so technical with your feet and then just brute force with your hips and shoulders,” Grass said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
The physicality of roller derby is what White originally found most enticing. White tried out and made the University of Alabama’s inaugural softball team in 1997, lettering all four years and helping jumpstart a program that’s now a national title contender almost every year. She loved the sport, but the only thing she could hit on the diamond was the softball.
“At first, my love was the contact,” White said. “It felt great to be able to go out and hit somebody – legally, of course. It was like a stress relief and I’d never played a contact sport so I didn’t know what that was like.”
Roller derby players crave contact, whether they are the ones dishing out big hits or taking them.
“I’ve never, in any other sport, get knocked to the ground so hard and then stand up and say, ‘Nice hit,’” Gragg said.
In a sport knows for its brutality, a giant purple bruise is the ultimate badge of honor.
“Some people chose to wear outfits, decorate their helmets, decorate their skates in line with the name”
When Gragg prepares for a roller derby bout, she doesn’t just strap on her skates and pads. She transforms into a different person. It’s long been a tradition in roller derby for players to assume a different name during matches, and the Druid City Dames are no exception.
“The derby name is something you pick,” Gragg said. “It goes on your jersey, it’s what’s announced, it’s on the website, the pamphlet we hand out at bouts. Most of the people on our team pick a name that goes with something they’re interested in or job or a play on their name.”
Along with a name, much like working on stage in theatre, drag or a burlesque show, some players choose to assume a theatrical persona.
Gragg’s roller derby name is Deadly Dorothy, a nod to her hometown of Kansas City and The Wizard of Oz. During bouts, she dons pigtails with big red bows and red skate covers. Other derby names on the team include “Duchass of Painbridge” (she goes by ‘Princess’ to her teammates and dons a crown on her helmet), “Check Meowt” (who sports leopard print spandex, cat ears and whiskers) and “Ice Maiden” (complete with a painted face of blue and silver makeup).
Fuller goes by “Mere-Death” and White’s derby name is “Unapaulagetic.” They don’t play up their alter egos as much as Gragg does, but they still have fun with it. Gragg said she enjoys becoming Deadly Dorothy for the bouts as it helps her stand out, giving the fans a fun character to rally behind. She compares it to the way professional wrestlers take on larger-than-life characters.
“At the beginning of our bouts, we all get announced and so I think that’s it’s fun to have a character to put to the name when you’re getting introduced to the crowd,” Gragg said. “It’s a way for them to follow you through the whole bout.”
“You need a beer after that”
The Druid City Dames competed in their second home bout of the season on May 25, a double-header against the Tragic City Rollers. After the bout, the team hosted a party at Black Warrior Brewing Company for both the Tragic City Rollers and the hometown fans who came out to support them.
Post-bout parties are common in roller derby. The celebrations give the home team a chance to mingle with fans and talk to the team they just competed against. As violent and combative as the sport is, opponents quickly become friends once they leave the rink.
“I don’t know how derby is other places in the country, but here it’s really cool because even women on different teams will come up to you and talk,” Gragg said. “It’s a whole community; it’s something that connects you to people throughout the region.”
The post-bout parties give the players a chance to relive the competition over a few drinks. Although, after an especially physical match, some players might be trying to forget more than they’re trying to remember.
“You need a beer after that,” White said. “Or several beers after that.”
The Druid City Dames will be back in action on June 22 when they host the SouthernHarm Derby Dames at Super Skate.