When jammers & blockers wheeled into our hearts

When jammers & blockers wheeled into our hearts

Charlie O'Connell


Proof that one can research just about anything on the internet, it has come to my attention that two of my childhood sports heroes sadly are no longer among the living. Nor have they been for several years.

One wore jersey number 40, the other 38. It’s unlikely you’ll recognize their names.

The twice-retired Charlie O’Connell was 79 years of age when he died in 2015. He was an eight-time league MVP who battled in more than 3,000 games (bouts?). Joan Weston was just 62 in 1997, when she succumbed to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a degenerative brain disorder.

Truth be known, they probably were not the ideal role models for a beanpole, glasses-wearing runt growing up in rural southeastern Ohio. Yet it’s no secret that even well-meaning geeks sometimes foster a lack of judgement. Just ask my sister.

Both O’Connell and Weston were rough, rugged – even mean – dominant Hall of Fame members of the wildly popular Bay Bombers in San Francisco. Ring a bell yet? It was during the heyday of Roller Derby that these two endearing characters were two of the most feared competitors, when tenacious, fearless skaters ruled cramped banked ovals throughout the U.S.

O’Connell ultimately earned the nickname “Mr. Roller Derby.” Weston was called a number of things, i.e. “Blonde Bomber” and “Golden Girl.” I fondly remember her simply as “Joltin’ Joanie,” a woman whose flying elbows were unmatched by even the bravest jammer.

Jammers, by the way, were the team members who were able to score points by passing opponents on the track. They were most adept at darting and ducking, weaving through traffic and avoiding crippling crashes into the waist-high railing that outlined the track.

Like professional wrestling, it was acrobatic stuff that drew noteworthy crowds and TV audiences, prompting many a quarrel over what was scripted and what was real. I even recall once attending a Roller Derby event inside Ohio University’s domed Convocation Center in the early '70s.

So, what was it that jogged my memories of such bombastic athletes and events? Thank you, FS2, for a weekend, coronavirus-era replay of WAR (the acronym that stood for World Alliance of Rollersports) action between the T-birds and Bad Attitudes. A subsequent replay featured a nasty gang called the Violaters, which of course, would never fly in today’s environment of political correctness.

From the get-go, it was evident that this was programming from the late 1980s. The uniforms (costumes?) were sparkly and colorful, and the T-Birds especially were patriotic in their dazzling Red, White and Blue outfits complete with stars.

Another sure clue to the timeframe of the action was that all of the female skaters had caked-on makeup and stringy (or poofy) hairdos befitting their villainous on-track deportment.

It was almost magical when my flat screen began to emit the unmistakable fragrance of Aqua Net and certain ozone-eating aerosol sprays common to that era. What could the digital whizbangs at MCTV possibly come up with next?

Upon further review, RollerGames was created in 1989 and was a U.S. television show that presented “a theatrical version of the sport of roller derby for a national audience.” It featured a steeply banked figure-eight track, an alligator pit, and a number of skaters who had been in the Roller Games league, as well as younger participants.

The jammers were able to score bonus points for their teams by negotiating the wall-like banking at one end of the course. They also had to survive a ledge that caused them to momentarily soar through the air before rejoining their fellow skaters if still on their feet.

The one skill that seemed to be the most rehearsed was colliding with and catapulting over the outside railing. One game also spotlighted a scholarly male skater whose job, when interviewed, was to promote the value of having live alligators slithering around the joint.

“They are part of our sport. They belong here,” he insisted.

The show lasted just 13 weeks despite mustering over a “5” national rating during its prime-time debut. It was in the top 25 of all syndicated programs for the season — even topping the trendy American Gladiators.

The recent RollerGames airings followed repeated episodes of various Red Bull Soap Box Derby events. Thank goodness these entertaining shenanigans involved no live gators.

Sure, current TV-viewing alternatives now include actual Indians baseball, actual NBA and actual NHL games, actual PGA golf tournaments, actual soccer, and actual live motorsports.

This may come as a bit of a shock. But not all of those individuals are ideal role models, either.

So, may Charlie and Joanie rest in peace.

Jam on, jam off.

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