Play Johnball!

CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK | Updated 6/28/2013

It’s part Quidditch, part dodgeball and all Minnesotan.

A game of Johnball begins at Matthews Park in Minneapolis.
Photo by Anna Reed

Rain is pouring when the text message arrives.

“Hey there buddy. We will still be there. There might not be more than 20 but there will still be folks. Casey.”

Casey Prescott is the captain of the Minneapolis chapter of Johnball, a game that is part Quidditch, part dodgeball, part trust-building activity.

Prescott arrives at 2 p.m. He bops inflatable beach ball-sized rubber balls across a soggy pitch. He’s lugging about 15 plastic bats. By 2:20, a small group has gathered. The first game is underway.

“Rule No. 1,” Prescott yells.

“Honesty!” the Johnballers recite back.

There are no referees, so everyone must admit if the ball — batted by another player — strikes them. After three hits, players take the sideline. In “Medusa,” one of many gametypes, eliminated players stand frozen in the field with hands raised to either catch a ball and re-enter the game or wave spirit fingers.

“Rule No. 2 … ”

“Sportsmanship!”

By 3 p.m., the field is full. At its high mark today more than 23 are in attendance, including co-founder John Hilsen (“the JohnFather”), three gals, one Nikki Sixx look-alike who wanders in and three guys from St. John’s University.

“Rule No. 3 … ” Prescott waits for the response.

Rain or snow, they play. Stalwart Mercedes Tuma-Hansen says, “I play better in the snow because the boys can’t do their ball tricks. Read into that what you want.”

Rule No. 3 is “documentation.” They want the game to spread.

“It’s like manifest destiny,” says Adam Kunkel, St. John’s chapter captain. “We shoot a photo at every game. I have seven or eight Facebook albums.”

Like James Naismith tossing a ball into a peach basket, Johnball originated in 2005 when Lakeville native Hilsen and a middle-school friend appropriated whiffle bats and rubber balls for something resembling dodgeball. Thanks to rule No. 3 — rules, videos and doctored celebrity quotes exist on a professional-looking website — chapters now exist in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

“Rule 4?” Prescott asks.

Everyone extends their bats, upholding the neon balls in the middle like Captain Planet. “Friendship!”

Rules No. 2 and No. 4, like the U.S. Constitution’s flexible 10th Amendment, address unforeseen quandaries. When a ball routinely flies into the street, they’ll call “sportsmanship.” And if a ball blasts a Johnballer in the face (which happens three times this afternoon), Prescott reminds them, “Friendship!”

Prescott asks for this reporter’s mother’s name, we shout it out, toss the balls up and the game begins. There are no fights. There are winners. There are losers. Everyone hugs and claps after each match.

“I don’t like sports,” Tuma-Hansen says, stripping her muddy shirt down to a sports bra. “But I love this.”

Two bicyclists show up and watch from afar. Adults running in a swampy field wielding plastic bats draw curious, concerned looks.

“You want to play?” the Johnballers yell.

One bearded Johnballer — standing about 6-foot-5 — rewraps the makeshift bandage around his stitched hand (“broken bottle”). He encourages the newbies.

The cyclists smile, take off their helmets, grab bats and join the field.

“We’ve got some PBs. So let’s do a Free-for-All,” Prescott says. Strangers join so frequently there’s a nickname for passers-by.

“It’s the most basic version of Johnball,” another player assures them. “We won’t judge you.”

The hallmark of any maturing sport is acknowledging that they’ll need to cultivate beginners to grow. Interest piqued? The Minneapolis chapter of Johnball plays every Sunday at 2 p.m. in Matthews Park in the Seward neighborhood. Prescott brings the bats and balls.