A grass surface, a net and a bunch of players enjoying a summer morning. It sounded like volleyball to me, or maybe badminton. I couldn't actually see the game - just the top edge of the net - as I was walking up a hill in one of the city's parks. But then the ball hit the ground with a sound that could only be described as a jarring thud. And as I watched, one of the players hauled it up and heaved it back over the net.
It was my first experience with Hooverball, a game similar to volleyball but played with a medicine ball. That's right, a medicine ball, that big heavy thing that gym teachers say they use to help little kids develop balance and coordination, but probably actually use to teach little kids early on about the perils of lifting heavy objects improperly.
Hooverball is a sport that dates back to the White House days of Herbert Hoover. According to one story, the sport got its start when Hoover was out of shape after his presidential campaign, and his doctor recommended he get some exercise. During his term in office, Hoover and a group of friends would meet regularly on the White House lawn to hurl the medicine ball over the net. It developed into a loosely organizedsport.
The game, which became a footnote after Hoover left the White House, was revived years afterward in the late president's home town of West Branch, Iowa, which hosts the annual Hooverball Championships as part of its Hooverfest celebration. The game is inclusive, in that men and women can play against one another, although women are given a few advantages. A woman who is serving can do so from the mid-court line, for example, while men must serve from the back line. Women who catch the ball during play can pass it to someone else on their team to return over the net, whereas men who catch must make the return themselves. Full rules and a court diagram can be found at the website of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association.
Hooverball probably will never replace volleyball or softball as the pickup sport of choice at church picnics. It's a novel way of working out, though, and a fun one. It's just not for the faint of…well, any part of the body.