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Hell on Wheel

Only in Texas can you make football even rougher.

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Two men on unicycles pedal straight at each other, full speed, both holding wooden poles with boxing gloves taped to the ends. Each man jabs at his opponent—hard—trying to knock him off his wheel. One guy crashes to the pavement. The other guy’s team gets to kick first. The opening joust—which replaces the more traditional opening coin toss—is only the beginning of the nuttiness that is unicycle football.

A scene like this played out in San Marcos last Sunday when the only-in-Texas sport of unicycle football held its season championship, the Stupor Bowl. A crowd of around 350 gathered in the San Marcos Activity Center parking lot to watch Los Bierdos face off against the Unicychos. Unicycle football games, played here every Sunday during the nine-month season, draw an interesting slice of San Marcos life, from the mohawked and dreadlocked to senior citizens and parents with toddlers.

A cheerleading squad that calls itself the “Unibrawdz,” a group dressed mostly in black, danced on the sidelines. Lone Stars and Solo cups kept spirits high while emcee Brian Sumner looked on, wearing a field marshal uniform. He got a kick out of his job. “Are you kidding?” he joked. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!”

Unicycle football is like a hybrid of flag and tackle football, or as the players call it, “flackle”: there are flags, but tackles are also encouraged. Teams can include anywhere from four to eleven players. Helmets are required, but padding is minimal. The games are always played on asphalt. Grass, the organizers say, would be too slow. A few guys wear knee pads, and many tuck compression padding under their street clothes, but that’s it. Fans often wince watching Leatherheads meet Murderball.

“What we call pedestrian football is extremely dangerous, and unicycle football is a little dangerous,” Marcus Garland, the sport’s creator, told me. “In American football, when you tackle them you try to kill them. We try to hit them hard but keep them alive.”

Garland founded the Unicycle Football League—the only league of its kind in the world—in 2008. At the time, the raucous Texas State student was teaching a unicycle juggling class, when a childhood fantasy popped back into his head. He persuaded a group of his San Marcos buddies to try football—tossing a ball and making tackles—on a unicycle. To Garland’s surprise, his crazy idea took off. Each season since, another team or two—with clever names like the “Ill Eagles” or the “Rolling Blackouts”—has formed. Today seventy players participate on eight teams from fall through spring. “People told me it was just a fad, that it would die. I believed them,” Garland said. “But it’s like a joke that won’t stop.” 

In 2012 Garland moved to South Korea. But back in San Marcos, games had become a Sunday afternoon tradition. The league went on. Many of the players, though, were the types who’d bring a trashed sofa to a game, and just leave it there. As the “least-incompetent person,” it fell to Lee Wallace—an organic fruit farmer with a graying goatee and jujube tattoo sleeves—to hold the chaos together.

In unicycle football, getting injured is basically a foregone conclusion. Wallace tore a ligament and chipped a bone (his injuries relegated him to referee duty from a wheelchair). One UT student, Bob McCarthy, came down from Austin a few years ago, reached out to catch a pass, and promptly broke both arms. “We’ve all been injured,” says Wallace. “You had to be one of those kids who jumped off their house with a sheet as a parachute.”

The only female player in the league, Kirsten Dorrien, goes by the nickname “Lady Bird.” She’s six feet tall and fearless. Two years ago, she broke her leg playing—and waited five days to go to the hospital. Once she got her cast off, she was back on a unicycle within two months. “We’ve joked about how all of us are going to have the bodies of sixty- or seventy-year-olds by the time we’re thirty or forty,” she says. “I think about that, but honestly, it’s so much fun.” (No major injuries were reported after Sunday’s match, which Los Bierdos won, 7773.)

The increased visibility of this subculture can easily remind people of another contact sport with a cult following that gained national attention: roller derby. In the early 2000’s, roller derby, which dates back to the nineteenth century, saw a revival when a group of women in Austin started a league. Word spread and soon there were leagues cropping up in Europe and Asia. Drew Barrymore even directed a movie—Whip It—that was centered on the sport.

It’s unlikely that unicycle football will see that kind of popularity, but the sport is drumming up interest outside of Texas. The Travel and Discovery channels each did a segment on unicycle football last year. Pizza Hut featured it in a pre–Super Bowl ad. New York City unicyclists hired players for a demo game, and San Francisco organizers have called them about starting a league.

The Texans welcome the attention—and competition. “Our most important thing is to make sure unicycle football exists,” Wallace says. “If other leagues want to start, we’ll be here to play them—and they’ll lose.”

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