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Grand Rapids, Let the Games Begin

In Grand Rapids it’s not hard to find residents putting ho-hum exercise like jogging to shame. They’re behind trees. Atop parking ramps. Even in public libraries. This fall, have some alternative fitness fun with one of these unique activities:

Play disc golf at the park
Anyone can play disc golf, or frisbee golf, as the uninitated call it. West Michigan has a plethora of local courses that make it hugely accessible for residents. Earl W. Brewer Park in Byron Center is a local favorite for its variety. There are four nine-hole courses – blue, red, white and gold. If you’re new to disc golf, try the blue course. It’s the shortest, so you won’t give up as easily. The gold course is considered the most difficult because of its limited range for wide-open shots, making it tough to throw without hitting a few trees.

“The best courses have a mix of tight shots and wide-open shots,” says Matt Owens, who has been playing disc golf for nine years, originally with the Grand Rapids Disc Golf Club, but now just for fun. 

The Grand Rapids Disc Golf Club, also known as the Dogs of Disc, is a local club that alternates events between Brewer and Riverside Park in Grand Rapids. Members meet once a week, and even play during the winter. January’s Ice Bowl is always a memorable event.

It costs nothing to play disc golf at a park, but for those who like to compete, the Professional Disc Golf Association and Michigan Disc Golf Association host local amateur division tournaments. For novices, joining a league is an opportunity to learn more about the game and to network with local players. For the “professionals,” it’s a chance to win cash prizes and to compete with players from around the world.

Players should invest in a driver, a mid-range disc and a putter for optimum performance. It isn’t unusual to see a player with a bag full of 20 discs. Innova and Discraft are two popular brands, and if you prefer to buy local, J-Bird is a Lansing-based company that dyes discs various colors.

Marty Alexander, who has played disc golf every summer for 13 years, explains why he prefers disc golf to regular golf: “If you were to play 9 or 18 holes of regular golf, it would take all afternoon. In disc golf, on a good clip with a couple of buddies who can throw really well, I can finish 18 holes in 40 minutes. I’ve had days when I’ve done 72 holes.”

Parks with disc golf courses:

- Riverside Park
- Earl W. Brewer Park
- Johnson Park
- Cascade Township Park
- Jaycee Park
- Old Farm Park
- Fallasburg Park

Sprint downtown … in pursuit of the flag
For outdoor gamers, there’s no game like Urban Capture the Flag. High school students, college students and young professionals all gather at Rosa Parks Circle Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. They break into two teams, and each team hides a flag within a 10-square block area of downtown bounded by Monroe and Division avenues and Fulton and Lyon streets. Monroe Center is a safe zone.

Games begin at the top of two downtown parking ramps, where each team meets to discuss strategies with its captain, explain the rules to newcomers and distribute arm bands. The red team captain then calls the yellow team captain, or vice versa, as a cellular whistle start. They play two games, with players retiring to the Grand Coney for a late bite, or home.

The easiest way to join the game is to through the 300-strong Urban Capture the Flag: Grand Rapids Chapter Facebook group. Players and team captains connect here prior to games, and respond to invites with a yes, no or maybe. Newbies are welcome to show up sans Facebook R.S.V.P.s, and if game turnouts ever do reach the hundreds, they’ll expand the boundaries.

“We went from having 20 to 30 people each week to 60 people,” says Adam Twork, the yellow team captain of two years. "I’d like to try a few weeks with more people and older people.”

Comfortable running shoes and a cell phone to contact your team captain during games are encouraged. Betsy Haak, the red team captain, says community spirit is what attracts new blood.

“There are a lot of creative and willing people in Grand Rapids. I appreciate that if I want to do something weird, I can. We’re all here playing a game downtown. It says something.”

Things to do for football fans when the Lions are playing
This fall marks the 14th season for metro Grand Rapids’ largest sand lot football series, the Sunday Football League, through which as many as 60 average Joes will square off at Northview High School Stadium each Sunday afternoon as members of the Grand Rapids Glory, Plainfield Storm, Spring Lake Horsemen and Regal Regulators.

“It started out as a bunch of guys from the cross-country team playing football every week,” says Joe Verplank, the league’s commissioner and one of its original players. “But then more and more people started showing up. We used to line up and pick teams, but it just got too big for that. So four years ago we organized it into a league.”

The games are full-contact, usually nine-on-nine, depending on how many players show up on a given Sunday. Players typically range from 18 to their early 30s, male and female (although the latter are few and far between). There is no cost to play, but the purchase of a $35 team jersey is required, a new requirement this season. Players can come on as many or as few Sundays as they wish, with all games scheduled for 1 p.m.

“That might seem like an odd start time for a bunch of football fans, but it works out great,” says Verplank. “We don’t have to worry about daylight savings. It’s late enough that everyone can get out of bed. And in all honestly, those years the (Detroit) Lions started losing were when we started seeing our biggest growth.”

This isn’t flag football, Verplank cautions, so be prepared to take some lumps. Mouthpieces are highly recommended, and soft-shell padding is permitted.

“I think the worst thing about football is face masks,” Verplank says. “You can’t tell if a guy is bald until he takes his helmet off. You can’t see the expressions on their faces. Here you get to see the everything —the smiles and the grimaces, all the reactions—and you get to know them as people.”

For more information, check out www.grfootball.com.

Kids, practice your power serve for Wii tennis
Back indoors, tweens and teens can take their best shot at wii-ning in The Grand Rapids Public Library’s Nintendo Wii tennis tournaments. There are eight separate tournaments in all, each at a different branch. Registration is required for all locations, where kids ages 12 to 18 play for the title of tennis champion of the library.

Returning champion, 12-year-old Antonio Ewing, won the last tournament held at the Seymour branch. He competed against teens as old as 16. Ewing owns a Nintendo Wii, and says that practicing the power serve is a winning strategy. If you hit the top of the ball, it will spin, smoke and essentially, win you the game. Ewing says it’s not all about winning, though.

“Not that many people have a Wii, and they want a chance to play it. I like Wii tennis because I’ve only played real tennis once. It helps you stay fit. After you’re done you’re really tired.”

Sign-up for one or more of these branch tournaments: Ottawa Hills, Sept.10; Van Belkum, Sept. 11; West Leonard, Sept. 13; Grand Rapids Main, Sept. 17; Madison Square, Sept. 18; West Side, Sept. 19; Yankee Clipper, Sept. 20; Seymour, Sept. 22.

Sara Cosgrove is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids. She volunteers as a music programmer at WYCE-FM, an independent community radio station.


Throwing a frisbee around a tree at Brewer Park in Caledonia

Bret on the tee

An overhead toss

Joe Verplank attempts a pass during Mudbowl 2007

Ryerson Public Library in Center City

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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