Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Cowtown Butchers roll toward a bigger audience a year after losing their leader

The Cowtown Butchers skate on without their captain.

Posted By on Wed, May 9, 2012 at 7:05 AM

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In the cold rain outside the River Roll Skate Center, they talk about Thomas Lyons.

"Expresso is why I skate," James Surrette says, referring to Lyons by his roller-derby name.
"He gave me a set of pads and told me to try it out," adds Rachel Jones, who this season joined the Kansas City Roller Warriors. "I was just a preppy girl watching a roller-derby match two years ago. But Expresso saw something in me."

It's been almost a year since Lyons' skates stopped rolling around the track. After a practice at the Riverside rink on May 11, 2011, the Shawnee native and captain of the Cowtown Butchers collapsed and died. He was 43 years old.

On a Thursday night late last month, the team - what many still see as his team - is waiting to get into the white concrete building with the blue roof. For their weekly practice, 15 men and women have come bearing roller suitcases full of gear, dressed in hand-torn T-shirts and frayed shorts, and ready to sweat. The owner arrives, and each athlete pays $5 for the chance to practice while the rink is closed to the public.

"Pad up, boys," says Will "Polish Hitman" Bonikowski, the team's captain.

Six disco balls are at rest over the white floor, and a small sign above the skate-rental counter declares, "NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS." The University of Kansas biochemistry professor chomps down on his mouth guard, the carpenter checks his helmet, and both push off and begin to roll over the rink's white floor.

The Cowtown Butchers are Kansas City's amateur men's roller-derby team, an unranked member of the 20-team Men's Roller Derby Association. The Butchers are only the third-biggest draw in town, behind the Kansas City Roller Warriors - the area women's team, which annually has been in national championship contention - and the Dead Girl Derby league. While the Roller Warriors regularly draw a crowd of thousands, the Cowtown Butchers' home match a few days ago (against the Dallas Deception) brought in 500 fans.

However, thanks in part to Lyons, who served as an official for the Roller Warriors' games, the two teams' fates are intertwined.

"We started off as fans of theirs, and now we're just fans of each other," Bonikowski says.

The Cowtown Butchers are coached and drilled by women roller-derby players. The men's primary goal, in what originated as a men's sport: Convince the world that they're serious about competing.

"We're one of the smaller teams in the league," Bonikowski says. "Almost everybody's bigger, but we hit harder."

In men's roller derby, the scoreboard is only slightly more important than the bruises raised on the other team. And it's practice that makes pain - starting with the Butchers' own. David Summerly, 30, is skating proof of that principle, pinwheeling his arms for balance and slamming his skates down as he slowly circles the track. The former high school track athlete, a co-worker of Jones', agreed to try one practice - three practices ago.

"The first night, they showed me how to fall," Summerly says. "Everyone has just been so nice. I expected a bunch of hard-asses. Instead, they've just wanted to help me skate."

The team says this kindred-spirits-first approach is Lyons' legacy. Most of this squad remembers what it was like to be Summerly, who says he hadn't been on skates in a decade. Above their playground whoops, the wheels make the sound of 40 office chairs simultaneously scraping a floor.

Bonikowski admits that the team still needs players. It's why he, as Expresso once did, goes to rinks to watch recreational skaters, hoping to spot new talent. His pitch is straightforward: We know you can skate - how would you like to hit someone?

"Makes you want to join, doesn't it?" a skater in a kilt tells an observer.

Tonight, Slamrock - formerly in women's derby - is putting the Butchers through the mill. In her best drill-sergeant impersonation, she chides players for failing to push their butts low to the ground and build up the friction required to quickly increase velocity. The team is working on a speed line, in which each player attempts to match the strides of the skater in front of him, with Slamrock coaching each partner on his form.

"You'll never make all the right decisions," she says. "So you just have to go out and skate and have a good time and kick some ass."

The team gathers around for instructions, and the men chip in advice like they're guys hovering over a backyard grill - winded guys. They circle the track hundreds of times during this 84-minute practice.
Surrette, Bonikowski and Mark "Sgt. Kaos" Funk have been friends since graduating from Liberty High School more than 20 years ago. They credit Lyons with transforming them from skaters into derby players. During a passing drill, Surrette collides with Funk, and the two men, built like tight ends, spin to the ground.

"It's not derby if you're not falling," Funk says through a grin.

In the past two decades, women's roller derby has thrived by combining a message of empowerment with a punk-rock aesthetic. The men come for their own kind of validation: to forget a painful divorce or to remember what it's like to be on a team. Surrette is entering his second year, having changed his derby name from Allan Alpha to Crimson Cobra. He says he has dropped 100 pounds since he started working out.

"Everything I own is becoming red," he says. "That color is defining my character. I have this unbelievable sense of accomplishment because I'm pushing my body to the extreme."

The men split up after a brief scrimmage. Some have to work. Some have to take their kids home. Others head out for a beer after practice.

"Expresso is the reason that so many of us do this," Bonikowski says. "And the team has grown so much in a year. We just keep rolling."
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