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He tells me that he hopes one day to be the One. A teetotaler, Gasser spends hours each day working on his swordsmanship, practicing hundreds of repetitions of his attack moves. When I tell him it sounds excessive, he shrugs. "What would the Spartans be doing?"
He asks if I'd like to be his apprentice. "It would take more than a week, but you would definitely understand."
It would be easy to dismiss Gasser as a grown-up boy way too into his foam-sword hobby. But there's something exhilarating about getting that beat down in broad daylight. I decide to take him up on his offer. Over the next two months, I will enter an underground clique of about 50 local fighters. They're businessmen mostly, all following what Gasser has dubbed "The Path," a spiritual journey based on sword fighting that leads toward enlightenment.
He has no idea that, ultimately, I will betray him to find out if I can beat the One.
Following Gasser's instructions, I arrive unarmed at Antioch Park in Merriam on a frigid Monday evening in March. About 30 barbarians-in-training wear sweat suits or T-shirts and jeans. They duel in the circle-shaped parking lot near the arboretum.
The band ranges in age from late teens to mid-40s. Its ranks include general war enthusiasts such as 24-year-old Matt Williams, a former infantryman who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now a prelaw student at Johnson County Community College. Then there are the fringe outcasts, such as a 37-year-old guy who home-schools his kids and claims to have legally changed his name to Coyote. With long gray hair and a pentagram tattooed on his chest, Coyote calls combat "outstanding catharsis." Coyote continues, "If I go without it for a long enough time, my health starts to suffer."
Everyone claims that Gasser is unbeatable.
"When he beats your ass, remember, he does that to everyone," says a 30-ish guy in camouflage pants and an un-ironic '80s headband.
The legend of the Barbarian began when, at 5 years old, Gasser molded clay daggers in art classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. At age 16, he convinced his dad to help him make steel replicas of 6-foot swords and battle axes in their Prairie Village garage. Gasser went to the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Kansas, but he wasn't interested in taking classes unless they were related to the Middle Ages. After learning Viking history, Medieval Latin and mythology, he dropped out. He fell into the restaurant business and worked for a decade as a corporate chef for Planet Hollywood, writing menus and opening new franchises.
About six years ago, Gasser attended a Renaissance festival in Ohio and spotted a 6-foot-1-inch metal sword that called to him. "When I saw that great sword ... the clouds opened up, babe, and the angels started singing," Gasser says. "It's really cool how all things flow together in your life."
In 2001, Gasser, who was divorced, returned to Kansas City to be near his daughter and stepson. A friend convinced him to try out for one of the staple character positions at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in Bonner Springs. "I said, 'Listen, I just want to carry my sword around.'" He was cast as a barbarian who simply wandered around and grunted. Gasser got bored with posturing. By his third year, he made swords of PVC pipe wrapped in blue foam. He handed them out to kids and adults, asking them to fight him. Soon, he was taking on as many as 400 people a day.