Mark D’Amato wants to bring the pain. He wants to unleash cans and cans of serious whup-ass. He wants to hear an opponent’s last, desperate gurgle as his windpipe collapses. D’Amato likes nothing better than taking down a 130-pound pretty boy with his patented move, “The Screamer,” a flying two-legged kick to the sternum, resulting in everything from shortness of breath to cataclysmic internal hemorrhaging. Just the kind of behavior you’d expect from a man known as “the most dangerous man on skates.”
D’Amato is not to be messed with, at least by those who’ve developed a fondness for their bones. That means no jokes about his lost pet tarantula, Precious, and no referring to his sport-of-choice as “Roller Derby.” Roller Derby, the trademarked official sport of Raquel Welch–obsessed boys everywhere, bid farewell in 1973. Our “secret national pastime”—in which hot-pantsed competitors earn points by skating past opponents with the occasional aid of a ponytail grab or chops-busting uppercut—then wheezed along under the Roller Games banner for another few years, playing to quarter-full arenas and drawing lower ratings than lumberjack games on ESPN.
Now, just in time to cash in on Studio 54 and broad-collar nostalgia, the sport is back as RollerJam, and New York has a hometown team, the D’Amato-led Enforcers. “We dominate. We control,” snarls D’Amato, 43, a tough-talking Roller Games veteran who resembles Captain Morgan on a strict steak-and-creatine diet. “When you’re on the track with us, you gotta watch your back at every moment.”
The sport’s return, despite the name change and the addition of Day-Glo-tinged in-line skates, should gladden the hearts of New Yorkers who remember the city’s Roller Derby heyday. The bard of Gotham lowlife, Damon Runyon, caught the sport’s earliest Depression-era matches at Chicago’s Coliseum, and he dug the flying elbows and proto–World Wrestling Federation showmanship. After abortive attempts to bring the sport eastward in 1936 and 1946—the latter effort, at the Polo Grounds, was rained out 12 times in a row—the Derby hit Manhattan big time. “We were playing at the Armory, and we were on the old CBS network,” recalls Jerry Seltzer, commissioner of the World Skating League (RollerJam’s governing body) and the son of Roller Derby founder Leo Seltzer. “That’s when we really attracted our first crowds.” The stands rattled with the stomping feet of everyone from mayhem-hungry longshoremen to movie stars like Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall. Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pony up $5 to $7 for a seat made the televised matches, which moved to ABC in 1949, a major ratings threat to the Lawrence Welk Show.
Even when Roller Derby moved to San Francisco in 1954, New Yorkers still gobbled up tickets for the sport’s frequent in-town pit stops. In 1970, nearly 20,000 crammed the Garden to see legends like “Blonde Bomber” Joanie Weston and Charlie O’Connell throw mere Derby mortals over the railing as they circled the track at barely sub-Mach speeds. And when Roller Derby bid good-bye in 1973—the victim, says Seltzer, of arenas stung by the energy crisis—the tearful farewell event was held before a raucous, standing-room-only Garden crowd.
Locals aching for ovalside seats to watch the Enforcers better have their frequent flier miles handy, however. All matches between the league’s six teams—the Enforcers, the Florida Sundogs, the California Quakes, the Nevada High Rollers, the Texas Twisters, and the Illinois Inferno—are being held at that least Runyonesque of venues, Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. And if fans want to follow the action on TV, they’ll have to acquaint themselves with that least New York–ian of cable channels, The Nashville Network, where the two-hour matches began showing up in their Friday 8 p.m. time slot last week.
Unlike its made-in–New York predecessor, RollerJam is a southern-fried confection. Co–executive producer Stephen Land is a born-and-bred Tennessean. David Hall, TNN’s president, is the league’s biggest backer, having promised near-bottomless cash to get RollerJam on its feet. And given the network’s viewership, rich in NASCAR enthusiasts who treasure their complete Travis Tritt collections, at least the initial wave of fans is likely to be the type that views New York as the Northeast’s modern-day Gomorrah, a place where people would sooner kick your dog and steal your billfold than offer to treat at Waffle House.
With this stereotype in mind, the league has cast the Enforcers as the heavies in the cosmic soap opera that is RollerJam. “They’re very, very physical,” says the junior Seltzer. “Let’s just say they’re what people think of when they think of the New York personality.” Promo materials tag the black-clad team as “the Evil Empire,” who “operate by the philosophy that, like their city, they’re bigger and badder than everyone else.” The men’s starting five are known as the “Five Boroughs”—”each borough has its own unique style of kicking your ass.” The women are “loaded with the mouthiest girls in the league,” and led by born-again bodybuilder Jannet “The Minister of Pain” Abraham, who’s yoked enough to break bricks over her amply sized cranium. The Enforcers’ personality, in short, was crafted by a committee of southern cable executives apparently familiar with city through Taxi Driver and the John Gotti biography from A&E’s “Godfathers Week” rather than the robotic pleasantries of Disney-fied Rudyland. “We’re typical New York,” says Brian Gamble, an Enforcers starter who lists playing with knives as his chief hobby. “How do you expect the Knicks to play basketball? Rough, bump-and-grind, and beating the crap out of people. That’s us.”
Compare the Enforcers’ role to that of the league’s designated Goody Two-shoes, the Sundogs. While New York has the tarantula-loving D’Amato, Florida’s got the kitten-loving Sean Marshall. “I’m very conscientious about what I do,” says Marshall. “I want to be out there to win the game, to focus, but I’m not out for anybody.” You mean he plays by the rules? Rules are for wusses and non–New Yorkers. “We have no regard for the rules,” growls D’Amato. “When we’re on the track, you don’t have a prayer.”
He’s just as charitable regarding the Quakes and their star blocker, Sean “Atk Attack” Atkinson. Sean’s a third-generation skater whose father, Buddy, is an idol of D’Amato’s—the kind of hard-skating thug whose style he’s adopted as his own. But Junior’s a joke to D’Amato. “Sean Atkinson is a bloated clown,” he says. “He’s not a threat. He hasn’t shown me anything.”
The female Enforcers, who play up their Amy Fisher–inspired nastiness at every turn, have even more unkind smack to talk. They have a special distaste for the Quakes’ so-called “Bod Squad,” the Baywatch-ready women’s lineup headed by ex–homecoming queen Stacey Blitsch. A leggy, curvy Iowan with pearly white teeth, Blitsch is the kind of fragile princess who would have been regularly gang-tackled in the parking lot of an Ozone Park Dunkin’ Donuts by a crew of chain-smoking, fat-bottomed bad girls—the kind of girls who’d rather slice you with a box cutter than gab about eyeliner. One gets the impression that the Enforcers didn’t get asked to the junior prom at Bayside High, and they’re still venting. Linda Leasure, a 115-pound aggressive terror, says the team likes to go after “the cute little blondies who are afraid to break a fingernail, worried about their makeup all the time.” Her favorite anti-cutie-pie move is the “lineup block”: “You kinda get a little momentum going, you wind your arm, and you flatten them. Boom! Break the nails. Their makeup’s messed up!”
Being evil may be a hoot, but it will also probably doom the Enforcers to perpetual also-ran status. With outcomes as fixed as a Globetrotters-Generals contest, the golden boys of Florida will doubtless walk away with the inaugural championship trophy—much to the joy of TNN’s Gotham-fearing fans. But in lieu of hoisting the hardware, the men and women in black seem content to send the occasional Quake to the emergency ward with a gut-busting elbow or to rearrange a pretty Sundog girl’s face with a folding chair to the chin. And at least one Enforcer is hoping that the league’s success might enable a return to the Garden. “I hope we do so bad,” says Gamble, who was raised in Queens and attended Carey High School in Franklin Square. “I’m kind of hoping that some of those clowns who used to beat my ass in school will see I’m not such a little punk anymore.”