It has been a difficult few months. I'm not going to lie, I had doubts that I could return here to this blog. Sit down at my desk and think deeply about something that was a shared passion with my wife Ellen. She has always been the driving force behind my every word here. Lets face it, there are some wonderful "unintended consequences" behind the existence of this blog. If Alisha doesn't answer a tweet, if I'm not curious enough to ask Max Holt questions on Rachael Adam's blog "Athletes Abroad", if Tori doesn't agree(quite quickly, I might add) to go first... ...None of this would be here. Everyone who followed gave it a unique flavor all their own and I'm really quite proud of where we have gone and what we have done. Now though, I am charged to go forward without my muse. I didn't know how or when I'd start again, then like a lightning bolt it came to me.
"If you write about it, maybe they'll come!" I had been secretly jealous of all of the fans who have had the opportunity to tailgate on the lawn of the Walter Pyramid the past four summers. Now for the first time since Matt Garthoff first uttered the phrase "Vol-B-Que", this great event will happen before a Women's National Team Match. It was decided. Like Ray Kinsella, I'm hopping in the micro-bus(not really, I'm flying) and headed back to SoCal. Like the #summerofUs trip and the impromptu last minute Omaha trip, I am compelled beyond reason to go back. It will be difficult, but I'm counting on my fellow volleyball peeps in Long Beach to help me through it. If the past is any indication, I have nothing to worry about. Volleyball people are just THE BEST.
Enter our hero, Matt Garthoff. If he had a horse I'm sure he'd ride it, maybe more appropriately a row boat like his trip across the Delaware River. You see if you go to a big match in Southern California whether it be on the court or on the beach, you are likely to find Matt dressed in his George Washington costume, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his antics, dancing and cheering for our beloved US National teams. Matt was recognized as one of USA Volleyball's SuperFans. I can't wait to finally get to meet him at Vol-B-Que 5.
In an effort to find out what it is that inspired this SuperFan to go to such lengths in support of our sport, "Five Questions" explores the history of the costume and the tailgate party known as #VBQ5. Here is Jamming in Five Questions with Matt Garthoff!
What is your earliest recollection of this love of volleyball? What event put all this in motion?
John Paul Kennedy was my best friend growing up in Northern Virginia and he was an adventure seeker; I was pretty much along for the ride. We built our own fireworks, made complex domino arrangements, constructed elaborate gerbil mazes, shot Super-8 films, crafted homemade snowboards—we were always looking for something new to do. Inspired by everything Top Gun (John Paul would later apply to the United States Naval Academy) we decided to give the sport of volleyball a try. He bought the worst, rock-hard rubber ball on the market and we set out for the National Mall in D.C. We played "jungle ball" with a bunch of Marines on the public courts at the foot of the Capitol steps and attempted to mimic the diving and spiking moves of Maverick and Goose. Given how badly they represented the sport on film, I'd say we did a really good job of emulating them. I don't know what it was, but I became hooked on first contact. Something clicked for me. John Paul moved on to other activities but I felt this bizarre, invisible current pull me back, day after day, to play some more. Eventually, a college coach came by the site and asked if I'd "like to play some REAL volleyball?" A bit trepidatious about following a total stranger two miles across the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, I eventually gave in to my curiosity and went. After a lengthy walk, we ended up at "the Lincoln Courts," a group of about 14 sand courts tucked between the Kennedy Center and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial run by Roger Morris and Roger Oliva. At 16, I was by far the youngest person there. I was introduced to a huge group of friendly folks from casual co-ed fours and sixes players to serious Open-level doubles competitors. They all took time out to play with me and show me the proper techniques of the game. I even started playing doubles tournaments on the popular Columbia, MD circuit.
That summer of 1988, I watched with particular interest as the USA men beat the dreaded Soviet Union to capture gold in indoor. My father and uncle were Soviet specialists for the U.S. government, so that victory had an even more profound meaning for me. I learned all about Karch Kiraly, Eric Sato and Craig Buck. My dad was my model for whom I wanted to be but, if I had to declare a backup, it would've been Steve Timmons. Around this same time, my family of late technology adopters finally purchased cable TV. Prime Ticket was airing AVP tournaments and I pretty much fell for the game hook, line and sinker. Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos. Mike Dodd and Tim Hovland. Jackie Silva and Karolyn Kirby. And then, with Karch eventually moving back to the beach, it all felt like one sport to me. The next two years were filled with AP tests and college applications and USC and UCLA (the only two California schools I could name) were all of a sudden at the top of my list. When I got into USC, by divine intervention, their men's indoor team came out to George Mason University in Fairfax to play in the National Championship tournament. So I attended my first USC match before I was even enrolled and, of course, they upset Long Beach State in the finals to win the National Title. Bryan Ivie. Dan Greenbaum. Kevin Sheppard (Tom Selleck's son.) Are you kidding me?! There was no turning back. Even though I never turned into much of an athlete (I believe I'm the CBVA record-holder for consecutive 5th place finishes) I felt like the sport chose me. My biggest regret is that I didn't stick with coaching. I think I would've made a heck of a coach. In an effort to make up for that mistake, I've been finding ways to promote the sport—especially our USA National Teams—ever since. And here I am, nearly 30 years later, working with Karch Kiraly and the Women's team to turn out a huge crowd in Long Beach as they go for gold in Rio. Wouldn't that just complete the cycle?
When was your "lightbulb moment" for the Vol-B-Que?
I was listening to The Net Live volleyball podcast and Kevin Barnett, a two-time USA Volleyball Olympian and host of the show, was on a rant about how lame Southern California volleyball fans are. His point was that we always complain that volleyball's never on TV or live events aren't held in our area, but when they are, we don't fill the arena. It was the Pete Carroll football era at USC and I was bleeding Cardinal and Gold. The atmosphere at SC tailgates and in the stadium was epic. People from all walks of life and eras were decked out from head to toe as one ginormous Trojan family. I felt an incredible sense of community and belonging that made me wonder why we all can't get along with each other this well when there's not a football game at stake. Anyhow, I just had a thought that a tailgate might be the answer to volleyball's fan woes. It's not that my friends didn't want to go to a USA match, they just had to choose between playing at the beach with their friends or planning a trip to an arena. And the USA matches weren't all that well advertised. Especially before social media, people often didn't know that the team was coming. So, I bought a section of tickets at a discounted group rate, invited some friends to grill sausages and hang out before a 2011 World League match, and they actually showed up. We had a blast and the team responded. That made me want to take it to the next level. In 2012, it was an Olympic year and the USA men were NOT qualified for London. I raised our marketing game, got officially permitted through Long Beach State and sold tickets for VBQ2. When we had 300 people show up, the real Vol-B-Que was born.
What was your hope for it in that first year? How has that changed in subsequent years?
Shucks. I started to answer that question already. Well, the big change was when I started marketing the event to anyone—not just friends. We went from around 40 people to 300. But the next big step was after VBQ2 (2012) when USA Volleyball got involved. Lauren Schoenherr was with USAV and pushed to make the VBQ, in part, a fundraiser for the USAV Foundation. All of a sudden, I had a partner as passionate about the event as I was. And she had access, resources and time that I didn't have. So we worked hand-in-hand on VBQ3 and VBQ4. It was a real "win win." The Foundation made some money and I got to see the event grow to nearly 700 guests. Lauren's effort and dedication to the event's operations freed me up to concentrate on marketing. Plus, it was just nice to have someone to work with on it. She left USAV for another job last year and I'm back to doing it solo. I've had lots of people step up to help with critical bits and pieces—including a very inspirational call or two with USA Women's head coach Karch Kiraly—but I'm interested to see what I can pull off without Lauren. My quest for 1,000 guests this year is pretty ambitious for a one-man operation.
When did you first don the George Washington costume and was there ever anyone else in the running?
I don't even know the answer to that. The first I can remember was the original Vol-B-Que (before we even called it Vol-B-Que.) I rented a colonial jacket and tricorn hat from a costume shop just to add a little flavor to the event. Leading by example, I suppose you could say. But then people started expecting it and it went from a one-off goofball stunt to having a life (and character) of its own. I suppose it's like any costume; it gives me the freedom to act a little nuttier than I otherwise would. And it worked! At Vol-B-Que 2, unbeknownst to me, my friends started showing up in their own costumes. We had Abe Lincoln, Forrest Gump, Uncle Sam, Rosie the Riveter, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed ant VBQ2. It snowballed from there. Now, we have dozens of costumed fans of all ages come out for our contests. It's one of my absolute favorite aspects of the event. I feel a huge sense of pride when I see those costumes. Not just for the team to get off the bus to a screaming crowd of patriotic crazies, but because I feel like my creativity was contagious. I mean, I looked pretty ridiculous in 2011, on top of an RV waving a giant American flag all by myself. But when the photos of VBQ2 came out in Volleyball magazine, with everyone in costume and looking AMAZING, I felt a bit more like the good kind of crazy rather than the other kind.
Much like our story you have developed so many great connections in the volleyball community. Have you had a few "holy crap I'm talking to _________" moments? Give us a few.
All the time. I NEVER get used to it. The flip side of volleyball not being the prime-time TV, "big four" sport in America that it is in other countries is the proximity fans have to players. From beach tournaments, where you can just walk right up to pros, to indoor matches where they often do autograph signings, players and teams are unbelievably accessible. I'm always conflicted on this because I want them to be more famous and recognized as the world class athletes they are, but I don't want the sport to ever lose that friendliness and familiarity between player and fan. I can't just walk up to Kobe Bryant and shoot the breeze. But I've had conversations with Karch, Misty, Reid Priddy, Micah Christenson, Matt Fuerbringer, Kevin Barnett, Courtney Thompson, Bev Oden, Jeff Nygaard, Lauren Fendrick, April Ross and many, many more. The most special moments for me are the ones involving my daughter. She's had the opportunity to hold Kerri Walsh's 2012 gold medal in her hands. Tom Hoff let her wear his 2008 gold medal in the Vol-B-Que Grand Marshal parade last year! When I was a kid, an Olympic gold medal was a mythical object. Not even a real thing you'd ever see. This kid of mine has had coffee at Reid Priddy's house. She's talked to Misty May-Treanor on multiple occasions and even acted with her in a video. One day, when she's President of the United States, she won't be intimidated by anyone!
Bonus Question- What direction can USAVB go to foster further growth of our game in the aftermath of the Games in Rio? What would be your first priority?
I haven't been a player at a high level or a coach, so I'm not qualified to speak about "growing the game" in terms of programming or budgets or whatever determines that growth. But I do believe that, for all the fantastic growth volleyball has experienced as a result of USAV initiatives, we haven't concentrated enough on fandom in our sport. Everyone loves to play. It's a phenomenal sport. But I'm consistently flummoxed by our collective inability to turn players into fans. It's a lack of TV. It's a lack of successful pro leagues in the U.S. It's gender and sport differences in our culture. It's a lot of things. But that's a challenge we should meet head on. I'd love to see USAV make the fan experience and "player/fan life cycle" one of its priorities (and recent commitments to areas like social media suggest it may be moving in this direction.) Vol-B-Que's whole purpose is to bridge that gap between player and fan (as well as beach and indoor,) so I know it can be done. USAV's done such a great job of growing the game on a grassroots level and putting medal-winning elite teams together. I just want more people to be able to share in that success. You don't have to be a football player to be a huge NFL fan. Well, we've got a TON of volleyball players all across this country. Let's turn them into fans who are interested in the game long after their playing days are over.