Allegheny: Roller Derby League Creates Family Culture in Contact Sport

Though an uncommon sport, roller derby embodies the “gritty” culture associated with Philadelphia sports.

In a Thursday night practice, She Devils coach John Grasso led team members through skating drills to warm up. Later, the team members engaged in full-contact drills to work on jammer and blocker tactics, including one called “jammer pinball.”

Players often crashed to the concrete floor of the warehouse, only to be helped up again by the same player who had checked them. 

Penn Jersey Roller Derby is a coed roller derby league, of which She Devils belong to, made up of people from different walks of life who all have different skating abilities. 

The league has not only created a place for roller derby to thrive in the tri-state area, but it has also created an embracing community for all types of people to feel loved.

“It is more than a team sport, it’s a family,” said current president, R.J. “Pennis the Menace” Portella. “We help each other through times of profound loss, we help each other in the workforce, so the spirit of the sport extends far beyond the track.”

PJRD consists of two main teams: the She Devils and the Hooligans. The She Devils is the travel A team made up of female-identifying persons, while the Hooligans is the travel A team made up of male-identifying persons.

There are also lower-level teams for each gender category, the B-Devils and Shenanigans, according to Ryan Schuler, a member of the Hooligans and coach of the She Devils.

The league was originally all-women, but is now home to a men’s team when the Hooligans were added in 2007.

“We have been playing for the Men’s Roller Derby Association for five years now,” Schuler said. “We have gone from being one of the lowest ranked teams in the world to going to champs two years in a row now. We are currently ranked 17th in the world and are looking to make playoffs again this year.”

The Hooligans compete on a flat track while the She Devils compete on both banked and flat track. PJRD is one of eight teams in the world that have its own banked track.

“There are differences between the tracks and there are different rules sets that go with the flat track and banked track,” Portella said. “One is not harder than the other; it just depends on the person you ask. I personally have more fun on the banked where other people have more fun on the flat track.”

“The She Devils as a whole is more than just a team, it is a family,” said Mary “Ruby Bruiseday” Black of the She Devils. “Some of these ladies have been skating together for 10 to 12 years, and we are a family above all. We practice really hard and we party really hard.”

Black has suffered a broken arm three times, most recently in November, she said. In order to treat her most recent broken arm, the medical staff had to cut off her gear. The team provided her with new gear to replace what she had lost.

“My derby wife took me to the E.R. and sat with me for like five hours, and then we got burgers and shakes afterwards,” Black said.

Black explained the practice of “derby families,” which are two or more people who have a close friendship within the team. 

“It’s just like someone that you have a bond with or a link with in the league or on the team,” she said.

Her first “derby spouse” is no longer part of the team. She didn’t know him very well when she joined the team, but they quickly bonded.

“We almost got arrested together, getting lockers out of one of the Catholic schools that closed,” she said. “That was our bonding experience.”

Although roller derby is not exactly top of mind when talking about the history of Philadelphia sports, it has been part of the city’s Philadelphia sports culture for a very long time.

Roller derby in Philadelphia has been around before even the Philadelphia Flyers, which joined the National Hockey League in 1967. The Philadelphia Panthers were part of a six-team league that was formed by the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), and dates as far back as 1949.

There also were the Philadelphia Warriors who competed in 1967 in the National Roller League (NRL) and that took the city by storm due to physicality that resonated with Philadelphia sports fans. However, the Warriors folded in 1973. 

During much of the 1970s through 1990s, the sport attempted to revitalize, but was unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 2005 that roller derby showed up in Philadelphia again and Penn Jersey Roller Derby was founded by Ken Sikes and Greg Spencer.

The She Devils are scheduled to compete in Phoenix, Arizona; Trumbull, Connecticut; and Kalamazoo, Michigan this spring. The Hooligans, on the other hand, will compete in Rome, New York in May, with an opportunity to play in Round Rock, Texas for the North American Qualifiers. 

That amount of travel can be punishing, but it’s something the players’ bodies are familiar with. The second time Black broke her arm, her teammates took her out for drinks and karaoke after she was discharged from the hospital.

“Even when you’re injured, you don’t have to be gone because you can still be incorporated in something going on,” Black said. “So then when you’re back on skates it’s less scary. So people welcoming me back and easing me in and just checking on me, things like that. And that’s a big form of support that’s not very quantifiable.”

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