Down East 2013 ©
By Will Bleakley
Photographed by Mark Fleming
Christian Housh stands at midcourt, wearing an absurdly tiny cape, orange-striped socks, knee pads adorned with the faces of tigers, and a headband with his nickname inscribed across the top: Tiger Claw. Around him a cast of nearly one hundred players, ranging from college kids with dyed mohawks to freckled eleven-year-olds with glasses, sixty-four year old twins, face-painted women, and active retirees, stretch and get ready to compete. Even if you include the Bridgton Academy basketball team looking on in total confusion, Housh is the most feared athlete on the court. That’s because this eclectic group has assembled on this cold Saturday in February in Bridgton to battle for the right to call themselves the world champions of four square.
Remember four square? It’s that classic game played on schoolyards during recess where a sixteen-by-sixteen-foot box is divided into four sections and players hit a kickball around with their hands to defend their square. It’s cute when kids play, pretty silly when adults try, and deadly serious when someone such as Tiger Claw throws himself across the court to reclaim his Men’s Division 1 championship trophy.
On February 23, Bridgton will host the ninth annual Four Square World Championship. There is no historical precedent for the event to be held in this western Maine town of just over five thousand people, no decades-old story about how the game helped rally its citizens through times of hardship. It exists because sixty-four-year-old resident Peter Lowell really loves this offbeat sport. “I carry a four square ball and a piece of chalk with me wherever I go,” he says, listing Guatemala and Costa Rica as two recent places he started an impromptu match. Lowell searched online hoping to find a world-wide tournament, came up empty-handed, and figured Bridgton was as good a place as any to start one.
“It’s this silly thing, but it’s special,” one of its organizers, Sean Effel, says of the event that’s lured competitors from California to Newfoundland. “People rally around this quirky sport, and it brings us together in odd ways. Most of us don’t see each other for a full year, but as soon we get back together here in Bridgton, it’s like family.”
From the bleachers, Dan Fishbein, who failed to make it past the first round, points proudly to his eleven-year-old son going toe-to-toe with Tiger Claw in the semifinals. Matthew looks young enough for the kids division, but he practices year-round with his dad in their Cape Elizabeth basement. “He found something he’s really good at,” Dan says. “For some kids, it’s basketball. For him, it’s four square.”
Matthew lost his battle with Tiger Claw (most do), but Housh’s devastating ball spin and willingness to sacrifice his body is not enough for him to take back the trophy. Housh rolls up his pants leg the next morning during the “Breakfast of Champions” at Ricky’s Diner to show everyone the bruising his knees took despite his tiger-protected pads. A new player, Mark Pryor from Virginia, claimed the top spot. “It’s kind of a dream come true,” he says, genuinely surprised at how much winning this tongue-in-cheek event meant to him. “My dad taught me four square at camp when I was little. I always wanted this to be an Olympic event, so when I heard there was a world championship, I had to come up here.” It’s not the London Olympics. But that’s okay. It’s Bridgton, Maine: Four Square Capital of the World, where anyone can wear a tiny cape and, for one night, compete as a kid again.