They are the best-kept secret at Yale. Their mission is to supervise extra-nonsensical activity on Cross Campus. They are our best, last and only line of defense. They work in secret and exist in shadow. They fight with foam.
So proclaims the Web site of Yale’s very own Freestyle Dueling Association, better known by many as “those freaks.” Despite the Yale campus’s much-lauded tolerance for unique individuals and their particular passions, the Freestyle Dueling Association — FDA for short — has acquired an unbelievable level of infamy for what is, in effect, a very loose version of a club sport.
Established in 1992 by a group of gamers who wanted real-life experience with strategic battles, the FDA meets every Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. on Cross Campus. This past Saturday, 12 freestyle duelers were gathered on lower Cross Campus fighting each other one-on-one as a warm-up.
Brandishing swords of all sizes, axes and shields, they lunge and parry. Their self-made weapons are wonders of foam, cardboard and duct tape. While fighting, they wear grim expressions, seemingly absorbed in the action. But then, one person trips or makes a goofy face, and both fighters dissolve into laughter.
Jennifer Guest ’05 said this sense of humor is an intrinsic part of the FDA’s philosophy. She said she does not know why non-dueling Yalies are under the impression that the club takes itself seriously.
“We make fun of ourselves to begin with,” Guest said. “We know we’re nerds — we take pride in it.”
Member Chris Meyer, a 20-something tech services coordinator for the Center of Language Study, confirms Guest’s statement without even saying a thing. He wears what could be considered the unofficial FDA uniform: a cotton T-shirt with a clever joke on the front. His navy blue shirt is simplly but confidentially emblazoned with the word “nerd” in neon-green, typewriter font.
Meyer is also a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism, an international organization with a chapter based in Hamden, Conn. But while the SCA involves recreating all aspects of medieval life, from epic, thousand-person battles to making butter, the FDA only wants to fight — and make jokes about how dorky they are.
In a rare moment of cease-duel, Brian Thompson ’08 — whose T-shirt says “will work for bandwidth” — tells some of the other duelers how he discovered the FDA by accident the year before. Surfing the Internet, he typed “something geeky” that he cannot remember into his search engine and serendipitously stumbled upon the FDA Web site. After fighting in the group during Bulldog Days, he became a full-fledged member upon matriculation at Yale this fall.
After 45 minutes of warm-ups, Guest yells, “Chaos!” and the group stops. The 12 duelers gather in a loose circle and, on cue, proceed to fight each other until the last fighter standing. Elimination occurs when a player receives a single blow to the torso or three blows to the limbs — each equivalent to what would be fatal with a real sword.
New members Evan Orenstein ’08 and Tyler Theofilos ’08, wearing a shirt that declares “you’ll never understand me,” die quickly. Introduced to the club at the freshman bazaar, Orenstein and Theofilos said they have not heard anything negative about the FDA during their three weeks on the Yale campus and seem puzzled as to why anyone would think disparagingly about something as fun as playing with foam swords.
“It’s more of a sport than anything else,” Theofilos only half-jokes as beads of sweat gather on his forehead.
“Yeah — cross-training,” Orenstein chimes in with a laugh.
Soon, the pair rejoin their fellow duelers for the final games of the day: the team battles. After picking teams in a method reminiscent of middle school softball, the two sides huddle and strategize.
Bystander Melissa King ’08 watches the FDA’s antics with a bemused expression. While King said she prefers sports like rugby, she would not dismiss the FDA out of hand.
“I would do a lot of things, and it does look like fun,” King said. “Everybody looks pretty happy.”
As the teams face off, another passerby power-walks through. She, however, is not so accepting, and mutters under her breath, “I still think this is one of the weirdest things at Yale.”
The subsequent battle cries only emphasize her opinion.
One side yells, “This is a battle brought to you by the number five and the letter J!”
The other side responds, “Do it for the penguin!”
But member Melody Lu ’06 has her own theory about why the FDA continues to be so misunderstood by so many Yalies.
“We look like we’re having fun,” Lu said. “And they’re probably not.”
In the end, no one can mock the FDA better than themselves. The last battle cry of the day?
“Kill the nerds!”