Pomeranz: Am I still Johnny Dodgeball?

Keith Ferrazzi is not a movie star. I am a movie star.

Keith Ferrazzi is an expert on building relationships. He is a professional networker. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is a Yalie. And the first lecture I attended at Yale not given by President Levin or Dean Salovey was by Keith Ferrazzi. The entire class of 2009 attended.

His was a simple message for the freshman class: “Never Eat Alone.” (You should be networking.) Ferrazzi addressed those awkward opening introductions to roommates and potential business associates: bypass the ritual nonsense of collegemajorhometown. For practice, Ferrazzi ordered us to share “what [we were] passionate about” with the total stranger sitting nearest to us. We didn’t take it very seriously either; I found out that my new friend was in TD and sat down.

I shared memories neither of recess dodgeball nor of childhood acting any more than I shared those of the being the butt of jokes in fifth grade. These moments didn’t fit into the college-Pomeranz narrative. I cut those moments when producing the one-minute version of my life.

This weekend I went home to Chicago to watch the world premier of Johnny Dodgeball, a film produced by indy production company Film Foetus. I am “Johnny Dodgeball.” Although the footage of “Johnny Dodgeball” sat in director/writer D.P. Carlson’s basement for nearly a decade, it was recently edited and subsequently screened.

Ten hours after leaving New Haven, I arrived at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Gathered in the small dark theater were characters from my past: my parents, my teachers, and a couple of the co-stars I hadn’t seen since, well, since the last time I was in the National Amateur Dodgeball Tournament. We came to glance into the past: when I was a child, Carlson had hired me and these other actors, entered us in a dodgeball tournament, and filmed it. Eight years later, no one had seen the final cut.

The lights dimmed. The film opened with 13-year-old me/Johnny, sports goggles restraining straw blond hair, summer-camp basketball jersey clashing with White Sox sweatband on my arm, hand holding dodgeball, quick prepubescent voice commenting that dodgeball is not a violent sport — if you get hit by a dodgeball in the head, yes, it hurts, but “love hurts.”

I ad libbed virtually every line of that movie. Johnny Dodgeball is me. I remember all of it: the digital watch on my left hand (birthday present), my tough-guy attitude (learned from years of baseball), the too-quick words (some things never change). Carlson’s approach, per usual, was brilliant: he had worked with me on a different movie (Sailorman, staring Micah Kanters, the Mazda “Zoom Zoom” kid) and built the character of Johnny Dodgeball to fit me. He then filled out the cast with stock characters and let us go: the preppie (Frankie), the pothead (Space), the weirdo (Spaz), the nerd (Spongeface), the football player (Rhyno), the inner city showboat (Little Mike), the attractive girl (Queen D, played by Jessica Szohr. She’s now on Gossip Girl and I’m in Intro Stat).

I still act. I play my character, and I know my lines. Watching Frankie and Space fight over Queen D, knowing that they did it without retakes, I recognized the characters for what they were: like actors, we pursue not happiness but a story line. We need the exposition, the conflict, the suffering. The end.

Spoiler alert: our team got creamed in the finals. The kids from the suburbs were bigger and better at dodgeball than a bunch of SAG/AFTRA tweens. Following our unscripted loss, Carlson had to find a film buried in the moments. It took eight years, yes. There is no dénouement. Johnny Dodgeball kicks a fence, talks wistfully about next year, and promises to keep his eyes open for a semi-pro dodgeball league. I’ve joked that when we re-release Johnny Dodgeball, we should shoot quick takes about where Johnny is now: in a biker jacket, in jail, smoking cigarettes in between P.E. periods at Budlong Elementary. Maybe writing columns for the Yale Daily News. Although the film ends, Johnny Dodgeball does not. Johnny remains the same. Watching in 2008, after schools have banned dodgeball as too violent, long after I ditched the Camp Chi jersey for a jacket and tie, I returned for an hour to Johnny’s world.

My world. That teenage dodgeball maniac is still a part of me. How much, I can’t say: the lights won’t turn on when this column goes to print.

And if I didn’t know after four years of college, I certainly didn’t know during a forced exchanged at the beginning of freshman year.

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