When thousands of people gather in downtown Hannibal for the Jaycee's 57th Annual National Tom Sawyer Days, a huge number of them will spend their time either rolling in the mud, or watching other people wallow in filth.
Since it started in 1979, Mississippi Mud Volleyball has become a major attraction at NTSD. Hannibal resident Jason Utterback is playing in his 27th tournament this year.
â??I'm the Brett Favre of mud,â?? he told me. â??I retired one year, and I sat out once because of a back injury, but then I keep coming back.â??
This year, Jason is prepared. He went to the doctor for a cortisone shot in his back so it would be ready for the rigors of playing on a surface that makes quicksand look like a day at the beach. Last year, a teammate tore her ACL on the first play of the match.
â??It's almost laughable how seriously we take our mud volleyball,â?? Jason said. He's a seven-time champion. In one stretch, his team went three years without losing a single set. Experience is the key here. The team has had the same core players for 27 years, shuffling in and out substitutes as needed. They've played under the names of Mudweiser, Top Gun and now Screaming Johnnies.
â??We made a rule a long time agoâ??no spouses,â?? he said.
â??Why not?â?? I volleyed back.
â??It's kind of like a canoe trip with a spouse. You know what I mean.â?? Spike. Score one for Jason.
Still, mud volleyball is becoming a family tradition with the Utterback clan. His teenage daughter is playing for the third time this year. His other three kids will likely suit up in their junkiest clothes when they come of age. And even though Jason tried retirement once, he realized he's not content leaving the fun of playing in the mud to the younger crowd.
â??These young teams are all out laughing and dancing around,â?? he said. Meanwhile, his team of 40-somethings is popping Advil and slathering on sunscreen.
Sunscreen may be optional, at least while you're playing. You're so caked in mud, it seems there's no way the sun's rays could pierce your skin. You must be careful not to let it dry ... you'll be stiff like an adobe hut.
Shoes are not optional attire at mud volleyball. Back when the tournament started, more than 100 people went to the emergency room with injuries, mainly cuts from glass and other debris rising up out of the mud. The courts are much better these days. The pits are permanent, with a sand base, a mat, then mud on top. The latest issue of the Hannibal Magazine has a great article on the history of Mississippi Mud Volleyball. The Y-Mens Club, a fund raising arm of the Hannibal YMCA, has finessed the tournament over the years so that it runs like a well-lubed machine.
I speak from experience. I've played mud volleyball a couple times with Team KHQA in the media exposition. It's so much harder than you might think. First off, you have to duct tape your clothes and shoes to your body. That tells you a lot about the sucking power of the Mississippi mud. Literally it will vacuum your clothes right off your body.
Wallowing like a sow in the mud hasn't bothered me. I'm an old farm girl. It slays me to hear a player squeal like a pig when they first get splashed with crud. Come on! What did you expect?! No, it's not the dirt that bothers me. It's the clean up. Days later you'll find bits still clinging in your ear lobes and other areas mud doesn't belong.
This year, I'm leaving the mud volleyball to my 13-year old twin daughters. They're the dÃbutantes at mud volleyball. All they can talk about is what to wear. They won't heed their mother's fashion adviceâ??only wear what you are willing to throw away after the match.
For a real laugh, check out the media tournament. It's a tradition for the media to take the first dive in the mud. Play starts at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 5th. Team KHQA is assembling an all-star line up in an effort to take the title. You'll hear some of that squealing pig stuff I referred to earlier. And by golly, it's gonna be stinkin' hot. You just as well find a mud hole to wallow around in. See you there!
Take care~Sarah D.