HAGERSTOWN, Md.–As soon as I release the egg, I know it’s a rotten throw.
I’m certain it’s destined for a premature, shell-splitting, yolk-splattering death 62 feet away in my best friend’s right hand. When you’ve been throwing eggs twice a week for the past two months, you develop a pretty good feeling about these things. Except that this is a terrible feeling—the worst feeling an egg thrower can experience. And it’s happening in the final round of competition on the greatest egg throwing stage in the nation. This is inexcusable. This is a complete letdown of monumental proportions.
Normally, such a weak, short toss wouldn’t have been a problem. My partner simply would have run closer to the egg to make a clean snag. Problem averted. But now that we know the official rules—that you can’t cross that line—running over it to secure a better position is not an option.
Little do we know, this rule is about to reward us with a glorious second chance.
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• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
As national championships go, the National Egg Toss Championship (NETC) isn’t exactly on par with the Super Bowl. The NETC takes place on a Sunday and the winners receive trophies, but that’s where the comparisons should stop. Unlike most national championships, which are held in massive arenas, the venue for the NETC is Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., home of the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball club. Willie Mays played his first professional game there in 1950, but the seating capacity is only 4,600. And unlike most national titles, which require years of training and rounds of qualifying, anyone can buy a ticket to a Suns game, show up with a partner in right field after nine innings, and compete for the national title. Most of the contestants are Little League players. As far as I know, ESPN has never covered the event. Erin Andrews has never interviewed the champions.
This didn’t stop Mike Hepp and I from approaching this contest like professionals. While our wives, Carie and Jodie, also planned to compete in the NETC, they rarely practiced. Mike and I, however, shared a standing, twice-weekly date in his front yard. There, he had spray-painted marks in 10-feet increments so we could measure our progress. The first practice wasn’t impressive, but we rapidly improved. One evening, we each completed throws of more than 90 feet—a distance that would have been good enough to win by 50 feet last year. On the Friday night before the contest, however, I worried that our confidence was morphing into cockiness.
“When we win this thing, I bet we can get you on the radio,” Mike said.
“Whoa, buddy,” I said. “Let’s slow down. We need to win it, first.”
“Whatever man, we’re going to be national champions. I’ve even got a perfect quote ready when the newspaper interviews us after we win.”
This was exactly why I had decided to reach out to a few national champion coaches the week before. Figuring we needed to maintain a strict mental focus, I solicited advice from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (a four-time national champion), North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams (a two-time national champion), and Alabama football coach Nick Saban (another two-time national champion). Unfortunately, none of the coaches could spare some time to offer a couple of egg throwers some words of wisdom. If they had, they probably would have advised against a booze-filled binge the day before the championship. We had a mini-reunion with our good friends Dave and Diddy, and our new friends Tracy, Paul, and Lisa. After watching the US-Ghana World Cup match in a bar, we caught a yawner of a game at Camden Yard between the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. Later, we dined and drank at a nearby watering hole. Mike and I also had a few more drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed. Certainly, Coach K wouldn’t have allowed this spree of debauchery.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
On the morning of the contest, my shirtless reflection in the Marriott bathroom mirror told a pathetic tale of excess and laziness. A hairy, expansive gut and flabby chest begged for less beer and fewer second helpings of garlic bratwursts. A wiry, undefined pair of arms cried for attention, for nothing more than an occasional visit to the gym or the fleeting rush of squeezing a stress ball. Multiple zits wondered what they were doing on the face of a 29-year-old.
This, I thought, was hardly the body and face of a national champion. More like a champion doughnut eater.
My self-doubt had some company. As we walked to lunch, Mike revealed that he was nervous.
“Don’t be,” I said. “This is all just for fun.”
“I know, but what if we don’t win, and I’m the weak link?”
Not only were we lacking confidence, we were feuding. At dinner on Saturday night, we stumbled into an inevitable road trip pothole: an epic argument. Pointless road trip arguments of the past have included the following who-could-actually-care-less topics:
-Who’s going to be the better pro: Vince Carter or Corey Maggette?
-Who would you rather take in the NFL Draft: Michael Vick or Drew Brees?
-Was Tiger Woods faking his knee injury at the 2008 US Open?
The argument du jour was whether or not current NBA and NFL stars could be world-class soccer players if they had started playing soccer at an early age, instead of their respective sports. Long story short, Mike said yes. I said not really. An entire restaurant was lucky enough to hear the entire spat, blow for worthless blow. It even spilled over to lunch on Sunday as we waited for our plates at Jimmy’s, a diner in Fells Point.
“Hey Page,” Dave said. “Are you ever going to try and qualify for the US Open?”
“I don’t think I’d have a prayer,” I said. “I think you have to have an incredible handicap just to sign up.”
“I think it’s 1.4,” Mike said. “Dave, what’s yours?”
“I think it’s something like 8.”
“So you’d have to be 8 times better than Dave,” Mike said.
“Well,” I said, “maybe, when I was younger, if somebody had put a golf club in my hands instead of a pen, I’d be in the US Open.”
Everyone laughed. I smirked. My vocal jab felt good. But Mike wasn’t going down without a fight.
“No,” he said. “You’d still be just as bad a golfer as you are a writer.”
Everyone laughed again. Louder this time. I was pressed, but he had yet to knock me out. I had one more comeback in me.
“Right,” I said. “But everybody knows you can’t read!”
Ha! He didn’t respond, because it’s true. Mike would rather poke his eyeball out with a toothbrush than read a book. That’s what movies are for. When he sees how long this story is, he probably won’t even read it. The only problem was that nobody laughed this time. It was clear to everyone that this argument had escalated beyond playful ribbing to uncomfortable needling. I felt like a bad friend. And a terrible egg throwing partner.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
During the drive to Hagerstown, my phone buzzes. According to the Twitter stream for the World Egg Throwing Championship (which is held in Swaton, England, on the same day as the American contest), the newly crowned World Egg Throwing Champions are two 12-year-olds. If the best egg throwers in the world are 12-year-olds, maybe Mike and I are past our prime. Maybe we aren’t cut out for this event.
Fortunately, there is a bit of good news waiting for us at Municipal Stadium, when we arrive in the fourth inning. With the Suns losing 4-0 to the Hickory Crawdads, many fans are already leaving. Fine with me. Those are just potential competitors walking out the front gate. And there aren’t that many people here in the first place. The announced attendance is an ambitious sum of 1,162.
I barely watch the game. I’m far too busy calming my nerves. I chat with my Uncle Jim, who drove up from Frederick to join us and film the event, but I’m a lousy conversation partner. All I can think about is the upcoming competition. Near the end of the game, a Suns employee is carrying the trophies around the stadium. I can’t help but daydream about holding it. Next, I envision a series of never-ending perfect throws and receptions.
After the game, there is another small contest in which fans attempt to throw tennis balls from the stands into hula-hoops at various spots on the field. The closer the hoop, the smaller the prize. Landing your ball in the center field hula-hoop, however, is worth $100. Mike and I take aim for the top prize. We come close a few times, but we nearly throw out our arms. It’s clear that this game is rigged. Hopefully, the NETC isn’t.
Finally, it’s time to throw some eggs.
The contest officials instruct one member of each team to stand behind the right-field foul line. Ten feet from the foul line, they stretch out a roll of yellow caution tape and instruct the other partners to cross the line. To complete one round, the partner behind the foul line must successfully complete a throw to the partner behind the caution tape. Then, that partner must successfully complete a throw back to their partner. The egg can be tossed or rolled, but stepping over the foul line or caution tape will result in disqualification.
Mike and I carefully choose our spot on the field. The main objective is to put a few contestants between us and our wives, who claim to have a secret trick that will lead them to victory. Due to their lack of practice, they really have nothing to lose, and I don’t want them distracting us. Losing to them would be a crippling defeat. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love my wife and respect everything about her. She’s amazingly talented, smart, and beautiful. But I can’t imagine the shame of practicing so hard, only to lose to someone who barely trained.
Our egg throwing neighbors are a pair of 10-year-olds and an 8-year-old and his dad (or possibly his Little League coach). I like what I see. Of the 20 teams, most of them are small children. It all seems innocent enough until the dad/coach next to us speaks to his young partner.
“OK, buddy. Don’t be too upset if we don’t win again this year.”
What? How is this happening? In an effort to get away from our wives, we have positioned ourselves right next to the defending national champions! And one of them must be a precocious phenom who will probably win the next World Egg Throwing Championship. We’re just a pair of speed bumps en route to his reign of global egg flinging domination. Flustered, I drop Mike’s second practice throw. The egg doesn’t break, but it’s clear that I’m rattled. Determined to overcome this adversity, I tell Mike that the drops are out of my system.
We trade in our practice egg for the real deal. The first few throws are perfect. As the officials move the caution tape back 3 to 5 feet after each round, some of our shorter competitors start dropping their eggs.
In the fifth round, at a distance of roughly 30 feet, I notice Carie and Jodie walking off the field. They had a nice run, and I am truly proud of them, but I breathe a deep sigh of relief. We won’t be losing to our wives. Even better, our biggest competitors are now our biggest cheerleaders. Well, our only cheerleaders.
The defending champs fall in the next round. I guess that kid isn’t a future world champion, after all.
Mike and I remain perfect and the field thins out. By Round 9, it’s down to just two teams. Our final opponents are older than us. One of them is a Little League coach. Half his team is here, cheering him on and yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!” every time we make a throw. We match each other in Rounds 9 and 10.
In Round 11, at a distance of 62 feet, Mike throws me a perfect strike. Our competition counters. This is where I make my colossal error. My throw is far enough to barely get over the line, but not far enough for Mike to get in proper position without stepping over the line. Forced to make a shoestring catch, the shell cracks and Mike is clinging to a fist full of yolk. For weeks, we’d been talking about the one bad egg that could ruin our dreams. I just threw it. I can’t watch. I turn around and walk deeper into the outfield. My only hope now is that our opponents will also break their egg.
I turn to watch a perfect throw and catch. The receiver raises his arms. They are the champions. Not us. They are taking trophies home. Not us. It’s all my fault. I’m the weak link. Not Mike.
But wait. Mike is pointing at the foul line. The wives are screaming. “His foot was over the line! His foot was over the line.” A contest official verifies their claim. We’re still alive!
So, now, I scream. “It’s a toss-off!”
(Later, after reviewing the video, I see several instances where our competitors stepped over the line in earlier rounds, meaning we should have never even gotten to this point.)
After noticing the Anyone Can Enter branding on our shirts, I overhear one of our competitors grumble that Mike and I must be getting paid for this. My bad throw aside, we do look the part of professionals. But seriously? Come on guys. There’s no swoosh on our shirts. I consider setting them straight. But why bother? If these guys want to think that we’ve got corporate sponsorship, let them think it.
Each team receives a new egg. In our final practices, Mike and I had trained for this exact situation. We weren’t preparing for a toss-off, but we were confident in our throwing/catching ability from this distance. After making it to 80 and 90 feet a few times in practice, we wanted to see how much farther we could throw an egg if we started at 60 feet instead of 2 feet. All the impact from those short and medium tosses jeopardized the structure of the egg, we figured, making it harder to complete long throws after so many shorter ones. The strategy worked. On the Friday night before the NETC, we each completed a throw of more than 120 feet.
In another twist of good fortune for us, our competitors commit another costly mistake. Their first throw lands 15-feet short of the receiver and bounces end-over-end, kickoff style, into his hands. The egg is still intact, but it clearly takes a beating.
Mike throws me another perfect, high-arcing egg. I make another perfect catch. The opponent near me is up. His throw can’t look any sweeter. It’s long enough and it’s right on target, but that egg has just been to hell and back. It probably isn’t going to survive a landing in a dumpster full of pillows.
SPLAT! The egg breaks in his hands! All we need is one more throw and catch.
My mind is completely empty. Nerves? Nowhere to be found. Pressure? Totally absent. A crowd of 20 people remaining, many of them small children heckling Mike? Invisible. It’s just Mike and me out there, playing catch with an egg in his front yard. Just like we’d practiced dozens and dozens of times in the past two months. By this point, we’re totally over our road trip feud. Who cares if Julius Peppers would make a good soccer player? All that matters now is that we can be national champion egg throwers.
With one deep breath, I deliver another strike to Mike. The Little League hecklers are nearly in his back pocket.
“Drop it! Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!”
Undaunted, he welcomes it with another soft landing in his cushioned hands and flips it to the kids.
It’s over! We are national champions! I am shocked, and I don’t want to disrespect the runners-up. Just a minute before—just for a moment—they thought they were national champions. So, for no good reason, I walk up to the opponent on my side, shake his hand, and say something sort of weird.
“Congratulations,” I say, even though I am the victor, not him. I have no idea what I am saying. I am dehydrated and possibly delirious. Next time, I think, I’m hiring a water boy.
Minutes later, Mike and I are each holding our own national championship trophies. Assuming you exclude all those participation trophies you receive in youth sports just for showing up to the games, and unless you count the sportsmanship award (which was actually a plaque) I received my senior year of high school (for setting records in both interceptions thrown and sacks taken) or the trophy I made (the one and only time I won our Fantasy Football League), this is the first trophy I have ever actually won. It feels good. No, it feels incredibly awesome.
The only thing that might make it better is a champagne bath and President Obama on line 1.
President Obama: Congratulations, gentlemen. Your country is truly proud of you today. You have performed with great courage, honor, and integrity. I look forward to hosting you, your families, and your friends for a steak and egg dinner in Washington sometime soon.
At least, that’s probably how it would have gone.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
In the parking lot, Carie turns to me. “So, do you want to know the secret tip or not?”
She’s been dying to tell me.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “What is it?”
“The people who set the Guinness World Record said they shook up an egg for two hours so that the yolk would thin out and wouldn’t slam against the sides of the shell.”
“Oh,” I say. “Did they ever win a national championship?”
I don’t actually know the answer to this question. I don’t care. All I know is that Mike and I are national champions, and we didn’t need a secret tip to make it happen. We didn’t even need a coach. All we needed was practice.
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
On the 6-hour trip home, our heads swell with pride.
“What a great week for Raleigh,” Mike says. “First, John Wall is the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Now, we win the National Egg Toss Championship.”
Later, we plot our egg throwing futures. We wonder aloud which of us will be the first to sign an endorsement deal. I realize that no matter what I eat for breakfast the next day, it will be a breakfast of champions. Because I’m a champion. Therefore, I could eat cat food and call it the breakfast of champions.I decide, however, to avoid this idea.
“So, Mike,” I say, “are we going to come back next year and defend our title?”
“Maybe,” he says, “or we could retire. Go out on top.”
Then again, there’s always next years World Championship in England. It would be a shame to retire without a world championship title to our names.
Those 12-year-olds better watch out.