Dan Robinson didn't see it coming.
Thwang! The green rubber ball, bigger than a honeydew but not as heavy, flattened his right cheek. The other two dozen players on the Wheaton tennis court grimaced as he tried to walk off the pain.
"Did you see that?" laughed his girlfriend, Laura Kichak, as he rubbed the swollen skin. "That must have hurt."
That is the stuff of middle-school nightmares, the sort of humiliation that a sixth-grader might revisit years later in a therapist's office. But Robinson, a 25-year-old Navy software engineer from Laurel, signed up to take the hit.
Dodgeball, a fixture of schoolyard culture before it fell out of favor with educators who worried about the risks of physical and emotional injury, has reincarnated itself as a fast-growing, adults-only game. Fueled by the box-office popularity of the current film "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" and the debut of "Extreme Dodgeball" on cable's Game Show Network, new leagues and more loosely organized groups are popping up across the country.
"Interest has just exploded," said Rusty Walker, 39, president of the International Dodge Ball Federation, which has organized players in seven countries, including the United States. Player interest has increased twelve-fold this year, he said, driven by buzz about the movie. The National Amateur Dodgeball Association -- a rival league based in Schaumburg, Ill., made up mainly of midwestern teams -- reports a more than fifty-fold increase in hits to its Web site.
Robinson is one of more than 20 who came out for the game last week in Wheaton at the Glenfield Park tennis courts -- the traditional indoor gyms are difficult to secure. More than 60 adults from the Washington area have signed up on the e-mail list that organizes the weekly match -- and more join each week.
But organized dodgeball has been late coming to the nation's capital. Interested players have been unable to find a league to join. Josh Rosenthal, a 27-year-old small-business owner from the District, hopes to change that.
Last Thursday, a dozen people who met through the Internet sat at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW to talk dodgeball. Their plan: to form a citywide league this fall. Meantime, would-be players travel to the game that Robinson has organized by e-mail for almost a year.
It begins with the pregame ritual that can be more bruising than a dodgeball to the face: choosing sides.
"Give me tank top," said Robinson, pointing to the undershirt-clad Rosenthal.
"I'll take Steve," said Alex Kritchfield, 28, a kung fu teacher from Silver Spring.
The selections continued until two remained. Megan Brady, 24, looked nervous. The teacher from Hyattsville seemed resigned to being the final choice.
But Robinson picked her. "Yay!" she exulted. "I'm not picked last!" She rushed over to her team.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm last," said a disheartened Joe Moeller, 21, a waiter and student from Glenmont, as he trudged onto the court.
And then three rubber balls -- blue, yellow, and green -- started flying.
The rules are simple. If a ball hits you, you're out. If you catch it, the player who threw it is out. A team wins when all the opposing players are gone.
Robinson's group usually plays a dozen games over two hours, though no one particularly keeps track of how many.
Robinson wound his arm back like a discus thrower and quickly launched the ball over the net. He hit Kritchfield, who jogged over to Robinson's side of the net. Kritchfield had to stay off the court, but in this version of the game, he still could peg an opponent as long as he stayed on the sidelines. And when he got a ball, Kritchfield nailed Robinson in the head.
Kritchfield apologized -- headhunting is prohibited -- but that didn't reduce the swelling on Robinson's cheek. It was definitely a stinger -- their name for any hit that leaves a mark.
"He's got the 8.5-inch tattoo," said Kevin So, 25, an online designer from Takoma Park, referring to the diameter of the balls they play with.
Injuries can be serious. Phil Bergner, 23, a Web developer from Laurel, broke his foot while dodging a few weeks ago and has been benched since. "It's depressing not being able to play," he said.
School districts such as Montgomery County have banned dodgeball, saying it can cause injury and inflict psychological damage. "Dodgeball is an elimination game and it uses individuals as human targets," said Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education in Reston. "These practices are not appropriate for physical education."
International Dodge Ball Federation and National Amateur Dodgeball Association officials said they curb injuries by mandating the use of safer balls. That's part of the reason Robinson dislikes those leagues.
"They have sissy rules," Robinson said. "They play with the foam balls and when you're out, you just sit on the sidelines." The two leagues forbid players on the sidelines from hurling balls at opponents on the court -- rules that make for a longer game, Robinson said.
That, in essence, is the basis of the Great Dodgeball Schism. Even though the international federation wants a presence in the Washington area, Robinson and Rosenthal said they plan to remain separate to preserve their faster-paced version. Another reason is that no one seems to know where Kate Mills is.
Mills is the International Dodge Ball Federation's first D.C. commissioner and is responsible for organizing federation games in the area -- in theory, at least. To dodgeball enthusiasts who have called her in the past few weeks, however, she is a disembodied voice on an answering machine who doesn't return calls.
"Why is it so difficult to talk to the D.C. commissioner?" Rosenthal asked. "If they have such a large federation, where are they?" Mills did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
After a recent game, a half-dozen players headed to the nearby Stained Glass Pub in Silver Spring. Over pizza and pitchers of beer, they discussed Kurosawa, the defense industry and, of course, dodgeball.
There's talk of setting up simultaneous games in Maryland, Virginia and the District to accommodate the growing interest. Robinson is worried that it will be too much work.
"Blame Ben Stiller," joked Steven Goode, 26, referring to the star of the "Dodgeball" film.
Robinson said he hopes to see an area-wide league soon -- but he doesn't want to organize it. "That's where I'll bow out," he said. "I just want to play."