Roll of a Lifetime

In the headquarters of culture, New York, New York, the idea was born. A television producer on the make was flipping through the New York Times when, turning the page, he encountered the obituary of a Roller Derby Queen.

Like a can of V-8 to the head, "It hit him," said the publicist: "'Roller Derby, my God!' "

He got on the phone with people who mattered, who got on the phone with people who mattered more. Finally, they were pitching the show to the president of The Nashville Network. "Sold; we'll take it!" he said, and the talent agents were sent into the countryside to turn over rocks and find the stars.

They landed late Saturday night at the George Bush airport and drove early the next morning past slow, brown cows, a shop selling smoked sausage jerky and a sign at Candlestick Baptist Church that read, "Except ye, repent." Onward they went, until at last they reached the local capital of in-line skating, Champions Roller World in Spring, Texas. Inside, the skating coach complained of having slept only four hours, the associate producer complained of having gone without breakfast, the publicist from Los Angeles sat huddled in her leather jacket, complaining of the air conditioning's "gale force winds," and the publicist from New York said cheerily how fun it was "to get out into the real world," and added, "You just have to take your vitamin C, that's all."

TNN, whose focus is country music, has lately diverged into shows on stock-car racing and bass fishing. It was thought that ROLLERJAM, with its "timeless combination of speed, action and over-the-top personalities," would blend well into the mix, especially since TNN has no professional wrestling.

But don't call it a redneck sport, said the publicist from New York.
On chairs and benches, about 25 ROLLERJAM wannabes were tugging on their wheels. There might have been more at another time, but Sunday morning was fine for these purposes. ROLLERJAM wasn't seeking Skaters for Jesus, unless they were like the woman in Florida who broke bricks over her head to demonstrate the power of the Lord. She made the cut.

What they wanted was the total package. In Los Angeles, where they had just been, the audition line had been filled with actors, many of who had never skated in their lives. The trick was finding actors who could skate, or skaters who could act. At Champions, when the prospects rolled onto the rink, gracefully floating and weaving, the publicist from New York said, "We were right about Houston." Rumors of an unknown land were true: People in Texas can really skate.

Erwin Miller, an old Roller Derby hero, lined them up against the wall, told them to relax, and then led them around the rink. The object of the game is for each team to try to lap the other, with each trying to prevent it by skating in packs. So on his loud, antique skates, Miller veered off to the center and watched how closely the skaters moved together. Then blowing his whistle, he told each of them to sprint away. Most of them staggered off slowly, lifting heavy legs; a man in a bandanna exploded forward as speed skaters do, and another in a hockey jersey zipped along right behind, squealing to a halt at the end.

Miller lined the skaters against the wall. He thanked them all and called out the numbers of the best. The man in the bandanna, the man in the hockey jersey, and a tall, blond woman were gathered together. Andy Meyer, the smooth-talking associate producer, took them inside the stockroom one by one, and there, among jars of ketchup and pickles, he aimed a video camera at them and said, "You're on."

First, they introduced themselves: Desire ("spelled like Desire") MacDonald was a 19-year-old assistant title examiner in Huntsville. She may be pretty, she declared, "but I don't take crap," and as proof of that, she said she somehow had suffered nine broken arms and six busted chins.

The hockey player was Jim Bourgeois, also known as "Cajun Man," who runs a roller rink in Austin. His hero was Tom Cruise, he said, "because he's a Mack Daddy with the ladies, and I like the ladies; I really do."

Brian Paul, in the bandanna, had traveled from St. Louis hoping he could do something besides sell commercial real estate. He liked speed skating, mountain climbing -- all sports, really. He'd set himself on fire once. He'd do it again, if they gave him some water.

So it was established that they were all fine Americans, and then Meyer said to each of them, "Okay, we're going to do something different now, a little role-play." And this is where things got tough. In the first scenario, each of them was the villain, suspended for breaking a chair over an opponent's back. Don't be afraid to be mean, Meyer said. Then, playing the reporter, he shoved the microphone in front of them and said, "How do you feel?"

Hmm. How did they feel? Not one of them could muster a frown or snarl. Their faces had no expression; their voices, no inflection. "Completely unfair," said Paul, sounding more schoolboy than wrestler. "He started it," Cajun Man whined.

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