We are taking a little side trip this month to get to know our longest running zebra: Throb Zombie. It is impossible to play roller derby without referees, and it is about time you get to know this one. Join me as we get a different view of life on the track from the one who kicks you off the track.
Name: Throb Zombie
Years Refereeing: 8
What drew you to roller derby in the first place?
Well, like many people my age, I grew up watching it with my dad. Then it kind of disappeared for decades. In 2011, I heard a radio advertisement for Hard Knox Roller Girls saying, “Roller Derby! Roller Derby! ROLLER DERBY!” It got my attention. I said, “What?! Roller Derby in Knoxville?” So at my next available opportunity, I found a computer and googled the Hard Knox Roller Girls. The first thing I saw was “We Need Refs!” At that point, a light went off in my head, and I just knew what I was going to be doing for the next several years of my life. At that point, that’s when Throb Zombie was born. Actually within a few hours I already had the derby name.
The name Throb Zombie is obviously derived from the musician Rob Zombie, and one of his early hits was a song called “Thunder Kiss ‘65”. In the chorus he repeats “1965, yeah, ow.” He kind of grunts and grumbles a lot of the song in a loud and menacing way, but the 1965 is clear. So that is why my number is 1965. It is a throw back to Mr. Zombie. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Zombie. Rob Zombie is in my top 20. I definitely like him as a movie maker and musician. The Hard Knox Roller Girls actually bought me and Bushwhacker a ticket to see Rob Zombie in concert a couple years ago for my birthday. It was a very thoughtful gift; one that still touches my heart to this day. And the experience was incredible. Seeing Rob Zombie in concert was mind blowing.
So, we know what got you into roller derby, but what made you stay?
Well, I wanted to get good at it. And I’m still trying to get good at it: what I do, which is refereeing. I think it is going to be more of a journey than a destination.
Everything keeps changing in the derby world.
Every year there are new rules and rule changes. It kind of keeps me paying attention to it most of the time. But mostly, it's Bushwhacker. I met her within the first few weeks of being involved with derby, and we hit it off pretty famously. And long story short, we are now married: very happily married, I should say. She is my best friend, and where she goes, I go. And whenever my love of derby diminishes, which is rare, I am inspired by her continuous, unfettering love of the sport.
Bushwhacker has been around since the beginning, right?
She was at the first practice of Hard Knox. She has been there essentially since day one. So right now, she is by far the skater that has been here the longest. She hasn’t taken any time off. She had back injuries that side-lined her 6 or 7 years ago, but she still coached and NSOed.
Did you ever consider playing roller derby?
For me, I have always just wanted to ref. The actual physical contact of the sport, while exciting and fun to watch, does not entice me to participate. Plus, I am not a young whippersnapper anymore, and I am more fragile than I was, say, 25 or 30 years ago. And refs break their legs sometimes, just by standing. Derby injuries can happen just by standing, slipping awkwardly, etc.
Reffing is vitally important to any sport, and keeps us all safe. Can you give the readers a quick run-down of how to ref a roller derby game?
Short answer: No. There is no quick run-down of refereeing. Essentially there are three referee positions. Each position drastically changes what your jobs are. To be a referee you need to know the rules: the rules of engagement, the contact penalties to look for, but also there are a lot of procedural rules that don’t involve contact. And those get called more often than the contact penalties, I’ve found. So you have to have a pretty deep understanding of the game, which is tough, because there are a lot of rules, and they do constantly change. But the payoff is getting to skate right next to the action. I love being a jammer ref. So my job is to skate next to that jammer, count her points, and determine if the contact she makes to other skaters or the contact other skaters make to her is legal or not. And they like to fly, so I am usually flying right next to them. Since the first time I jam reffed at a practice in 2011, I knew that is what I wanted to do. It is just exhilarating to be right there next to them, three feet away from them, and hauling butt around the track.
And hopefully not getting hit.
It doesn’t happen too often. I have gotten pretty good at detecting in my periphery when someone is coming into the out-of-bounds area, or falling into the out-of-bounds area, and I’ve had to jump over a few and do some quick jukes. There has been a good dozen times or so where I have been taken down, which is always a fan favorite. Fans love it when a ref is taken down, so I usually stand, wave, or something, unless it is a sanctioned game.
So, we have two Jam Refs (one per jammer) and the other ref positions are…?
There are two jam refs. Then there are two inside pack refs. Their job is to define the pack. Roller derby does not happen without a pack in existence. Then there are three outside pack refs who monitor everything from a totally different angle. They see the things that the inside referees don’t. It takes seven refs to fully staff a roller derby game. And even then, we still miss a lot of things.
I think it would be harder to ref than to play. I don’t think I could. I would like to try, because I think it would make me a better all-around player (having different perspectives on penalties), but I think I would be too distracted. I would be watching the pack and then get distracted by the jammer.
I could see that. A lot of skaters could have those same issues. For me it is the opposite. I am so focused on following the legality of what’s happening, that I don’t absorb the game itself. I don’t see the awesome hits and the incredible apex jumps, unless it's my jammer. Most of the time I don’t even know who is winning. When I am jam reffing, I have to look at the scoreboard to make sure the points are correct, but otherwise, in any given game, I couldn’t tell you which team was playing better than the other. I could tell you who is playing more legally than the other.
I try really hard not to have penalties. That is a general goal of mine, but you told me once if you don’t get penalties, that means you aren’t trying. You have to be going out and doing things to get penalties, and you have to put effort into a game.
That’s true. I think my quote has evolved some over the years, but now-a-days it is more along the line of, “You aren’t playing derby if you don’t get your hands dirty.” It is a very physical game. I have seen a lot of girls who never went to the penalty box, and they were the girls who would just stand there not really do much. I think the more you do, the more you get called on. You may be called properly or improperly on a penalty. There are a lot of wrong calls in roller derby. We aren’t professionals, we are volunteers.
It is impossible to see everything.
There is that, too. You can’t see everything. But there is a large amount of wrong calls. I would rather mess up by not calling something, than calling something blatantly wrong. I have done both. I feel better about myself if I let a questionable play slide by than if I know in retrospect that I made the wrong call. My theory is that I want the girls to determine how the game ends, not the officials. I have seen some games where bad refereeing cost a team a game. I have seen it a handful of times, and it is heartbreaking. There is also a lot of personal discretion that goes into reffing. You can have a ref crew that calls something one way, and another crew that calls something completely opposite. I know that frustrates Bushwhacker, for one example, as coach and captain, when refs define the pack in radically different ways, which absolutely happens a lot. The pack can extend half way around the track, and it is really hard to keep track of everybody. And it happens so quickly and everyone shifts positions so frequently that sometimes it is all I can do to define a pack; I can’t watch for penalties; I can’t look at jammers. All I can do is try to figure out where the closest pack is.
[Under WFTDA rules, a pack is defined as “the largest group of in bounds Blockers skating or standing in proximity and containing members of both teams,” and your distance from members of the pack is defined by location of your hips.]
There have been a lot of changes to the rules and the game in general since you have been reffing. What do you see as the most impactful change to the game as a whole?
Hmm…impactful? I think one of the biggest changes to the rules that I have seen that has an effect on game play is the leniency on cut tracks. It used to be if you left the track and came back on even accidently or for a split second, you were sent to the box. That used to send a lot of players, and a lot of jammers, to the box. Even when they knew that they had cut, but couldn’t stop themselves. Now if you leave the track, pass one opponent or at least 2 teammates and go back onto the track, you are given a grace period, of just a second or two, to take yourself back out of bounds and bring yourself back in behind whoever you were behind when you went out of bounds. That is saving a lot of jammers from going to the penalty box. I think that is probably helping jammers stay on the track more. In addition, this removal of the jammer lap point was carved into stone to cut down on blow-out games. [Jammers no longer receive a point for lapping the opposing team’s jammer. Blockers are now the only points on the track].
I am sure it is easier for refs to keep up with points that way. You don’t have to keep up with where the other jammer is, is she in the box, etc. You only have to watch your one jammer and who she is passing.
Yes, as a jam ref, the absence of that rule does make jam reffing easier for sure. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it until I skated a game under the new rule set. I only had to concentrate on my jammer, and I was like, “This is great.” It was complicated to keep track of the other jammer. You had to know if they were on the same lap as your jammer, if they were ahead or behind, if they are coming out of the box, were they actually going to score a point on your jammer, or was it just a positional lap. There were a lot of things to keep up with mentally, but they are gone now. I like things to be easy when I referee, but they rarely are.
What are the penalties you see the most often?
I like to call “destruction of pack” and “failure to reform”.
I know. You call me on those all the time.
Like I said, you can’t have derby without a pack. When there is a “destruction of pack” that could have been avoided, a penalty must be awarded. In a “destruction of pack” scenario, it is typically one skater. When it is a “failure to reform,” it could be one from each team who is not putting forth effort to get the pack together. As soon as there is a “no pack”, it is the obligation of the skaters on the track to stop what they are doing and do whatever they have to do to immediately reform the pack. When they don’t do that, which I see a good bit, I love to blow that whistle at them. In addition, I see a lot of cut tracks, a good many back blocks. My favorite is probably the leg block. It is a new verbal cue from last year. Essentially instead of blocking to someone’s leg, its blocking with your own leg. It is essentially the same as tripping someone.
That is a lot of information, so let’s switch gears. What do you like to do in your fun time?
I am a member of a local rock-and-roll band called Red as Blood. I play bass guitar in that band and we rock really hard for a bunch of middle-aged men. Plus, it is a lot of fun. It is, many times, the most joy that I feel, playing loud rock-and-roll music. It is something that just makes more sense to me than most other things in the world. And when we catch that groove, which is almost all the time, it is just…there’s nothing else in the world that really compares to it. I love to rock out. On top of that, my time is spent working and hanging out with Bushwhacker. We don’t do as many fun things as we’d like to because we both have our time cards pretty much filled up. But historically we love to go hiking. We will do that at least once a month. That is where I find my spiritual inner peace: out on the trails of the Great Smoky Mountains. I am also about to become a full-time dad. My young son, known in the derby circle as ZomBoy, is about to come live with us full time. He is a really good kid. I am looking forward to hanging out with him for the next several years while he goes through high school.
Thank you so much. It has been great getting to know the man behind the whistle. Next month we will be also looking at some behind-the-scenes aspects of Hard Knox Roller Girls. Thanks, readers, for following me on this aside. I hope to see you all August 10 at the Knoxville Convention Center: Hall B for our next home bout and pop by and visit us at Creepy Con August 23-25. As always, Knuckles wants you! We are having our next Fresh Meat boot camp in October, and always are recruiting refs and volunteers. Contact us with questions! Until next time…