By Jack Fowler
Have you ever played Call of Duty? Ever experienced the fast-paced, adrenaline-inducing gunfights that made the series a worldwide phenomenon? How about Battlefield, Call of Duty’s more realistic rival, famous for its large scale battles and painfully accurate weapon effects? How about any other first-person shooter? If you have, then let me tell you about the best real-life activity that mimics these games, albeit without death and dismemberment: the sport of Paintball.
Surely growing up there were some kids that had paintball guns, and they would tell you about how much fun it was to shoot targets, forest critters, and their annoying siblings. But it always seemed like these non-lethal, color-creating weapons existed just for the fun of shooting things. Well, not only is it a legitimate professional sport, it is also a subtle phenomenon.
Along with the pro circuit, there is a wide slew of amateur leagues in the U.S. Colleges, too, have begun to sponsor club teams all across the country. These club teams might not be “Varsity Sports”, and as such might get overlooked by the mainstream, but watch just one game and you’ll see that this sport is a hardcore passion for everyone involved. Especially for Matt Jenkins, the enigmatic captain of the University of Tennessee’s paintball team in the 2010-2011 season. The same team that dominated their SEC club division before winning the title in an undefeated tournament run.
When I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Jenkins, one word stuck out to me: passion. This man loved paintball the same way that people love dogs, food, and Netflix. From the first day he held a paintball gun, and, “shot his friend in the ass, [he] was hooked.” He played the sport for several more years before he came to UT in 2006. Then he almost immediately joined the club team, UT PaintBall, the “PaintVols”, with several of his friends. This core squad became the leadership team that guided the team through five years to their championship season.
But what does a typical UTPB season look like? In their division, class A SEC, they compete in 4 tournaments throughout the year, the final tournament being for the championship. In each tournament, the teams play three games, 20 mins a piece, divided into 10 minute halves. However, the hardest part of UTPB’s journey to the top wasn’t the rigorous tournaments or the sheer intensity of the sport; it’s fundraising.
Matt says that Paintball is probably the most expensive sport in college, and as a former lacrosse player, I can agree. After getting pads, helmet, and a stick, lacrosse can cost anywhere from $250-600 a season. And for roughly that same price, you can also get all the paintball gear required and a quality gun. But then you have to factor in the cost of all those tournaments in a paintball season. Ultimately, it cost Matt’s team about $4k a person to compete in their championship season. That’s a lot, especially since the team had to raise the overwhelming majority of those funds themselves. The University of Tennessee only gave the team the minimum deposit required to qualify, and left them to their own devices to actually compete. But that was no problem for the likes of Matt and team. They threw every manner of fundraisers that they could, and they paid off handsomely.
As the UT team competed in their regular season, they travelled constantly to train and meet with rival teams Liberty University, Virginia Tech, and Kennesaw State University. While VT and KSU sponsored their paintball teams much like UT did, Liberty heavily invested in their team. Many high-tech paintball festivals and tournaments were held at their extensive complex, and with such funding and support, Liberty was the toughest opponent for UT in their season. In fact, Liberty was the only school that managed to overcome the Volunteers that season, clinching a tough win by just one point.
Dismayed, but definitely not disheartened, Matt’s team recouped after that tough loss and swept the rest of the regular season, going 8-1. Then, in the championship tournament, they continued their dominance streak and won seven straight games. And as they rose, victorious, as champions, they accepted their prize: a plastic trophy.
As Matt explained, paintball in college wasn’t about money or fame. It was all about the glory. And as Matt celebrated with his team, he was nearly brought to tears, as they celebrated his passionate leadership and thanked him for taking them so far. Such resolve and passion are rare, and they can overcome all kinds of odds, from fundraising and better funded opponents, to police officers escorting the team off of campus because of their “weapons”.
And Matt has no intention of slowing down. He says he is going to play until he simply can’t anymore, in any of the various amateur leagues and tournaments around the country. He is even trying to gather a UT alumni team to play in a D2 tournament this year. And I have no doubt he will lead that team to glory as well.