Admit it. You’re reading this article because you saw the picture of live-action role player dressed up in homemade medieval garb, armed with a foam sword, shields, spear, armor and helmet.
The Belegarth Medieval Combat Society is a nerdy sport — plain and simple. Anyone who competes in it and everyone who has ever walked past a practice and shaken their head in disapproval is bound to echo that sentiment.
Here’s the catch: These nerds are immune to the teasing and some evenly secretly enjoy it.
Jordan Whiteley, realm leader of Eugene community Belegarth group Baalbek, admits that he initially discovered the sport of Belegarth after watching the infamous LARP scene in Role Models and set out on a quest to heckle nerds. After talking with the participants, he attempted battle and became hooked.
The battle eventually changed his life.
“It’s pretty chill and it’s not as nerdy as it seems,” Whiteley said. “There are people who get hurt all the time. I was attracted to how wrong I was about it. I had a lot of presumptions going into it, and I was totally wrong, and I’ve been super addicted to it for a long time.”
Growing up as a half-black child in in Shelley, Idaho — an area he described as being filled with prejudice — Whiteley struggled. He says he didn’t connect well with people and couldn’t make friends. He eventually dropped out of high school. A group of Belegarth fighters accepted him into their group simply due to their shared interest in sword fighting. At the age of 17, he set out in a beat-up Chevy hippie van and toured the country with his newly adopted family who stopped only for Belegarth events.
At one point, the van broke down in Eugene and Whiteley connected with people who convinced him to move to Eugene. He did, and is currently enrolled in classes at Lane Community College, where he majors in sculpting. It’s a fitting major for Whiteley, since he crafts the majority of the foam weapons brandished on the Belegarth field. He has remained passionate about the sport through the tight-knit community of likeminded and accepting fighters at the University of Oregon.
“It’s like a family reunion, but not with your family, so it’s awesome,” Whiteley said.
Turnout for the sport has been on the decline this year. Last year, practices averaged an attendance of about 30 fighters.
At the start of this school year, the number was 10-12. Currently, attendance hovers around six participants. The UO Belegarth system is in a transitional period from the realm of Tir na n0g into the new realm of Baalbek. Generally, the group assembles on the Knight Library lawn, University Park on 24th or elsewhere around campus. As the weather improves, Whiteley hopes for increased attendance beyond the small but dedicated group of combatants willing to brave mud pits and overcast skies on Super Bowl Sunday.
“We’ve been out here when people can’t drive anymore because of how rainy it is, and we’re out here beating the crap out of each other,” said Jake “Tank” Sanchez. “I think it kind of immerses you more into the fighting.”
Sanchez received his nickname because, well, he’s built like a tank. A former high school football lineman, Sanchez has lost roughly 50 pounds since suiting up for battle. The physical nature of the sport produces a very demanding workout and serves as a great cross training sport during roller derby season for Sanchez. After battle, fighters recover in the cold as steam rises off their heads. They wear sweat-drenched, mud-caked clothing and exhale heavy, visible breaths that linger in the cold air.
“When you’re in the fight, there’s just so much coming at you,” Sanchez said. “You gotta worry about your footwork, where your weight is postured, what’s coming from the right of you, the left of you, behind you. If you’re in a team, if you’re working in a wall, it’s way more complicated than it looks, than we’re just out here just slapping each other with foam sticks. In a sense, it is full contact.”
Belegarth’s official rules emphasize safety as the number one priority, but it is far from a lackadaisical game. Thuds of successfully landed foam sword on flesh hits frequently echo into the otherwise silent air. Grappling (bear-hugging), kicks to an opponent’s shield and defensive equipment, and melee hits are all legal, as long as there’s no malicious intent to injure.
“Paintballing is fun, but being able to kick someone over with a shield and hit them with a sword is a bit more satisfying to me,” Sanchez said.
Jayme Lee, a.k.a. Missy Thalion, uses the battlefield as a chance to undertake a different persona. The chance to fully immerse herself in battle is one of the sport’s appeals, she says, but the avenue for venting aggression is therapeutic and more important.
“I was raised by three older brothers and my father,” Lee said. “(Belegarth) gives you a certain amount of aggression outlet need. You gotta let it out somewhere, and you know, rollin’ with the boys kinda lets you do that.”
There is no single reason for the people involved in Belegarth to continue practicing weekly, and there is no age limit for players to stop. Each individual finds a personal reason to continue practicing the sport.
Erin Stanton, 30, has been involved in Belegarth for four years, but only recently re-entered battle after watching his friends make fun of LARPers on TV. It aggravated him, and he stood up for the onscreen fighters and said, “You know, that guy is having a lot more fun than you are right now. That’s his version of fun, so who are you? We are extracting fun out of nothing.”
“It’s a crazy adrenaline rush,” Whiteley added. “I’ve almost blacked out from the amount of adrenaline I’ve gotten on the field and it’s awesome.”
For Whiteley, Belegarth represents overcoming a preconceived bias toward “nerds” – a demographic he now personally embraces. “This is where I’ve wanted to be and it’s not just because of sword fighting. Belegarth found me a new lifestyle,” he said. “I definitely have a completely different view on people and life because of this.”
Feel free to call the hard hitting sport “nerdy” if you want, but be prepared for the members of Belegarth to retort and offer a challenge. They have been called nerds so many times that Whiteley likens it to pleasant background music.
“We are totally nerds,” Evan “Shovel” Schlesinger said. “We will out-nerd you any day. Take us on. We might be nerds, but we will beat you to a pulp.”
Follow Craig Wright on Twitter @wgwcraig