ARLINGTON — One day about 13 years ago, Jerry James and a friend were playing soccer when the ball rolled into the woods.
Jerry, then 30, decided that he could retrieve the ball faster by going after it on a motorcycle and kicking it back.
Phil James, Jerry’s dad, had been an athlete and a vintage motorcycle enthusiast.
A perfect marriage presented itself right before his eyes.
After a gestation period — it happened gradually — a sport was born, at least in this little corner of the world.
Nearly every year since, guys and girls have gathered on Phil and Peggy James’ property outside Arlington and, aided by two-wheeled motor vehicles, kicked the ball around — with a few soccer rules thrown in.
The object of the game at the Jameses’ place isn’t to win, or even necessarily to play well. It’s for the players to have fun, and keep from running into each other.
“It’s probably the best sport I’ve ever played,” said Phil James, 73, who said he has played soccer, football, horse polo, badminton and tennis. “But it’s not a kill sport.”
Motorcycle soccer is played in some corners of the world, notably Europe. But Phil James says he hadn’t heard of it before his son kicked and roared his way out of the woods.
He believes the get-togethers on their five acres are among the few, if not the only, such gatherings in the Northwest or even the United States.
The Jameses get anywhere from 30 to 100 people at their moto-soccer shindigs, about four or five times a year. Last Sunday, the last of four gatherings over the spring and summer, about 30 people showed up.
A core group of about five players show up religiously, others are semi-regulars and others come and go. It’s a family atmosphere, with a pot of chili on the burner and barbecues fired up. Some people play, some watch, and some who play take breaks to watch.
The games take place in a fenced field roughly 100 yards square in an idyllic spot at the confluence of Grant Creek and the north fork of the Stillaguamish River. Orange road cones about 15 feet apart mark the goals at each end.
A stack of beehives makes up one sideline. Lester the llama watches calmly from underneath shade trees alongside the road.
There aren’t many neighbors to complain about the noise, and if there were, these bikes are relatively quiet.
It’s a not a game for the big Harley hogs. The matches at the Jameses’ property evolved into using small, Honda TL125 bikes that Phil James had collected over the years. The light, maneuverable bikes were used for trials racing, which features obstacle courses and is still popular overseas but virtually nonexistent in the United States.
A few years ago, Phil and Peggy, both retired teachers, were taking a long trip to South America and Phil sold the bikes. They fell into disrepair, but Vic Cassen of Seattle, who had become a regular at the games, came across them and bought them back about a year and a half ago.
After a hiatus in the gatherings, they’ve been going strong now for the past two summers.
Cassen, 41, is now the chief mechanic, tinkering with the bikes to get them restarted when they conk out during play.
“I’m a computer guy by trade, a bike rider by heart,” he said.
At one point in last Sunday’s match, a rider fell.
“Let’s hope the bike isn’t hurt. We’ve got plenty of riders,” joked Peggy James, 67.
Because safety is emphasized, injuries happen but are rare and not serious, Phil James said.
When a bike stops running, the game does not. They start with four-on-four, reds versus blues — players wearing red shirts ride bikes marked with red paint, and the same for the blues.
If one or two drop out, nobody cares, because they’re not keeping score. Four-on-three, three-on-three, three-on-two, and on down are common — even one-on-one. Goalies are outlawed.
When one player decides he’s had enough, another can take his place, or not.
“It kind of comes and goes,” said Jerry James, now 43.
In staying true to the casual nature of the gatherings, and to the goal of safety, the players find they become better players.
Such is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Soccer.
Philip Tapang, 39, learned fast in his first game last Sunday.
“When you get better control of the bike, you get better control of the ball,” said Tapang, of West Seattle. At first, “you do a lot of overshooting,” he said, meaning riding past the ball.
He was invited by Steve Griffith, 46, also of West Seattle, who never misses a gathering.
Beginners, Griffith said, get into accidents “when they focus on the ball and they’re not aware of anything around them.”
Some are skeptical when their friends first invite them out.
“It sounded like the worst idea I’d ever heard of,” said Dan Hill, 36, of Ballard. “I came out and it was a blast.”
A former soccer player, playing on a motorcycle allows Hill to participate without hurting his bad ankles, he said.
The activity appeals to a broad spectrum of people, Phil James said.
“Professional riders have been out here and leave with a grin on their faces,” he said.
The sport has everything, players say. Though it may not look like it, it’s a physical workout.
“When we have full sun, everyone’s just dyin’,” Cassen said, sweating after coming off the field on a mild day.
It’s easy for beginners to learn. The bikes are small and light and even someone who’s never ridden a motorcycle before can learn in a day.
And yet becoming a good player is a challenge.
“Play involves many special riding skills and careful coordination with other riders on the field,” Phil James wrote in a description of the activity in 1995. “Riding skills must be automatic and instinctive to participate in the ball handling part of the sport.”
Though it’s mostly men who get out and kick it around, women play, too, Peggy James said.
“We kind of go out and do a little ballet and try not to run into each other,” she said.
Despite the emphasis on fun, there are visions of grandeur. Griffith and Cassen, among the more dedicated riders, say they’d like to attract a few more players and perhaps start a league.
Phil James has similar ideas, with reservations.
“I’d like to see it become a national sport, frankly,” he said. “But all sports are ruined when they go professional.”
For now, moto-soccer will have to stay down on the farm.
During a break after about four hours of play last Sunday, Lester the llama wandered onto the field.
“When Lester comes out, it means we don’t ride anymore,” Peggy James said.
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or email@example.com.