As I clasped my hands around the famous Atherstone ball during the contest’s launch in early February, I caught the ball game bug.
As my fingertips pressed against the soft firm leather, I felt a connection with the rich history, passion, excitement and aggression that comes with this spectator sport with a difference.
I could not wait for the challenge of reporting on this melee of madness.
After weeks of patient waiting, Ball Game Day had finally arrived and at 2.59pm on Shrove Tuesday, sunshine broke through the grey skies for a brief moment, as even the heavens smiled down on Atherstone.
From my lofty perch at the top of Barclays Bank I could see thousands of faces looking skywards.
Like a crowd of football or music fans desperately pressing for a glimpse of their hero, both spectators and competitors waited with bated breath in anticipation of what was to follow.
“Come on, come on throw it out… let’s go. Let’s go…woooooooo!” Shouted the crowd as their patience wore thin and come 3pm they were not disappointed as the Webb Ellis ball fell from the sky… and straight into a scrum.
Those smiling faces had now meshed into a cocoon of chaos as everyone – young old, weak and strong – fought for a touch or a kick of the famous ball.
Keen to get in on the action, I ran down the bank steps and into Long Street. As foot made contact with leather, the sound of what felt like cannon fire boomed across Atherstone and the ball majestically flew high into the air, before gently dropping down into the bedlam below.
Within seconds of entering the whirlwind, I was immediately swept to within the boundaries of a scrum.
Grown men, burly, sweaty and their clothes ripped to shreds, were lying face down and on top of each other as they seized the prize early.
There was pushing, kicking, squeezing, pressing, popping, ripping – and all I wanted to do was throw down my notepad and join in.
But just as things looked like they were going spill over, the stalwart stewards, many of whom are previous ball game winners and competitors, rushed in to restore order.
In their fluorescent yellow jackets, they marched through the street bringing control to the world of chaos that had ensued around them.
They held back the groups from taking hold and began to pass the ball around the young children giving them a kick and a touch, as it was their day too. The babbies’ eyes would light up like firecrackers at having this brief contact with the ball.
This was something I got to feel myself as chief steward Rob Bernard offered me a small kick as it fell close by, though my feeble effort sounded more like a peashooter than the rocket some competitors were able to create.
The atmosphere was relaxed, but turn your back on the ball and there, waiting in the shadows, were rows of men skulking like vultures waiting to move in for the kill.
They were the teams strategically placing themselves ready for their chance, their opportunity to write their name into ball game folklore.
With stern faces, they had nothing but steely eyes for the ball. No fewer than ten stood together, not even aware of each other as they waited for their moment – which came at 4.20pm.
The air became electrified and the vultures made their move, swooping into the small scrum.
Like a blow torch through butter, they pushed aside anyone in their way, be it child, woman or camera crew as they charged to claim victory.
Old ladies battled to keep their balance, youngsters began to scale buildings and telephone boxes to get themselves a view of the action.
But wait! Drama! The ball bursts and the game is void.
“It’s too early lads, it’s too early, it’s void! It’s all over lads!” Screamed one of the stewards and in that moment a tremendous whoosh hit the street as the hundreds of people now involved in the scrum rose like a wave and crashed back down Long Street towards the bank.
I, like a timid surfer attempting to catch a swelling wave, was swept into the sea of bodies and I was running like I had never done before, as adrenalin took over to carry me back towards Barclays.
One child lost their hat, another lost his shoe, even elderly chaps with walking sticks were thrashing forward to get in on the act and in that moment I understood the essence of the ball game.
I had tasted the primal flavour of the testosterone-fuelled occasion, my body was pumping and I was no longer a spectator, I was right in the eye of the storm.
As the second ball was dropped down a steward said: “Nobody should interfere while I kick this down the street. Once it is released the game begins, the final scrum will take place.”
His warning did not stop one speculative youngster trying his hand, but his headlong dive for the ball missed and he landed on the cold wet street.
With one last volley, the leather cannon shell shot up into the sky… then entered Atherstone’s lone ranger Danny Murray.
He stood tall, his arms gobbled up the ball and he fell to his haunches.
His head dented the pavement, his body crushed the kerb and his Grendon pals cocooned him in a cage of limbs. He held his position for half an hour to take the win.
Bruises covered his body and sweat pumped from his pores as he stood proudly in the Legion pub holding the precious artefact minutes after the klaxon heralded his victory.
Danny, the champion of the Atherstone Ball Game!
As I trudged back to my car, broken, battered and exhausted, I knew I had witnessed something special.
It is hard to believe that there is so much passion, excitement and aggression, all for a piece of stitched leather, but you have to see it to believe it.
Once you do, you never look back, because when you scratch away at the layers of the ball game, it is clear it bores deep within the town’s soul... and always will.
Long live the Atherstone Ball Game, the contest that is older than England!