EJ Leppert and his friends still play ice hockey in a men’s league, but they ordered Anaheim Ducks jerseys for another purpose.
For the fourth straight year, they will put a team in Dodgetoberfest, the dodgeball tournament organized by Special Olympics New Jersey.
“We’re the Mighty Ducks,” Leppert said. “Obviously, like the movie, we’re all hockey players. It’s actually pretty cool. When we were coming up with a team name, it was all of us at my house hanging out. We went online and all bought Mighty Ducks shirts with different players’ names on the back. That’s the jerseys that we wear. My grandfather, he’s our coach, and he wears a jersey, too. He’ll have his iPad and give us a pep talk before we start.”
The fourth annual Dodgetoberfest is being held at Robbinsville Fieldhouse Sports and Expo Complex on Sunday, Oct. 22. Teams have until Thursday, Oct. 19 to sign up for the event. There is a $300 entry fee for teams of six to 10 players. The day begins at 9 a.m. with a round robin portion of the tournament before it concludes with bracket play to find an eventual champion.
“You feel like you’re in the most intense game of your life,” Leppert said. “That’s how dodgeball is. The excitement of having the ball thrown at you and getting out of the way, and when you get a ball and know you have to throw it as hard as you can, your adrenaline is just pumping. We use that movie ‘Dodgeball’ the night before or the week leading up to to get pumped up.”
Dodgetoberfest has raised $41,000 in its first three years under the umbrella of the Law Enforcement Torch Run that includes not only the actual torch run to the Special Olympics New Jersey summer games at The College of New Jersey, but also includes polar plunges in Seaside and Wildwood and the Lincoln Tunnel Challenge run.
‘There are so many runs, so many triathlons, there are so many different things, and this captures a different audience.’
“We’re always looking for unique fundraisers to raise money that will support our athletes in different initiatives,” said Special Olympics New Jersey president and CEO Heather Andersen. “This is something we thought we’d try, and it seemed to stick. It’s growing.”
Leppert, who played ice hockey and lacrosse at Montgomery High School, started playing in Dodgetoberfest when he was in college. His mother, Jeanene, who is special events director at Special Olympics New Jersey, told him about the new chance.
“I’ve been involved with Special Olympics for a while now,” Leppert said. “I’ve been volunteering since I was probably a freshman in high school. I’ve been involved in Special Olympics and learned about this event and all my friends have been involved in Special Olympics, so it was a cool thing to get involved in.”
Leppert says that he lucked out that Dodgetoberfest was held over the fall academic break in his final two years the University of Notre Dame. His friends and he have been thrilled to reunite each year in October to play in the dodgeball tournament together.
“We started off really well, maybe better than we’ll ever get to,” said Leppert, who is living at home in Princeton and working in private wealth management in New York City. “We lost in the finals the first year. It was actually cool because we started out second to last (in the round robin). We lost almost all the normal games leading up to the playoffs and then made a run. The last two years, we’ve lost in the semifinals. We’re always in it.”
Leppert expects tough competition again this year.
“There’s one team that is a legit college or right-out-of-college dodgeball team,” he said. “They travel and play in dodgeball tournaments. Last year, there was a group of high schoolers. They won or came in second. The rest are middle-aged, quite a few police academies/fire fighters in their late 30s and 40s. There’s no really bad teams.”
It’s about more than the competition, and there are only winners in this event, especially the Special Olympic athletes whose dreams to compete can be financed in part because of events like Dodgetoberfest. Spinning the memorable line, “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball,” from the cult comedy classic “Dodgeball,” the Dodgetoberfest has its own saying—“If you can dodge a ball, you can dodge for a cause.” Leppert says that’s the best reason to play.
“It’s a really fun time, and the people that go to this event become very involved in Special Olympics,” Leppert said. “I see it more as an event to get more people involved and get people to raise more money for Special Olympics. Most of these people do more than one event for Special Olympics.
“Each year, they have one or two or three (Special Olympic) athletes come out to it. That makes it a lot more special. The people that are at the event and able to see the athletes and interact with them, it makes them want to get more involved in other ways. I view it as one of the ways to get hooked on the cause.”
Last year, the Mighty Ducks got surprise support from one of the Special Olympic athletes at Dodgetoberfest. The athlete gave their team a lift from the sidelines.
“He became our biggest fan,” Leppert said. “He got all the fans from the other teams to root for our team to win. He was so fun on the sidelines, and after the games we’d come back and talk to him.”
Special Olympics New Jersey is hoping that more players can experience the fun and excitement of Dodgetoberfest. They are looking for more teams to participate each year.
“The feedback we’ve had from the teams that have participated is that they really enjoy the day,” Andersen said. “It’s a fun event that they can come out and have a good time and raise some money for Special Olympics. It’s not a huge entry fee—it’s $300 per team. If you get a group of folks together to raise money for Special Olympics, it’s a unique event to do it. There are so many runs, so many triathlons, there are so many different things, and this captures a different audience. I think that sometimes these will grow slowly because a lot of it is word of mouth. I know we believe in continuing to grow it.”
Dodgetoberfest has strong support from the state and local area. The New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association has returned as the presenting sponsor, and the Robbinsville Fieldhouse continues to donate its space to the tournament.
“Robbinsville Fieldhouse is a great venue for us,” Andersen said. “It’s a beautiful facility and that adds to the experience that you’re playing in some place that’s professional and pretty new.”
All that is left is finding some skilled players to make a team. All abilities of players have been participating in Dodgetoberfest.
“I don’t have much of an arm, but I’m pretty quick,” Leppert said. “I’m a good defenseman. We have a few guys with cannons. They used to play baseball and can really whip the ball. I’m like a role player. I get in toward the end. I sit back and no one pays attention to me and I’m always one of the last ones left.”
The day isn’t without its consequences. Leppert always knows that he competed in it.
“The week after, it hurts to walk,” Leppert said. “Your whole right side and legs are killing you. My friends joke each year they haven’t recovered from the year before to compete again. It’s very sneaky that dodgeball can be so tiring, and it uses muscles you don’t normally use. You’re throwing, and jumping around all the time. You feel it in your legs the next few days.”
He feels it in another spot too—his heart. Playing dodgeball to support the Special Olympics New Jersey has become an annual tradition for EJ Leppert and his friends even as they move into the work force and homes of their own.
“We’re going to continue to do it,” Leppert said. “Even when I move into New York, I’ll come back for this. I’ll come back for an event like this.”