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The continued tradition of Nerf wars

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By Sam Draut

It is a rite of passage for seniors in Oldham County. Whether it is right or wrong in the eyes of the community is up to each individual’s interpretation.

Nerf wars.

Plenty will quickly detest it at its mention. ‘It promotes violence.’ ‘It’s dangerous’ ‘It’s kids running around naked.’ There may be pained groans and eye rolls that come around when asking about Nerf wars, yet it continues.

It is in its ninth year of existence and has become as much of a springtime staple as senior prom and project graduation. But it isn’t managed by parents or directed by faculty members, no, not Nerf wars.

It is student organized and led, but certainly isn’t a sanctioned activity.

Lori McDowell, Director of Communications for Oldham County Public Schools, said “Nerf wars, although a tradition in Oldham County, is neither a school-sponsored event, nor is it something we encourage.”

Created by Hasbro, Nerf guns are plastic toy guns that shoot foam darts ranging 30 to 60 feet. Most guns are priced somewhere from $15 to $40.

THE RULES

For Oldham County students, Nerf wars officially began on March 1. Senior Ismail Jones estimated 75 percent of the senior class participates in Nerf wars. The cash prize is believed to be between $2,500 to $3,000 according to Oldham County senior Clayton Wilson.

Teams range anywhere from one to six people with a $15 buy-in fee per person. Players get a “kill” anytime they shoot a player on another team. Once a player is shot and the “kill” is confirmed, the participant is terminated from the game. Kills can be appealed by the council, a group of five that organize the event, if there is a dispute.

Because Nerf wars isn’t a school sanctioned event, there are safe zones around the area such as school grounds and events, the YMCA, religious centers and places of employment.

The most controversial rule leads participants into the most trouble. The naked rule stipulates players cannot be killed by a Nerf gun dart if they are not wearing any article of clothing from the neck to ankles.

“No part of the skin may be covered to be considered naked, such as using a shirt to cover oneself,” the rules state.

The only way a naked participant can be killed is by another naked person with a Nerf melee weapon, which in most cases is a foam sword. Oldham County High School senior Clayton Wilson estimated that 60 percent of the kills are done while naked.

THE GODFATHER

Matt Hogue brought Nerf wars into Oldham County in 2009 after he visited a graduation party in Cincinnati. A senior at the time, Hogue noticed everyone at the graduation party had a Nerf gun in the their hands, so he started to ask questions.

The final day of school had been pushed back two weeks following a wind storm and ice storm during the year that caused cancelations, so Hogue thought Nerf wars would be something fun for the student body. He used rules from the Cincinnati players and added some of his own to establish Oldham County’s initial version.

Hogue handed out flyers and created a Facebook group, which was met with a high level of interest.

“Everyone was pretty hyped up about it,” Hogue said.

With the intention of avoiding problems from Oldham County’s administration, Hogue decided to ban the game from school property as it remains today.

“The caveat that nothing could happen on school grounds helped a lot,” Hogue said. “By the time they heard about it, it was wrapping up.”

Former Oldham County High School Principal Brent Deaves acknowledged the Nerf wars at the senior’s graduation practice. He told students that Nerf guns and bullets wouldn’t be allowed at the graduation ceremony.

Hogue believes students brought bullets to graduation and said the closing speech by a graduating senior included a segment about Nerf wars.

One of the more surprising things to come from the Nerf wars was the collective intermingling between classmates. He said the game forced people from different social circles to interact, creating a more unified group of seniors.

As to the naked rule, Hogue’s preliminary regulation was more along the lines of underwear and socks, but people interpreted it differently.

Though Hogan now lives in Georgia and is eight years removed from it, he will occasionally hear about Nerf wars and is jokingly referred to as ‘the Godfather’ because of his pioneering idea.

“I never intended for it to be this big, but it was something fun that everyone could do,” Hogue said.

THE EXPANSION

Though Oldham County High School students were the first in the county to develop Nerf wars, South Oldham students weren’t far behind as they made their own alteration to the game.

The South Oldham version runs nearly parallel to Oldham County’s with slight changes to the rules and it began this year, on the first day back from spring break.

Whereas players are eliminated from the game if killed in Oldham County’s version, each participant has three lives according to the rules posted on Twitter. Players killed are “dead” for 24 hours before they can re-enter into the game.

THE SENIOR STANG

Around the same time Hogue brought Nerf wars to the students of Oldham County, North Oldham developed a similar game. Senior Stang involves water guns and was first played in the spring of 2009.

Shelby Carroll, a 2009 graduate of North Oldham, said the senior advisory board pitched an idea for the school’s senior week. Unlike Oldham County, Senior Stang began as a school affiliated activity though participants could not be tagged out at school, work or a school event.

“The senior class sponsor was part of it. They sat in on all of the meetings and had ultimate veto power if our ideas got a little crazy,” Carroll said.

Carroll believed Senior Stang branched away from school affiliation several years ago and now the event is entirely student run.

This year’s competition started on March 1 and is comprised of four rounds according to the rules posted on Twitter.

THE HUNTING PARTIES

More than a month into the competition, Wilson estimated 40 to 50 participants are still playing. There was a stoppage during spring break, but with school back in session, the competition is constant.

Oldham County senior Ammon Harding always keeps Nerf guns around.

“One time I went into Wal-Mart carrying my sword in my pants and two guns in my pockets to make sure I didn’t get killed,” Harding said.

Though Wilson and Harding aren’t on the same team, they will go “hunting” together. The two will drive around La Grange and nearby neighborhoods looking for other participants.

The two were driving in a residential neighborhood in early March when they spotted a group of players. Completely naked, the two picked up several kills as a group of participants ran back-and-forth between the front and back yard.

“It was crazy because a bunch of their neighbors were outside recording it,” Wilson said.

There are also “stake-outs” where players will wait for their opponents to return or leave their homes. Though players cannot force their way into an opponent’s place of residency without being invited in, players will wait for unsuspecting targets.

Wilson said he has tried several times to target Jeb Ely, waiting for him to return home, but believes he parks in a spot that can’t be found to avoid being killed. Wilson has tried three or four times, unsuccessfully, to stake out Ely.

“One day I was waiting for him at his back door and he never showed up,” Wilson said. “I called him 30 minutes later and said ‘where you at’ and he said ‘I’m sleeping in my car because I felt like somebody is out there.’”

Nerf wars are strictly between seniors, but underclassmen and family members become involved as well. Hogue said he once had his mother pick him up from the YMCA instead of walking to his car. Some underclassmen agree to drive around the participating seniors.

Whether family or friends get tired of the game that can last several months, they can also thwart participants as well.

“My little brother knew people were coming to get me that night and didn’t tell me about it. When I asked him to check around the house and see if anyone was there, he said it was clear when it wasn’t,” Harding said. “As soon as I opened up my car door there was a naked person that stabbed me.”