By Mike LaBella
---- — The game of team handball is an Olympic sport you don’t hear much about.
But it’s been making a big splash in the yard of one Haverhill family, where every tournament played has resulted in a small bounty for a local food pantry.
Local teenagers eager to participate in these fast-paced games organized by George Bonner, 18, and his brother Matthew Bonner, 15, of Russett Hill Road are asked to bring food items as their fee to play.
The Bonner boys have been holding tournaments in their yard for the past four years and give the food they collect to the panwtry at All Saints Church, which provides food to struggling people.
“We’re not too strict about the rules and we play it sort of like a pickup game,” Matthew Bonner said. “We love it. Kids talk about it in the days leading up to each tournament and in the days following.”
Handball, called field handball when played outdoors, mixes the rules of soccer and basketball into a sport that encourages defensive goal-keeping and cooperation among teammates to create passes.
George Bonner, a former captain of Haverhill High’s swimming and diving team, said he first learned of team handball during the 2008 summer Olympics.
“My brother and I watched some matches and it seemed like something we wanted to try,” George said. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Why haven’t we played this already and why hadn’t we heard about it?’”
“The more we played the more we thought to organize a tournament and recruit our friends from the high school,” said George, who lured players from his Classical Academy classes at Haverhill High.
Their first tournament was in March of 2010 and it was a big hit.
“We had maybe 20 kids, but every subsequent tournament had more players,” George said. “Once we reached 30 kids in 2011, we decided to turn it into a fundraiser, with entrants bringing at least one canned good item.”
Although the official rules call for six outfield players plus one goalkeeper per team, because of space limitations the Bonner boys form teams of four or five players plus goalkeepers. Instead of playing 30-minute periods, teams play to a score of five. There are no penalties for rough body contact as players usually apologize and the game continues, Matthew Bonner said. They play with a size 4 soccer ball, which is a bit smaller than a standard size soccer ball.
“The idea is you hold a ball in your hands, run and take two steps (instead of three as in Europe) and either pass it or shoot it at a net,” George said. “In the European version, which is played on a hard surface court, you can dribble the ball. But since we play on grass, we only allow passing. I think the elimination of dribbling speeds up the game and makes it more exiting.
“Take three steps or make an incomplete pass and the ball goes to the other team,” George said. “To defend, you can get in the way of the pass and intercept or knock the passed ball down. You can swat it out of a player’s hands, which makes a fumble and a live ball anyone can go for.”
So that no team has an unfair advantage, George and Matthew form teams of different age groups and with roughly an even amount of athletic ability.
“It’s not about winning, it’s about getting friends together to play for six or seven hours and it’s great regardless of who wins,” George said.
Their parents, Martha and George Bonner, don’t mind that their lawn gets a little messed up since it’s for a good cause.
“It’s wonderfully spirited and you have kids all cheering for each other,” Martha Bonner said. “A lot of the parents volunteer as well, and everyone enjoys watching the games.”
Their latest tournament was on July 20 and involved entire families and co-ed teams. About 70 players ages 9 to 19 participated and the Bonner boys collected and delivered about 170 food items to All Saints.
“They told us they appreciated all the help they could get,” George Bonner said.
In a double elimination competition, the 12 teams in this year’s tournament included: Forest Fire, the winning team; The Pound, which took second; The Squid Squad, which took third; and Y2K, which is the Bonner’s team and which finished fourth.
“The winning team got bragging rights, which are much more sought after than you might expect,” George said. “This has become a part of our lives and is something all of our friends are involved in, from football players to runners to kids who don’t play sports.
“You don’t need to be a varsity athlete to play,” he said. “Some kids have never played sports in their life and they love it.”
George Bonner, who graduated from Haverhill High this year, plans to attend George Mason University in Virginia for international and global studies. Matthew Bonner is entering his sophomore year in the Classical Academy at Haverhill High.
“I’m heading off to college,’’ George said, “but we want to schedule a tournament every summer, and possibly one around Thanksgiving if we can arrange it.”
A fun way to collect food
70 players ages 9 to 19 played in the tournament.
170 food items were collected for the pantry at All Saints Church.
More than 400 food items have gone to the pantry in the last three years thanks to the tournament.