FORT WALTON BEACH – In April of 2014, I took what was, at the time, the biggest risk of my life: I packed my bags — maybe two duffels full — and moved from Baltimore, Maryland, to a postcard town on the Florida Panhandle named Navarre.
I had accepted a job with the Northwest Florida Daily News, writing preps and small college stuff. It was, as you could imagine, a different lifestyle, different work, on the Panhandle than it had been in Charm City.
In Baltimore, I wrote about basketball, mostly. Lots of track and field. In Florida, my first assignment was on a fisherman who reeled in a Mako shark of exceptional size. I still have that story, laminated somewhere, printed above the fold, front page news, the fisherman sitting on the shark as if he were riding a bull, pulling its mouth open with the biggest hook you or I have likely ever seen.
A different life, indeed.
The second assignment was substantially more innocuous, closer to my typical field of sports, but still well off my beaten path of hoops, football, and track. My editor at the time, Brandon Walker, told me to venture out to Fort Walton Beach. There’s a beach volleyball tournament, he said. Go out, talk to people, write something. I didn’t know a cut shot from a slap shot at the time, but I figured it would be easy enough.
That weekend, before I had ever touched a beach volleyball, I attended my first Fuds, a week-long festival of beach volleyball and late-night libations, capped with its four-man tournament, the biggest of its type in the country.
A family reunion, I called it then, though I didn’t understand, nor could I have understood, the depth of what that meant. This past weekend, six years and change since Walker assigned me that story, I played in my first open Fuds.
It would be won by Taylor Crabb, Trevor Crabb, Adam Roberts, Nolan Albrecht, and, in occasional spot but crowd-pleasing roles, John Sutton and Slunks co-founder Chris Reames; the women’s was won by Courtney Baleiko, Stacy Howell, Rachel Krabacher, and the newlywed, Nicole Sherpensky.
The winners are both relevant and entirely irrelevant. Relevant, because one of the finer center court setups was mobbed with fans to watch those finals. It’s what many stick around all day, drinks in hand, on the Sunday of Fuds to see.
Yet it’s also entirely irrelevant because nobody really comes to Fuds to win. Sure, it’s a nice bonus, another notch on the Crabbs’ lengthening belt of victories, a fun resume point for the Midwest girls. But of the several hundred teams, and thousands of players, who descended upon Florida’s stunning Emerald Coast, you’d be hard pressed to find one who did so with the mindset of winning the tournament.
There is no prize money in the fall. Victors go home with a shirt and a hat and bragging rights. Invaluable, yes. But the allure? No.
They’re there for the family reunion.
That’s what I wrote back then, in April of 2014, and it’s what I’m writing now. Times change. COVID altered most of our realities.
Fuds is still Fuds.
It’s amazing to see what a single event, even in this extraordinarily strange year, can do. In the span of just three sleep-deprived days, I was able to see the man who introduced me to the game, almost everyone else who played a part in nudging me along, many who far are more supportive of my current work in the game than I deserve, and one of the most influential men in my life. I was able to catch up with my old co-workers at the Daily News, to see the life and people I left behind, and not feel regret or remorse, but a warm, fuzzy nostalgia — a love for the people and place and history, the knowledge of what will always be there, twice a year.
If you’ve been, you know just what I mean. Even if you didn’t work at the Daily News, or learn how to play just 20 minutes down the road from Fort Walton Beach, you have your own version of this story. It’s what makes this tournament so beautiful: Everyone has their own story and history with this place.
Trevor Crabb already does. This was just his first time playing Fuds. Given his Olympic schedule, it’ll likely be his last for a bit. COVID cancelling most of the 2020 season made it possible for him to play this year, and in one weekend, it supplanted the Manhattan six-man as his favorite tournament.
When he’ll be back is difficult to say. But he will, at some point or other. Because that’s just what Fuds does: It brings you back. Back to another tournament, another beach.
Back to your southeastern volleyball family.