Just over four years ago, Kyle Schuler never had heard of paintball.
Today, he hardly can get enough of it.
"My friend Chris introduced me to it," Schuler, now a 16-year-old Lawrence High student, said. "He told me he played paintball. I really didn't know much about it. I played it, and I got hooked."
Schuler considers his pre-paintball pastimes typical. He rode four-wheelers and dirt bikes, played basketball and football.
But there was just something about paintball he found irresistible.
"It's the friends, the adrenaline rush," Schuler said. "You're able to play games and progress up."
Progress he has.
These days, Schuler travels "all over the place," participating in about a tournament a month, with practices the remaining three weekends a month.
His most recent tournament experience ended in a fifth-place Div. II finish Sunday in the Midwest Paintball Series regional at the Drop Zone Extreme Sports Paintball Park just southwest of Lawrence.
"In a sense, fifth was disappointing," Schuler said. "We were playing so good up to the finals, where we only won one game. We could have beaten every team out there if everything went right, but I'm happy with fifth. It was the first tournament with a new team. We've practiced twice together, so I'm happy with it."
What is paintball?
Paintball is a sport in which players participate in a myriad of games in various settings.
Generally, games involve two opposing teams seeking to complete an objective - like capture the flag or eliminating a specific player, for instance - or to eliminate all of the other team's players.
Players eliminate each other by splattering them with paintballs: spherical gelatin capsules containing dye, propelled by a compressed-gas-powered gun.
An estimated 30 million people in the United States play it, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer's Association.
"Every year it gets busier and busier and more popular," said Reagan Waters, Drop Zone's park director. "It really does appeal to everyone, from corporate groups to church youth groups and birthday parties. Honestly, I think we see so many people come out, especially kids and young adults, because it's fun. It's a real adrenaline-packed sport. A lot of people come out to vent. They show up when we open and don't leave until we close.
"The other reason is, it's a great team-building sport. You don't have to follow a softball or soccer schedule. With paintball, you go whenever it's convenient to you. You don't have to commit to any type of schedule."
The Drop Zone park has five fields on 89 acres. Terrain ranges from "woods" fields to a two-story castle.
This time of year, the park is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, though it also is available at other times for special-occasion rentals.
Waters said packages were available for around $25 a day that included rental of all the necessary equipment.
In the beginning
When Ken Farris opened the Drop Zone park in 1989, he had no idea it would turn into a vocation.
"It was going to be a part-time business while I was going to school and finishing my degree," said Farris, a Lawrence resident. "That's the truth of the matter. I didn't think that far head."
It turns out that Farris was getting in on a good thing at a good time.
After graduating, he decided to try to make a living with paintball. He opened his first Drop Zone Extreme Sports store in Olathe. Then he opened another in Topeka. Then Kansas City, and finally one in Lawrence in 2002.
"This is full-time," Farris said. "We have close to 20 full-time employees and lot of referees."
The latter helps separate Drop Zone's park from other paintball venues.
Farris said there are four commercial parks within a 100-mile radius.
"It's a biased opinion, but I hope it's accurate, but we've been around longer and we do things better than everybody else," Farris said. "We're professional. We run it as a business. It's more than just paying taxes. It's doing everything right.
"A lot of people : they're a hobby field. When they have to start paying somebody or not have their kids running it, they're run out of business. We spend a lot of time training our staff. A lot of people are surprised, 'Paintball, oh, you have referees? Yeah, we have referees, one for every 15 players.' And they're not just watching the rules of the game. They're as much a tour guide as anything else. They're there to make sure everybody's need are taken care of."
In Schuler's mind, at least, the Drop Zone is doing something right.
Though his team practices mostly on a private field, Schuler occasionally participates in team practices at Drop Zone.
"Drop Zone is the best field in the Midwest," he said. "I've been playing there for years. Their attitude is great. Everybody is really nice, really helpful. They do everything they can to be top-notch. They recently leveled the playing field. The whole ground is perfectly level. It's perfect."