Twice a year, in late April and early October, Emerald Coast Volleyball Week tournament director Mike Minich takes the mic on the Okaloosa Island boardwalk and gives his captain’s meeting speech to kick off the Fudpucker 4-Player tournament, a beach volleyball destination event that lures participants from all over the South and Midwest.
At some point in the speech, he always makes sure to reiterate what has become the unofficial motto of his tournaments. “We’re here to have fun,” he said in a Southern accent that’s a product of attending elementary school in Memphis, despite being born in Berkeley, California. “If your fun is bothering someone else’s, reevaluate.”
This year the captain’s meeting also required a brief interlude for Mars Stevenson, a six-time Fuds attendee from Atlanta, to propose to his girlfriend, Jennifer Waldrup. He went down on one knee on the boardwalk, and she—barefoot, sandy, and bawling—said yes, much to the delight of the crowd gathered for the meeting and the couple’s friends in the sand holding signs that read, “Say yes!”
Stevenson and Waldrup are certainly not the first to get engaged at Fuds, as the tournament is affectionately called by its regulars. In fact, Minich said, he’s even married a few couples right there during the captain’s meeting.
“They meet here or they’ve come here together and it’s kind of a special time for them, so [getting engaged or getting married during the tournament] just makes it more special,” Minich explained.
Indeed, participants feel a unique attachment to these weeks they spend playing and partying on the white sand of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Minich estimates that about 85 percent of participants are returnees. The rest were likely lured down by their friends’ or families’ repeated stories of epic parties and excellent competition.
Although there are those who come just to party and don’t compete in any of the week’s four tournaments (bring-your-own-partner doubles, king/queen of the beach, doubles draw, and Fudpucker 4-player), they are certainly in the minority. This year, over 2,000 players participated, with the four-player teams making up roughly half of that count.
The quads format, played on Saturday and Sunday, is the flagship event and makes the tournament unique since most people don’t play quads on the beach very regularly (as one repeat Fuds attendee and 2014 men’s A champion Chris Kosokowsky put it, “only when we’re drinking”), and it’s even less likely they play with old school sideout scoring and no net serves.
Ever since its creation in 1989, the weekend tournament has been quads. Minich admits he doesn’t know the original reason for that decision, but the sponsors—which include the namesake Fudpucker’s, a nightclub and restaurant chain in Destin, Florida, and The Swamp and Howl at the Moon, two other nightclubs on the Okaloosa Boardwalk right off center court—appreciate the format because it brings in more people. “Hell, they’d do a 10-man team if they could,” said Minich with a smile.
“The other part about four-man is nobody really takes it as seriously as they do doubles,” he continued, “and it’s a transitional thing between indoor and outdoor. This is kind of everybody’s first big tournament and they’re just coming from indoors.”
The sideout scoring element also shakes up the competition. Games to 15 can take minutes or an hour, there’s just no telling. Suddenly you find yourself with a new appreciation for the legends of the ’80s and ’90s who played doubles this way, covering the entire big court. On the first day, one player in the men’s tournament could be heard yelling, “Damn you, Karch Kiraly!” as he expressed his frustration with this exhausting throwback version of the game. Then again, there’s an exciting upside: the comebacks are unbelievable. In the men’s A semifinals, team Damage from Dayton, Ohio, overcame an 8-1 deficit against a team of young bucks to win and move on to the finals, which they ended up winning after overcoming yet another big deficit (6-1).
Kosokowsky had to give the fours format some credit. “It’s a different kind of game,” he said. “You’ve got to get used to it. There’s a little acclimating going on, but it challenges you. You have to work your brain to figure out systems.”
In the women’s Open division of the 4-player tournament, team Wannabe My Lover from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, defeated reigning champs The Swamp, local girls from Fort Walton Beach, in a back-and-forth battle.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better ending,” said Wannabe My Lover team member Brittney Gregory. “It was close. To have a win on a game like that against a team like that was just incredible.”
On the men’s side, The Real Housewives of NOLA, from, you guessed it, New Orleans, prevailed over Niceville, Florida’s Team Swerve.
The Open finals of the quads tournament take place on Sunday after all other divisions have finished playing so everyone can watch, and almost everyone does. Tourists lured in off the beach and boardwalk add to the 1,000-plus sweaty players sitting in the sand, under shade tents, and lining both levels of the boardwalk, as well as up and down the stairs. Few pro tournaments could ask for a better crowd.
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Minich worked his first Fuds, which was then called Destin Four-Man and sponsored by Abbott Resorts, in the spring of 1993. The fall before, he had played in the tournament and felt there was much the organizers could do to improve it. On active-duty in the Army at the time, he wrote the organizers a letter listing all the things he would do better. They responded by calling and hiring him to implement his proposed changes.
Minich has lived all over, and he discovered his love of volleyball on the beaches of Hawaii. Following a promotion to major, he had a party to celebrate at the Kaneohe Bay Air Station. There happened to be a volleyball net on the beach there, and Minich played all day. The next morning, he went out, bought a ball, and carried it around with him wherever he went, always on the hunt for his next game.
When eventually he moved away from Hawaii, he knew what to look for in his new home. “When we got transferred from Hawaii to Atlanta, my wife and I drove around and we found these two sand courts. I told her, I want to live right here,” said Minich. “I joined the club there and played there, and after a couple of years I became the outdoor president.”
Minich began organizing outdoor tournaments regularly in Atlanta, eventually giving a hand to the AVP and WPVA when they came to town. In 1996, he was on location for the Olympics’ inaugural beach volleyball competition, and in 2004 he traveled to Athens to work his second Olympics.
He’s had many odd jobs in the years since—radio DJ, dockmaster, city councilman—but nothing that’s as rewarding as organizing the two annual tournaments in Florida. “I love volleyball. I don’t play anymore, but to try to put on a good event that people appreciate, that’s the whole thing,” he said. “And I tell ’em, hey, don’t thank me, if it weren’t for you, I’d have to get a real job.”
Under his leadership, Fuds has grown—not only in size, but in activities as well. In 2008, Minich and the owner of Fudpucker’s Tim Edwards created a hall of fame to honor those who embody the spirit of Fuds. That “have-fun-without-impeding-others’-fun” spirit. And in 2004, a costume contest entered into the weekend’s schedule.
It started with a few Open teams wearing costumes. There was Team Fletch, dressed like LA Lakers, and another team dressed as UPS drivers. Then the next year, the Wannabes, a BB team from Baton Rouge captained by Shawn Hima, showed up in their homemade costumes imitating the big shots. The Wannabes now compete in the costume contest every year, winning more often than not. The group has also expanded to include the majority of attendees from Baton Rouge.
“Some of the outfits, they’re so creative,” said Minich. “[The Wannabes] did the Jamaican bobsled team one year. They did the USA swimming team last year. They came out in the USA swim team uniforms, stretched, shot the gun. They just dove into the sand and acted like they were swimming, flipped over on their backs. Then they had a gold medal ceremony and they raised the flag up on the side of the building.”
This year the Wannabes dressed as jockeys and rode stick ponies around center court with Hima’s recorded voice calling the race.
Although the costume contest guarantees excellent entertainment, Minich looks forward to the hall of fame celebration the most.
“We say, ‘Look, this tournament is good because of you, not because of us,’” he said. “‘You make this tournament. You come in here with the right attitude, you make a positive influence on us, and this is how we say thank you.’”
The inductees share a champagne toast with Edwards and Minich (who was himself inducted into the hall of fame in 2013) and are then presented with awards on stage at Saturday night’s players’ party. They wear giant Mardi Gras beads of honor for the rest of the night, ambassadors of the Fuds mission.
• • •
Stevenson, the lucky groom-to-be, loves pretty much everything about the Fort Walton Beach, Florida, tournament. He sums it up saying it’s,“doing a sport I love, on the beach which I love, away from the office which I love, with a bunch of friends who share the same passion I do.”
Kosokowsky, on the other hand, highlighted the last day’s tournament competition as his favorite part. “Everybody coming in on Sunday wants to win, so it’s exciting.”
Gregory, of the winning Wannabe My Lovers, and her teammates Renee Zeringue, Katie Boudreaux, and Ashley Legendre, couldn’t seem to narrow down the reason they keep coming back year after year.
“The atmosphere, the friends, the partying, everything.”
After his big proposal, Stevenson collected a new appreciation for the community that’s formed at the twice-annual event. People he knew and even ones he had never seen before offered up congratulations throughout the weekend.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Everyone on our net was coming over to say congratulations. I had people buying me shots that night at the bar. Volleyball is like an extended family to begin with, and everyone out there coming by and saying congratulations made that bond even stronger.”
There’s no official residence for Emerald Coast Volleyball Week, but players tend to gather in two choice lodging locations.
The closest you can stay to center court, the Ramada is an excellent choice for those looking to spend most of their trip on the beach playing ball. Ask for a beach-front room on the first floor and you’ll be able to walk right out your back door and onto the beach, making mid-day uniform changes a breeze. And for post-game refreshments, the Ramada also features a unique swim-up pool bar called the Grotto.
At Destin West, you can choose a one, two, or three-bedroom condo complete with a full kitchen. It’s a great way to go if you plan to play in all four tournaments because you get a discount when you stay a week. The kitchen also provides a nice break from eating out if you prefer to cook up some local seafood or save some time in the morning by eating breakfast at home.
When you aren’t playing, you’ll likely want to stop in one of these classy establishments for a drink and some sustenance.
The classiest establishment on the boardwalk, the Black Pearl is a great place for dinner after a long day of volleyball. Although a bit pricey, you can get a good deal by ordering off the specials menu (available between 4-6 p.m.), and the food is delish.
Location, location, location. The Crab Trap has outdoor seating on the upper level of the Okaloosa Island Boardwalk so you can watch the tournament competition while you eat. If you want to sit up here for the Open finals though, make sure you claim a table early.
A huge Irish pub that won’t leave you hungry, McGuire’s is a must. Make sure to order the bean soup (it’s only 18 cents). Keep in mind that the portions, from drinks, to appetizers, to entrees, are huge, so it’s easy to over-order.
Originally published in July 2014