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Downers Grove

These shoes aren’t made for walkin’

Downers Grove horseshoe pitchers are dedicated to game

Here’s a game where no batteries, no plug-ins, no passwords are required. All that’s needed is a keen eye, a steady hand and some open ground.

For about 17 weeks during the summer, every Monday and Thursday evening, about 30 guys converge on the horseshoe pits at McCollum Park to “pitch shoes.”

Collectively known as the Downers Grove Park District Horseshoe Club, the group was sanctioned in May 1986. The members cover all ages, from the more seasoned pitchers in their ’80s, to “kids” in their mid-20s with little experience.

Downers Grove resident Jeff Kindermann, who’s president of the club, said he started playing seven or so years ago. 

“I just turned 50 and my kids were going away to school,” he said. “I play in a dart league and play bags in the wintertime. I’d never really played horseshoes before. ...I thought it would be something to do in the summertime.”

But the game has a lot of competition these days, like “bags,” which requires less room and let’s admit it, less skill.

“I play bags in the wintertime,” Kindermann said. “It’s real popular now. You might think they are similar games, but they are completely different. The young guys now are playing bags. It’s the same concept but things come and go.”

In addition to newcomers, there’s long-timers such as 70-year-old Luke Thompson, who joined the club in 1991.

The Bolingbrook resident and West Virginia native said he’s the one who runs the club’s tournaments — six each year — three of which have already been held. He’s an old hand at the game, getting his first matches in with his dad.

“I’ve been pitching shoes all my life, really,” Thompson said. “I started pitching when I was a kid.”
But unlike other sports, such as baseball — where there’s three different curve balls, three fastballs, a slider, a knuckle ball, changeups, the breaking ball and so on — horseshoes has a variety of throws as well. But not as many.

“Basically there’s about four different kinds of tosses,” Thompson said. “There’s the flip, then there’s the three-quarter turn and one-and-a-quarter, and a quarter turn.”

He said most players throw the one-and-a-quarter or three-quarter, but “that doesn’t mean they’re not any good any other way.”
In fact, this group includes its share of talent. Thompson said fellow club member Dennis Reid, who lives in Lemont, is “the man” when it comes to the game.

“He’s the best pitcher in this area, and he pitches from a wheelchair,” Thompson said. “He averages 65 percent ringers.”

You heard that right. Reid’s thrown shoes for 29 years — and now does so in a wheelchair — at a very successful rate.

He said he pitched in the backyard with his dad, and when he was 18, he got involved with the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America.

“At that time I was walking,” he said. “But I’ve been in a wheelchair since 1986.”

He said he lost the use of his legs after an ATV accident at the Santa Fe Speedway. He got into a pileup, he said, and was paralyzed from the waist down.

“Kind of a freak accident,” he said. “Since a year after my accident, I’ve been pitching from my chair.”

Reid is rated 17th nationwide among the top 100 in his NHPA class. In 2002, he won a state tournament — again from his wheelchair.

“I’m overdue to win that again,” said Reid, who finished third in last year’s tournament.
However, he still won the Illinois State Fair Tournament last year.

“It’s pretty competitive,” he said.

On Monday, Reid joined 1,500 other competitors in the 2012 NHPA World Tournament in Knoxville, Tenn. He’ll be pitching from Monday through Aug. 8.

“The last two times I’ve been at the tournament I made the finals,”  he said. “The best I’ve ever done was three years ago. I finished seventh out of the top 16. There was probably 400-something in my class.”

Still, Reid said he’s not exactly a rock star when it comes to the game.

“I don’t want to brag, but you don’t get much publicity with horseshoes,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have fans. Kindermann, the club president, said one recent day, a woman showed up at the park horseshoe pits and spent time just watching them play.

“She said, ‘Just watching you play brings back such memories,’ which was kind of exciting,” Kindermann said. “It’s encouraging because we have some new people interested in the sport and they’re fairly young guys.”

In fact, he thinks horseshoes are starting to come back. He said the club started dwindling in numbers, but now, it’s on the rise.

“People see (horseshoes) gets them a little exercise, it gets them out of the house,” he said. “I’m pretty confident we can grow our little club in Downers Grove. It’s amazing how many people stop and watch.”

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