Beyond the Books
Dan Kerszencwejg sprinted across the field, dodging paintballs and firing his weapon-like marker at the opposing team’s players before taking cover behind an inflated rubber bunker.
The twenty-five-year-old IUP senior has played in paintball tournaments since he was seventeen. It’s a sport that has taken him to foreign countries, earned international acclaim for him and his teammates, and helped him pay for college.
Paintball itself is a few years younger than Kerszencwejg. The “ammunition” is neither paint nor balls but, rather, thin-skinned gelatin capsules that contain nontoxic, biodegradable, water-soluble liquid. The debris of battle rinses out of clothing or off skin with water and completely dissolves in just a few weeks outdoors.
Kerszencwejg was fourteen when a friend introduced him to paintball. He soon began devoting all his money and most of his free time to the sport. He approached the captain of the All Americans II, an amateur paintball team, and soon started practicing with the team.
The team members had such respect for his abilities that they asked him to join the team for the World Cup in Orlando, Fla., on only three days’ notice. He drove south and helped the team take second in a field of some one hundred teams. At the World Cup the following year, he helped the team win first place for the ten-man amateur team title.
Kerszencwejg eventually asked the team’s sponsor, Smart Parts of Latrobe, Pa., the nation’s largest manufacturer of paintball products, for the chance to move up to the professional team. When someone dropped off the pro team, he substituted in Brazil and Venezuela tournaments, both of which the team won. From there, the team took a first and a second in England, won in Germany, took second in Montreal, took fourth in France, and won in Sweden.
“Since the team started in the mid-1980s, it has won fifty-six tournaments,” according to Kerszencwejg, who has been featured in articles in international paintball magazines. “It’s the winningest team in paintball.”
It takes a lot of commitment to stay on top. Since January, the sponsor has been flying professional team members, including Kerszencwejg, to Florida for practices every two weeks. In recent years, the sport has evolved from camouflage-clad players in the woods to athletes in brightly colored, tight-fitting sportswear on inflatable-bunker fields.
“I love playing in the woods, even though I haven’t done it for years,” he said. “There was a lot more skill and strategy in the woods. Most long-time players prefer the game as it’s played there”
The newer players tend to play Sup’Airball—paintball played on a field bedecked with inflatable, air-filled, rubber bunkers and obstacles. The newest version is X Ball, which features franchised, city-based teams. The All-Americans team has become the Philadelphia All-Americans for X Ball.
An X Ball match can be as short as twenty seconds. Players can be eliminated by a direct hit almost instantly.
“X Ball is geared more toward spectators,” Kerszencwejg said. “It’s a sport. It’s more focused on technical skills. It’s more like a chess game with people. With X Ball, it’s so crazy and fast-paced now.”
Kerszencwejg grew up in Maryland and spent a year in college there. He later worked in several restaurants and spent a few years with Smart Parts before graduating from the IUP Culinary Academy in Punxsutawney and enrolling at IUP, from which he will graduate in December. The fact that a culinary education and a university education were both accessible made IUP the place he wanted to be. Through it all, he played paintball.
He has maintained a high B average and is a member of Eta Sigma Delta, international hospitality management honor society for Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management majors. After he graduates, professional paintball will probably give way to a career that draws on his education.
“It’s kind of tough, thinking this is my last year,” he said. “But after so many years playing competitively, I’m looking forward to playing just for fun.”