COLUMBIA — The joyful commotion exploding from the dart room in the back of the Eagles Lodge No. 2730's bar, on Stadium Boulevard, gets increasingly louder as more and more members of the Columbia Dart Association and Central Missouri Dart Association filter in.
The teasing, laughing, and joking continues as, one by one, the members make their way to warm up at the dartboards at the back of the room.
One dart player, Mike Mudd of the Central Missouri Dart Association, suddenly squares up in front of the dartboard in front of him, mid-wisecrack. He jams his shoe to the edge of the throw line, leans forward and deftly fires three darts into the bull's-eye. He nonchalantly walks up to the dartboard, plucks the darts out, returns to the familiar line seven feet, nine and one-fourth inches away from the face of the board and positions himself again.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Three more darts lodged precisely where Mudd intended. The other dart players take no particular notice.
"He was born with darts in his hand," CMDA member Linn Barnes said of Mudd.
Mudd has been playing darts since 1983 and is currently ranked third in the region and 103rd nationally by the American Darts Organization. Bob Wymer won a gold medal in the Show-Me State games and was selected to compete in Las Vegas at the East-West All-Star Match in 1987. Jason Snodgrass, the president of the CDA, once won the state tournament in doubles when he was first starting out, after putting together a team at the last second. Rick Cole has gone toe-to-toe with the some of the best in the world, sometimes beating them. The dimly lit bar in Columbia is right in the middle of a darts hotbed in the Midwest.
"You've got some of the best dart players in the country that live right around Missouri, Illinois, Kansas," Mudd said. "If you're a tennis player, you can't just go enter Wimbledon. If you're a baseball player, you can't face Nolan Ryan just by stepping up and paying $10. It's a grassroots sport and you get the chance to play great players."
"You can play some of the top 10 guys in the country and that's the fun part," Cole said.
The Columbia Dart Association consists of about 55 players: seven teams made up of four to six members and about 10 "floaters" who play darts, but not on a regular basis. The Association generally meets at least once per week at one of three bars, which also double as sponsors for tournaments.
Codie Snodgrass walks around in a sleeveless T-shirt with "Cedar Creek Saloon" and a dartboard on the back. On his bicep is an unfinished tattoo: three darts soon to be accompanied by a dartboard. The small group of dart players consistently joke around and make sure to have a good time, but they take dart playing seriously.
"I always loved the competition, I always hated getting beat, and whenever I did get beat...it put a little drive and fire into me," Cole said. "It's all a confidence thing."
Each competitor present has a small case containing a number of different dart accessories. Darts is a "game of preferences" according to CDA member Jamie Strawn and each member's kit contains a host of different options so that they can play assured of comfort with equipment.
"If you've got this up here (pointing to his head), you can just about play with anyone," Cole said. "It (darts) is an enjoyable game that causes a lot of concentration. It's all mental, it doesn't have to be so physical."
The average dart player makes some sort of change to a dart every two weeks Strawn said.
"Back, many years ago, Columbia used to have probably the best players around. Actually some of them are still around, they just don't play as much anymore," Jason Snodgrass said.
"People got older and got married and quit," Wymer said.
There are even less female competitors. Out of the dozen or so players who showed up at the blind draw, two were female. There are about five female members of the CDA and few of them show up regularly.
"I come every week, but I may play twice in a season. They may come every night, but they don't play very often. That's how most of the women are in the Columbia league," said Strawn, one of the females present. "We need them desperately. We need people desperately."
"It's shame that the sport has to end with 30-year-old men," Cole said.
According to Codie Snodgrass, it doesn't have to. He captains a team in the CDA, Next Generation, which consists of college and high school-aged competitors. This is precisely the direction the CDA wants to head in, but Jason Snodgrass is convinced that more still needs to be done.
"We just got to get some players to commit and want to come back and actually throw every week," Jason Snodgrass said.
"That's what we need, we need some college students to get back involved, college students that want to commit and play," Mudd said.
Codie Snodgrass walks away from the throw line after one of his first turns at the dartboard. On the way back he fist-bumps Mark Nowlin, an older player and a partner for tonight. After every turn that either of them would make after that, good or bad, Nowlin and Snodgrass would smile and perform the same congratulatory exercise.
"It don't matter where you go, you can joke around with anybody," Nowlin said. "You develop a big family."