DiG Classics: Volleyball Vagabond

2009 #5

Welcome to the DiG archives where we will be periodically posting some of our most widely read stories previously published in our print edition. This story on the irrepressible Dana Camacho appeared in DiG #5, 2009, an issue that featured gold medalist Todd Rogers on the cover.

DiG Classics

Volleyball Vagabond

Some might call him a beach bum, but to really understand what AVP pro Dana Camacho is all about, you have to spend a little time getting to know him and his game.

by Jon Hastings

Dana Camacho (Photo: Don Liebig)

Aspen, Colorado,

Labor Day, 2007

I was walking north at 7:45 a.m. on Mill Street anticipating an inevitable collision with perhaps beach volleyball’s most intriguing character. Dana Camacho, puffing a Marlboro and ignoring his companion, was walking west on Durant Street. I calculated that in about 30 paces we would arrive at the same corner for an awkward encounter.

I was familiar with the intrigue surrounding the enigmatic Camacho, but I wasn’t sure he knew me. We arrived on one of Aspen’s most fashionable intersections in marching-band rhythm. We were headed for the same destination. Much of the previous evening in my condo was spent speculating on whether Camacho was going to be up before noon, let alone by 8 for his scheduled match, so when our eyes met and the smoke cleared from his most recent exhale, I was obligated to offer a cordial: “What’s up?”

I knew what was up. Camacho, 32, was on his way to what locals referred to as the Chart House courts, primarily used for the men’s open division at the popular Motherlode Tournament. He was paired against my son in the first losers’ bracket match of the day.

Connor Hastings and his partner Andy Northness had finished their cereal and milk at 7 and had been warming up at the courts for probably 20 minutes. Conversely, Camacho’s blue eyes looked bloodshot. I figured the tequila he had the night before was working overtime as breakfast. “Not much,” he replied to my obligatory morning greeting. “Except my partner is a retard.”

That partner would be the 6-5 Billy Chenoweth, a fellow Floridian who was walking in sync with the 5-9 Camacho. He showed no visible reaction to the less-than-flattering comment.

I laughed uncomfortably. “Who put you guys in the losers’?” I asked, steering the subject away from retarded partners. “Didn’t matter who put us there,” said Camacho. “Anybody can beat a retard.”

Chenoweth, of course, is a talented player who’s good enough to record many AVP main-draw finishes, as well as qualify as one of the USA’s Under-26 representatives in this summer’s FIVB developmental tour. Camacho’s standards, however, are different. He remembers reigning gold medalist Phil Dalhausser as somewhat of a volleyball klutz.

Move forward two years to the AVP’s Manhattan Open in July of 2009. Camacho and his partner, Mike Bruning, a popular lower ranked main draw player who’s almost completely deaf (an affliction most consider ideal for playing with Camacho), are pitted against Paul Baxter and Jonathan Acosta in the losers’ bracket on an outer court. Camacho attracts cult interest for most of his matches. In this one, he had launched his NASA approved sky ball serve on several occasions and dazzled the crowd with some incomparable digs.

The match was in the third set and reaching critical mass, a time when Camacho can either thrive or wilt – often depending on the connection he has with his partner. After a long rally, Bruning tipped the ball on a block attempt and was trapped at the net, off balance. Camacho dove to get the misdirected shot. Then, seeing that Bruning was in no position to make a play, he went for an improbable kill. While in the air stretched out horizontally, he sent a line-drive dig with purpose into the top of the tape. The ball hung on the net for a split second and then fell near Bruning’s feet. It was a point for Baxter and Acosta but recognized as a calculated shot by Camacho.

Tom Feuer, who produced most of the Prime and Fox Sports broadcasts of the early AVP days, was standing near the serving line watching the play. He marveled at what he saw. “He tried to send the ball intentionally into the tape and have it dribble over,” said Feuer, who also enjoys the game as a player. “That was a brilliant attempt. Who can think that fast?”

I saw the same thing. I classified Camacho as a volleyball savant. Feuer didn’t hesitate. “That’s exactly what he is. He’s a volleyball savant.”

Some of Camacho’s moves have not been so brilliant.

He served four months in jail in 2006 for being the middleman in a marijuana exchange, which is a nice way to say he was involved in a drug deal. He has more ink on his arms than the Denver Nuggets’ backcourt. His address is fluid, usually on a couch he didn’t pay for. Most of the time he has no job, except beach volleyball. By most standards of society, he would be categorized “a loser.”

People who get to know Camacho see it differently. Ryan Cronin, a qualifier player on the AVP Tour, says Camacho has an indescribable quality that makes him genuine and likable. “Dana can stay on your couch uninvited for three months, eat your food, not offer you a dime, and you’re happy he was there,” says Cronin.

Dan Madden, another volleyball player who monitors the sport closely, doesn’t think there’s a gray area when it comes to Camacho. “If you say you don’t like Dana Camacho, you either don’t know him or you’re lying,” says Madden.

Camacho wouldn’t be truly forthright if he didn’t admit he’s failed to capitalize on some of his talent. Estimates have him winning more than 100 satellite events since he started playing in 1994, from Rich Heiles’ East End Tournaments (where Dalhausser and Nick Lucena got their starts) to the Motherlode (three times) to Seaside (three times) and countless smaller paydays across the country that seldom reach four figures. His AVP success has been marginal at best. He has played in 40 AVP events since 1998, never finishing higher than 13th. His AVP career prize money through the Hermosa Open was just over $4,500. Those are numbers for a player who never really had much business pursuing the sport professionally.

“I know I can be a jerk on the court, but I play with serious emotions.” (Photo: Peter Brouillet)

But Camacho is different.

“Yeah, I think he could have been a guy getting some decent finishes out here,” says Dalhausser, the gold-medal klutz who Camacho used to school back in Florida in the early part of this decade. “He likes to run his mouth, and fans seem to like that. If he would have been more serious – trained, taken care of himself – who knows how much success he could have? He might be limited with his size siding out against the very top players, but I’ve seen him do some unbelievable things.”

Unbelievable contradiction is how some might describe Camacho’s lifestyle. He smokes up to two packs of cigarettes per day, but the legendary partying has been curtailed – at least according to the guy who was once doing the consuming. When I told him there was talk of making a documentary on one of his summers as a beach volleyball pro, Camacho shook his head. “That would be pretty boring,” he said. “Unless you want to see me sitting on the couch watching TV.”

“What about the partying — the stuff that has made you part urban legend, genuine renegade?” I asked. Camacho rolled his eyes. “I don’t go clubbing anymore. Not for seven or eight years. I may go to a few parties, but nothing like I used to.”

(Photo: Peter Brouillet)

Camacho, who’s now based out of a friend’s San Diego home, didn’t grow up with much family support. His first exposure to the game was when he was six years old, watching the early telecasts (the ones Feuer produced) of Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, Randy Stoklos, Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd. He would watch the volleyball by himself. “I saw it on TV, and it looked like something I wanted to do.”

Camacho’s father wasn’t involved in his life and his mother, Nancy, faced the pitfalls of a single mom raising an only child in a tough neighborhood of Miami. Dana spent ample time on the streets but found refuge at a west Miami recreation center playing volleyball against adults on lighted courts. His quickness, leaping ability and natural ball control gave him an identity – something to feel good about.

He earned his first money playing volleyball at 14, an open win worth $500.

He moved out of the house when he was 15, trying to scrape out an existence playing beach volleyball in the series of East Coast events that offered small money purses. His first beach partner was fellow Floridian George Roumain, who made a national splash as an indoor star at Pepperdine and later with the USA National Team and on the AVP Tour. Camacho’s entry into the game was more of a ripple, but the wake has been consistent.

AVP star Sean Rosenthal is a supporter of Camacho’s game. The pair won an event together in Manhattan Beach back when Rosie’s Raiders were partying without purpose. “It was seven or eight years ago, but we spanked everybody,” says Rosenthal. “We beat some good teams: (John) Hyden and Andy Witt, Casey Jennings and Lee LeGrande. Some people might think he’s overachieved because he’s only 5-9, but I think he could be doing a lot better out here if he would have trained seriously, maybe attracted a big, quality partner. I can say this, he was fun to play with and ball control was not an issue.”

Former Olympian Kevin Wong was one of those marquee big guys who contemplated a Camacho pairing six or seven years ago. “He was on my list of defenders I was thinking about when I needed a partner.” said Wong. The seven-time tour winner considers Camacho a guy that gives the tour an edge, much like John Daly does on the PGA Tour.

 (Photo: Peter Brouillet)

Not everybody is a Camacho fan.

He is polarizing. “Dana Camacho is a guy so larger than life you don’t have to make up a quote about him,” says Wong. “Everybody has a Dana Camacho story, and I can guarantee every single one is true because I have seen like half of them.”

Wong won’t acknowledge that Camacho has squandered some talent. ‘I wouldn’t even go there,” he says. “I just think he’s one of those oldschool guys. He’s undersized, but he makes up for it with athleticism and some amazing hand-eye coordination. He’s like an Allen Iverson, he’s the guy that does things your coaches have been telling you not to do all your life, but he can do it and get away with it — and nobody else can.”

That athleticism was put to use when he played striker on elite youth soccer teams as a kid, but playing soccer cost money. Volleyball was a way to make money.

His mother has never seen him play sports. “She really wasn’t much into the volleyball thing,” he says. He says he hasn’t spoken to her since he left home 17 years ago, and he doesn’t expect any communication in the foreseeable future. There aren’t any brothers or sisters – “maybe a half brother or half sister.” If friends aren’t around, he spends holidays by himself.

In the Hermosa Beach Open in August, Camacho and Bruning made the main draw with three wins in the qualifier and then found themselves playing current USA Olympic Team star Reid Priddy and 6-9 Bill Strickland in a match for 13th place.

“This ain’t indoor, Reid,” Camacho announced before he launched the match’s first serve, a sky ball that went so high that spectators got dizzy tracking it.

(Photo: Peter Brouillet)

Priddy passed it strongly, but admitted it was a little unnerving. “That thing is unreal,” says Priddy. “At first I was moving my feet, creating a platform and getting into good position to pass it, but after a while it wears on you. The guy is a character – definitely fun to play against.”

Camacho and Bruning won the first game in the stiff wind against Priddy-Strickland and seemed to be in control of the match at 12-10 in Game 2. The difference between 17th and 13th place in Hermosa was $420 per man. Not much for Priddy, who makes more than $500,000 annually playing indoors in Europe, but the kind of money that’s a month of subsistence for Camacho.

The match and Camacho’s body language changed late in Game 2. He chipped at Bruning. His shoots on two that were finding sand earlier in the match were getting scooped up or landing out of bounds. They lost 17-21, 21-17, 15-10.

“On the surface, people think he’s a jerk,” says Bruning.

“And on the surface, he is a jerk. First impressions with Dana are usually negative, but there is so much more to him people don’t see. He’s a sensitive guy with some great qualities.”

Bruning has seen the dark side of Camacho on the court, too. At the AVP qualifier in Huntington Beach this year, things went south in the last match of the day. “He can abandon his partners and go off in his own world, but I didn’t think he would do that with me,” says Bruning, who is 6-5. “I didn’t know how to react. We got into it pretty good. There’s even a picture of me from that match standing over him yelling.”

Camacho seemed surprised by his reputation as a partner basher. I relayed the retard comment from Aspen to him. We both laughed. “I make jokes all the time – about my friends,” he said. “I have partners who are just acquaintances, and I would never talk like that. You know, if they’re my friends it’s okay. They know me.”

Chenoweth doesn’t put much value on Camacho, the critic. “The thing about Dana is that when the tournament is over, it’s over,” he says. “Even if you didn’t play well, he doesn’t blame you once the volleyball is over. If he was your friend before the tournament, he’s your friend afterwards no matter how you played.”

There is also Camacho’s propensity to get down in a match. I reminded him about the time he walked off the court on Ivan Mercer in the quarterfinals of a Motherlode Tournament midway through the game without saying a word. “When it’s over it’s over, might as well save energy,” he explained. “That’s just how my mind works.”

He and Mercer battled through the losers’ bracket to win the event that year. “I know I can be a jerk on the court sometimes, but I play with very serious emotions,” he said. “Sometimes, the emotion gets the best of me, but off the court I feel I’m a good guy. I have a lot of friends, and they understand where I’m coming from. I’m just very intense about volleyball.”

Camacho would like to make a splash on the AVP before he’s through, dismissing the idea that he doesn’t want to work hard. “I’d be willing to do what it takes,” says Camacho. “If I was playing with a top player, I would make it my business to practice all the time if he wanted to. You know, it’s basically up to my partner if he wants to practice. I have all the time in the world. I’d be willing to calm down for the right partner, if that’s what they wanted. I could compromise.”

He smokes up to two packs a day, but the legendary partying has been curtailed. (Photo: Peter Brouillet)

Camacho says he played to the crowd.

“I try some crazy stuff out there because the crowd likes watching it,” he said. “If I want them to continue to watch, I got to keep doing it. And I like them watching.”

He’s still hoping to get rich playing beach volleyball, even if it means paying taxes. Right now he figures he makes roughly $10,000 per year, supplementing his volleyball earnings by doing landscaping for friends or working as a nanny, which he did for a short time last year in Aspen. He’s also a self-proclaimed neat freak.

I asked him if he would trade places with an accountant right now to make a secure $50,000 per year. “Yeah, I probably would,” he says. “I don’t need the stress. My life has been full of some poor choices. I’d like to take it easy for awhile.”

Dana Camacho as an accountant just wouldn’t work for beach volleyball. The guy supposedly got out of prison and won a Bud Light Series event in Florida less than 24 hours after his release. “That’s not true,” Camacho says. “It was a fifth, and I was 205 pounds when I got out, but we had some upset wins in that tourney.”

Back down to 163 pounds, Camacho can’t predict the future, but he’s a realist. “Probably the same thing I’m doing know,” he answered when he asked what life would be like for him 10 years from now. “Trying to make a living playing this sport. I’ve put enough time into it. Maybe some coaching. I can see the game pretty well, strategies and stuff.”

Less than 16 hours after the tough loss in Hermosa, Camacho was up the next morning playing in a one-day Great America Volleyball event at the Manhattan Beach Pier. He had a couple of Bud Lights to relax him before the semifinals. He and partner Jon Mesko eventually won the event – another $300 in the couch fund.

He was expected to play with Mesko at AVP events in Muskegon and Chicago later in the month.

I told him I’d likely see him in Aspen, Labor Day Weekend. We could chat on the corner. He promised he would smoke downwind.