Above photo: Bocce players toss balls to try to accumulate points by rolling closest to the small white ball that serves as a target.

Photos by Joe Earle

Albert Johnson admits he knew nothing of the ball-rolling game called bocce until he arrived at the Dorothy Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex a few years back. “I didn’t know it existed. I found out about it being here,” he said. “I played it. I worked at it and got pretty good at it.”

The 75-year-old retired pastor said he used to be a golfer, but now he’s become a fixture on the bocce courts. He’s part of a group of seniors, aged from their 60s to their 80s, that gathers at the Sandy Springs senior center’s two bocce courts regularly to roll balls for points and camaraderie.

The Benson Center bocce players gather twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday mornings. They come from various neighborhoods, but they’ve gotten to know one another as they’ve played bocce together for months or even years.          Players keep the game going nearly year-round, weather permitting. “If it’s not raining, you play,” Johnson said.

The game itself is simple, perhaps deceptively so. Players compete in teams. One player throws a small white ball that’s a bit bigger than a golf ball. The white ball, called the “pallino” to recall the sport’s Italian roots, becomes the target.          Players then roll larger, red or green balls toward the smaller ball and gain points by coming closest. The first team to collect 11 points wins, as long as the winning team finishes at least two points ahead.

“It’s a good game for older people,” Johnson said. “I guess it’s a good game for anybody. I like it because it’s challenging.”

Joan Lee tosses a ball

The Benson Center started hosting bocce games about 2008, when an Italian-American society in Atlanta donated a court, said Homer French, a member of Friends of Benson nonprofit who plays bocce and volunteers to help set up and run the games. A second court was added about two years ago, paid for with a grant from the city of Sandy Springs, he said.

French enjoys the twice-weekly game for the people who play it. “It’s a very enjoyable group of people,” he said. “It’s mildly competitive and it’s suitable for all ages…. It’s fun to get out there and kid around. One of the guys referred to it as ‘trash talk,’ but I don’t think it rises to that level.” In fact, he said, people regularly cheer their opponents’ throws, rather than taunt them.

Some players see the game as a way to stay sharp. “I’ve always enjoyed competitive sports — well, competitive anything,” said Dana Deer, who’s 81 and figures she takes part in a bocce game about once a week. “I enjoy the sociability. I like the fact that it’s outdoors. It’s a skill game and I like the skill element very much.”

Others say they just enjoy spending time at the senior center, which offers a wide variety of classes and activities. “I love being at the center,” bocce player Dell Clarkson said. “It’s a great way to do activities and keep an old lady like me out of trouble.”

Sandy Springs isn’t the only place where seniors congregate around bocce games. In Roswell, Frank Padula remembers playing the game about a dozen years ago on the grass behind the city of Roswell’s Adult Recreation Center on Grimes Road.

The Italian-American society paid for the center’s first court, he said, and the game grew. Now the center has three courts built by the city. Center Program Coordinator Mary Rummell said 15 to 20 players gather three times a week to play bocce.

The game has continued its spread among metro Atlanta seniors. Rummell said it’s included in the Fulton senior games each May and draws teams from throughout the county. “They become very competitive,” she said. “They all want to take home the gold.”

One recent Friday morning, Johnson, who said he lived in Los Angeles and Panama before settling in Georgia a few years back, and French were among a group of about 14 players who fought the July heat and morning mosquitos to get in a few rounds of bocce.

Joan Lee, who’s 83, complained of the heat, but kept playing despite it. She said she’s been playing bocce at the Benson Center for at least six years. “I love it,” she said.

Several players said they were introduced to the game by Dorothy Benson herself, the woman for whom the center is named and who’s been a regular player through the years.

“If Ms. Benson was here, she’d say, ‘Let’s play! Get up and throw the ball!’” said veteran player Grace Rollolazo, who’s 71.

And, it being a Friday, they took Ms. Benson’s long-standing advice. Two games soon were underway, one on each of the Benson Center’s courts.

At one point, French, who’s 83 and has lived in metro Atlanta for 50 years, carefully lined up his shot. From a seat in the shade, Johnson appraised French’s form as he prepared to roll the ball. “This guy you got right here, you’ve got to watch him,” Johnson said, just loudly enough for French to hear him. “He’s sneaky.”

French smiled at the not-quite-trash talk. He was, he said with a grin, simply “a wily competitor.” Then he rolled.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.