This is a storyline you’ve heard before: after countless hours of practice on the playground, an athlete reaches the glorious pinnacle of his or her sport. Except this is a variation you’ve probably never heard before: the sport is four square, and it does indeed have a competitive pinnacle – the World Championships contested each February in, of all places, Bridgton, Maine, and won for the past three years in a row by Mark Pryor ’08.
When Pryor was four, his father became the director of Camp Hanover, near Richmond, Virginia. From then on, Pryor spent his endless summers on the camp’s four square court. Playing against the older kids put him on a steep learning curve, and playing against kids his own age put him in a position of dominance. And while nearly every four square player stops improving at about 10 years old, and usually retires for life soon thereafter, Pryor just kept going.
“When people play me and some of the other people I grew up playing with for the first time, they’re very surprised at the level we can play at,” he says. “It can be a very beautiful game.”
In the free-wheeling, schoolyard version of four square, the occupant of the king square gets to customize the rules, and early in his career, Pryor enjoyed calling all the oddball ones – glass ball, black magic, typewriter, pancake, etc. – that made it virtually impossible for anyone to get him out. (Wondering what four square is, or trying to remember its rules from childhood? Visit http://bigfattigerhome.tripod.com/foursquare.htm or http://www.theykid.com/four-square/)
The World Championships, though, plays by a more traditional set of rules that allow for overhands and bus-stops but not much else. At 8’ x 8’, the courts are also larger than the typical summer camp version, rewarding athleticism and skill rather than rule-calling chicanery. That style of play also suits Pryor, who played three seasons as a center-midfielder on the EMU soccer team.
In 2012, he beat out about 100 other competitors and won his first World Championship by a relatively comfortable margin of three points. Competition is tight, and points are not easy to come by. In 2013, he simply annihilated everything in his path and rolled to a 17-point victory. This February, he carried on the tradition with a modest, for him, five-point victory.
At EMU, Pryor earned a history degree and played four square maybe once or twice, tops. He lives in Richmond now, and when he’s not beating the world at four square, earns his living mostly as a landscaper. He’s never been embarrassed about the four square habit he’s never outgrown. It’s his own little quirky interest, and he admires “strange little niches of culture” that other people get into. E.g.: “If you travel somewhere to go to a yodeling competition, I’m into that. That’s cool. That’s weird.”