Big Willis says he’s actually discarded older trophies commemorating his favorite competitions, like the one in Forestville in the late 1980s. Then, Big Willis was in the third round of a skate-off against a guy who managed to copy or top his every move—until Willis delivered the rink equivalent of a knock-out punch by doing a cartwheel on skates. “He said, ‘When did you start doing that?,’” Big Willis says. “I said, ‘I dunno. Just then.’”
Today, Big Willis and his third wife—Lynette, who also skates with the Master Rollers—share a brick ranch house in Temple Hills, in Prince George’s County. Some of the 14 antique and classic cars he’s collected since 1982 sit along the street out front and in his six-car garage out back. The collection includes a 1939 Packard and two 1966 Mustangs, but also features a less exotic automobile: The 22-seat 1990 Ford bus that has transported the Master Rollers to Saturday-night skate parties in Chicago, Virginia Beach, Raleigh, and Atlanta. Big Willis bought the vehicle for $1,000 from his church, Rehoboth Baptist in Congress Heights. He outfitted it with surround-sound speakers, a television, air conditioning, and, of course, the Master Rollers logo.
Tonight, the bus has brought the group to Baltimore, where they’ll face hundreds of other skaters from cities along the eastern U.S. “When I skate, I say to myself, ‘I’m like a Michael Jordan,’” says Big Willis. “‘This is something I do good. Nobody can take it away from me.’ I guess a whole lot of other people feel that way, too.”
By 1:30 a.m., skaters from Ohio and New Jersey are still rolling in off the interstate. Many of them plan to skate until dawn, then turn around and drive home again. For the most part, these aren’t club kids accustomed to late nights. Many are middle-aged adults with families and jobs. They meet locally at more reasonable hours, too. But the all-night skate parties are the heart of the sport.
Modern style-skating competitions are often loosely-organized affairs that happen organically, when a circle forms in the middle of the floor and skaters challenge each other to one-up each other’s last moves, dance-party style. Winners are determined by popular appeal, measured by applause. Tonight’s contest is slightly more official, with categories including men’s, women’s, and couples. Lil’ Willis is signed up for the trios category with two fellow Midnight Rollers.
Big Willis will be competing in the men’s dual-trick category with Master Roller James “Big Jim” Allen, who’s famous for stunts like leaping over motorcycles or rows of folding chairs on skates in the 1970s. The duo, along with a few dozen other competitors, wear Asics bibs with participant numbers attached to their shirts with safety pins. They’ll compete against three other pairs, all local skaters who know each other’s moves without necessarily knowing each other’s names.
“I may not know all these names, but I know all these faces,” says Gigi Thomas, 48, a longtime skater who worked the register at Alexandria until it closed. “And I can match every face to that person’s shadow on skates. It’s like a thumbprint—it’s that individual.”
One competitor, 24-year-old Thomas “Flash” Paul of Baltimore, a floor guard at Shake N Bake, knows a little more about Big Willis.
Paul’s mother, Aubrenda Green, heads the M.A.D. Unity skate club; he’s part of another one, called the Dream Team. Paul says he’s seen Willis skate. Willis’ long, fluid foot strokes, he says, were born in rinks “the size of an airport hangar.” Paul’s from a younger generation, trained in smaller spaces; his own skating, full of snaps and spins, marks his age as much as his style.
“When I see him at Temple Hills, I’ll catch myself watching him when he does a split or a drop,” Paul says of Big Willis. “He doesn’t miss a beat.”
Just who comes out on top this evening will be up to a panel of accomplished skaters serving as judges. They’ll rate performances based on a variety of factors, from footwork to crowd appeal. For the dual-trick category, judges look for whether pairs are skating in unison and in rhythm with the music; whether they’re holding hands, which makes most moves more difficult; and the difficulty of the tricks attempted.
But for all the competition, history and nostalgia hang heavy. Tasha Klusmann, the wife of one of tonight’s judges and an unofficial historian of the sport, says the competition is a throwback to style skating’s earlier days, when she and her husband, Norbert, used to skate with a group called Wheels of Fortune. Tasha says she knew of Norbert before she met him—a huge portrait of him and his skate partner hung in the entrance to Alexandria to honor their first-place finish in the 1981 Rock-N-Roller Skating $20,000 Dance Contest, one of the last nationally sanctioned roller-skating competitions open to style skaters.