The pigskin still rules in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Gary Broadbent is doing his best to change that. The Canton resident may be the world's foremost expert on boomerangs and is arguably the game's biggest fan. Broadbent, a 52-year-old motivational speaker, outfits himself daily with boomerang rings, boomerang necklaces, boomerang belts and boomerang hats. His personalized license plate reads "B-Rangs," and he has what may be the world's largest private collection of boomerangs, some 15,000 and counting. Nothing compares to the boomerang, claims Broadbent. And its history, dating back at least 12,000 years, is nothing short of incredible.
Early humans the world over used "throwing sticks," a precursor of boomerangs, to fell and injure wild game. But it was the Aborigines of Australia who transformed these heavy hunting weapons into lightweight devices that would return to roughly the same spot from which they were thrown.
"Those early throwing sticks weighed two to four pounds. You wouldn't want them coming back to you," Broadbent explains. "Then came a better hunting instrument: the bow and arrow. But that invention never made it to the remote island of Australia. So the Aborigines kept using the throwing sticks called 'kylies' that they'd make out of curved tree roots. And over time these big heavy sticks began to get worn away. And if the top is convex and the bottom is flat, they'd take flight when thrown horizontally, and you could hit birds with them. But throw them vertically and they'd come back to you -- a magic stick."
The physics behind the boomerang involves torque, aerodynamic lift and something called gyroscopic precession, which forces the device to turn as it spins through the air. And while that science was likely lost on the ancient Aborigines, it's easy to argue that their mastery of the boomerang was the world's first controlled flight -- occurring thousands and thousands of years before the Wright brothers took to air. "Boomerangs were the most amazing primitive tool ever made," boasts Broadbent.
Gradually, boomerangs became more about recreation than hunting. Now, in modern-day competitions, the definition of a boomerang is fairly loose. It cannot have any sort of "catching aid," like a strap or handle that makes it easier to nab upon its return, and competition rules also prohibit metal boomerangs. Wooden models are dangerous enough.
"I've seen some people get concussions," notes Essig.
Over the last couple of decades, boomerangs have greatly advanced with technology. Many are now made out of plastic and foam (some are even crafted of carbon fiber) and come decorated in a kaleidoscope of vivid paint jobs. At competitions, players are more likely to throw a propellerlike boomerang than the quintessential winglike device. Four- and five-blade boomerangs, meanwhile, allow the boomerang to remain suspended in air for long periods of time.
Between throws, competitors "tune" their boomerangs, some of which can cost upward of $150, to adjust for things like wind speed and direction -- modifying the aircraft to get the desired results.
"I put tape on them, rubber bands, flaps, taped-on coins that add weight," says Essig. "You can move them around and adjust the drag and distance and stuff."
Back at home, Essig will do more complicated adjustments, like drilling holes in the boomerang or even heating it up in the microwave to bend the blades just right. Essig's best event, the Australian Round, in which the goal is to get the boomerang to return exactly to the spot from which it's thrown, requires the use of a narrow, V-shaped boomerang. Essig has multiple devices for this event, including a "Fuzzy" -- a handmade model from German boomerang enthusiast Axel Heckner.
"Essig really has great boomerangs," confirms Legion of Boom captain Steve Kavanaugh, who has borrowed from Essig's kit a time or two.
"He let me throw his Axel Heckner Fuzzy, and it was godlike, came slicing right back," says Kavanaugh, who has only one gripe about the Fuzzy: "[Essig] won't let me buy it from him."