Growing up, many kids dedicate a good portion of their childhood to “playing soldier,” prowling the woods near their homes, ducking behind trees and firing fake guns at imaginary enemy combatants. For Nate Gienger, the love of playing soldier was something he never grew out of, even after spending three years doing the real thing, serving as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, which is why in 2012, shortly after being medically retired from service, Gienger chose to open Fayetteville’s largest paintball park, Black Ops Paintball, located at 2112 River Rd.
For the uninitiated, paintball is a game that developed in the 1980s, wherein players compete by trying to eliminate their opponents using what are called “paintball markers,” which fire dye-filled, fragile gelatin paintballs. The result is an experience not unlike a real-life game of “Call of Duty,” only with the added benefit of being outdoors and getting exercise.
“One of my philosophies is that, the youth of this country spends all day playing video games, even a lot of my friends who have left the military—who were in great physical and mental shape while they served—when they got out they just turned into fat slobs, that literally did nothing but play ‘Call of Duty’ every day,” Gienger said. “My thinking was, ‘we need to get the youth something fun and physical to do.’”
In Gienger’s own youth, there was no shortage of physical activities. As a native of Tillamook, Oregon, a dairy farming town, Gienger spent much of his time working closely with cattle. Gienger says that he was first introduced to the game of paintball when he was nine years old.
“We would get together and play it in the woods all the time,” Gienger said. “I just loved it.”
Currently, the Black Ops Paintball park takes up a staggering 55 acres, which includes a large pro-shop, where visitors can purchase or rent all of the gear they could ever need for a day of action-packed and messy fun. The park even provides space for those interested in participating in airsoft competitions. Airsoft is similar to paintball, however the pellets aren’t filled with paint. According to 17-year-old Alex Caldwell, who is an avid player of both, the lack of paint makes airsoft games more affordable, but it also means that when a player is hit by an airsoft pellet, the player is expected to confess to their being hit, since there is no paint splatter to say so.
“It is kind of on the honor-system,” Caldwell said.
While much of Black Ops Paintball’s business is dedicated to hosting birthday parties, providing space for businesses to conduct bonding exercises and impromptu walk-on games, the park is also used for professional tournaments, tournaments that sponsored players like Caldwell participate in.
Caldwell, like Gienger, has been playing paintball from a very young age, and like Gienger, the game has become a way of life for him.
“I started when I was 10. I went out for a birthday party with a friend and we went to an indoor field. Everyone got shut out. We played against a bunch of speedballers. But it was a lot of fun. It really got the adrenaline pumping,” Caldwell said.
“I got a job working at the park when I got older,” he continues, “and basically every dime I make I put back into the sport.”
As a sponsored player, Caldwell says that he has been able to participate in matches across the United States and even outside the country. According to Gienger, this year the park is hoping to send one of their sponsored teams to an all-expenses paid tournament in Puerto Rico.
“Hopefully our team will get to do that,” Gienger said. “It’s a pretty good gig.”
Besides parties and tournaments, Gienger makes the park available to the military, which he says regularly uses the space for exercises and games during the weekdays, generally when the field is typically closed to the public.
Even before Gienger joined the military, he says he grew up studying military history, and even worked to graduate high school early so that he could join the Army as soon as possible. The former service member says that the fact that current and former soldiers make up an estimated 30 percent of his customer base is a big source of pride.
In a show of support, the park offers a 10 percent discount to members of the military, as well as to police and firefighters. Still, Gienger says he gets a kick out of seeing people who are entirely foreign to the activity, give it a try.
“Paintball can be for everyone. It is safer than golf. We haven’t had one serious injury in all the time we’ve been open, knock on wood,” Gienger said. “ … It is a fairly active sport so it helps to be in decent shape, although we’ve had M. J. Soffe come here for a company party, and they had a number of people pushing 70 years old. Still, they had a blast. We just made sure they drank a lot of water.”
Much of the potential danger in the game, Gienger says, comes from the chance of getting hit too hard by a paintball pellet on a sensitive part of the skin. To prevent the risk of injury, besides requiring that safety gear is worn, Gienger says that the park requires all players to use only the high-quality paintball pellets provided by the park, as he says the higher quality pellets are far more fragile and likely to break on contact, than the cheaper rubberized pellets people can purchase at a local Walmart.
“Face-coverage at all times is also a requirement, as a pellet could blind a person if it gets in their eye,” Gienger said. “We require everyone on the field to wear head-gear. If anyone even tries to take their helmet off, the referee will scream at them to stop, and will physically cover their head with their body. We take safety very seriously.”
For Gienger, taking care of players is a top priority. He can’t help but see a lot of himself in the kids who play there, and the feeling may be mutual. While Caldwell says that he has no plans on pursuing a military career like Gienger, he does hope to secure a business degree one day in order to open a paintball park of his own.
“Just not in the immediate vicinity, right Alex?” Gienger jo ked.
For prices or to learn more about their hours of operation please visit www.blackopspaintball.org.