It’s called “The Gripper.”
A giant of a man with bursting biceps wearing a black muscle shirt, planted himself on the floor. Five men formed a human chain on one side of him, linked to his right arm. Six grasped from his left. All of the men braced themselves, tightened their holds and adjusted stances as they prepared for that one word that would start the human tug-of-war with the central man’s conjoined fists serving as the rope.
Each string of men squiggled like snakes under the strain, but they couldn’t break the grip of the man in the center. After two more rounds of 15 seconds each, he still stood strong. During the third and final round, the chain on his right let his arm go, catapulting him within inches of two fifth-grade girls sitting bravely in the front row.
“We felt a little scared about that, because it was a little sudden and kind of unexpected,” said Anamika Gilbert, a student from North Bend Elementary.
She and friend Miah Batton were among hundreds of other kids and parents who attended the show at the Eastridge Christian Assembly Tuesday night. Strength Team, a professional stunt group, performed for free admission June 22-25. They combined their impressive feats with an inspirational, faith-driven message.
“Our biggest thing is if we have to break bricks or bats or light things on fire to get people’s attention … we’ll do anything possible to preach to them and see if there’s a chance that they might get saved,” said Strength Team member Kevin Suter, 24.
The stunt that earned the biggest crowd reaction was Suter’s flirtation with fire.
Eight pairs of cement blocks held up flat bricks that team members quickly doused with gasoline. Another member torched the bricks into a wall of flame blazing at the edge of the stage.
Suter dashed forward without hesitation, immersing his arm in fire as he chopped the bricks in half. At one point, the flames got a little too aggressive.
“It kind of scared me when his pants set on fire. I don’t know, that kind of freaked me out,” said Emily Lin, a 10th-grader from Colorado visiting her friend Sarah Lo, a ninth-grader from the Pacific Cascade Freshman Campus. Although the intensity of the acts made her nervous for the safety of the team members, she said she was confident in their abilities.
“I think they’re professionals so they kind of know what they’re doing, but it’s all dangerous I think,” Lo said.
Matthew Wilkes, a fifth-grader from Cascade Ridge Elementary, said that stunt was his favorite part.
“I liked how they broke the wood while it was flaming,” Matthew said.
Other feats included smashing large stacks of cement blocks with their heads or elbows, tying steel bars into knots and ripping Issaquah phone books in half.
“Do not go home and try to do any of this stuff,” Strength Team founder Mike Hagen cautioned the crowd. “It’s very dangerous.”
The Strength Team travels constantly, performing at 900-1,000 schools during the school year. Although they ask for compensation for travel expenses, food and lodging, they don’t charge for the actual presentation.
“These guys are really awesome, they don’t charge anything to come,” said Dan Metteer, children’s pastor at Eastridge. “We put them up in a hotel, but they said they could stay in host homes. They’re not into being pampered or being served.”
Their routine is so well-practiced that training doesn’t even include rehearsing stunts.
“We lift weights throughout the day, so that’s the training we go through,” said John Steele, 42. “At night we kind of talk to each other, you know who wants to do what (stunt).”
Suter agreed that a lot of practice isn’t necessary for them at this stage.
“My first crusade was in Great Falls, Mont., and Mike just handed me a bat and said, ‘Break it,’” Suter said. “So there’s not too much training, it’s just, you know, ‘Go!’”
Many of the team members played sports in college or were professional athletes. Mike Hagen, who founded the group seven years ago, played for five years with the Seattle Seahawks, the USFL Michigan Panthers and the San Antonio Gunslingers.
One of the group’s closing feats was bending a horseshoe into the shape of a heart, which they gave to one of the pastors as a parting gift. This was just another way to emphasize the Strength Team’s overall message of love and faith.
“My favorite part is being able to present the gospel of Jesus Christ and see people come to saving knowledge,” Steele said.