Bushy-bearded AJ Kirk is full of energy as he bounces down a hallway at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children. A recent mohawk haircut makes him a tad taller than six feet and the bar earrings at the top of each ear belie his 27 years. White-rimmed sunglasses are perched upside down on the back of his neck.
With big brown eyes and a boyish grin, Kirk is a friendly looking chap. His hearty laugh, heard early and often around the hospital, is infectious.
Kirk has worked as a patient escort for more than seven years. He seems to know every staffer and many of the patients at the bustling hospital. A longtime ultrasound technician walks by. “Sue,” he chirps with a smile. “What’s up, love?” She smiles back—just like everyone else he greets.
Children of all ages and ailments commute up and down the hospital’s long halls. Younger children are towed in plastic wagons, toddlers are carried by fast-walking mothers. There are kids in wheelchairs, and some steer powered scooters.
“The patients are here for everything from cancer to having something stuck in their nose that shouldn’t be there,” Kirk says, relating the story about the infamous Skittles Kid. “I thought he had boogers coming out of his nose, but he had shoved a green Skittle in each nostril,” Kirk says.
Kirk ducks into a room where a precious little girl, no more than three-and-a-half, rests in a bed while her parents hold a follow-up meeting with a surgeon.
The girl has an IV in her right arm, and one hand and one foot are wrapped in gauze. She fiddles with a smart phone. Kirk is here to help the young patient and her parents find their way to X-ray. He’s also here to entertain. His assorted talents, quick wit, and cheerful personality are just a few of the qualities that make him good at his job.
But this youngster is a tough crowd today, and understandably so. She begins to cry because she wants to go home.
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“Are you playing with Talking Tom?” Kirk says with a cheery tone. “Talking Tom freaks my dog out. He fusses and she fusses back.” (Tom is a virtual cat that repeats what you say, but in a funny voice.)
The girl resists Kirk’s attempts to cheer her. She doesn’t want to see his yo-yo tricks and she refuses to be wheeled in the bed. So her father carries her down the hall, a rolling IV rack in tow.
Kirk continues trying for a laugh, but to no avail. “Are you starting your day off with me?” he asks. “Do you like Folgers in your cup?”
The parents chuckle, but the girl is having none of it. Finally, Kirk grabs a wooden clipboard. “Do you want to see a different trick?” He then balances the clipboard upright on his nose, the bottom edge clinging like a beach ball atop a dolphin’s snout. Everyone in the room is smiling—except the girl.
“Isn’t he crazy?” asks a nurse.
The little girl finally cracks. She begrudgingly smiles and buries her face in her daddy’s chest. The Yo-Yo Man has done it again. And this time, he did it without his trusty yo-yo.
Kirk, a lifelong resident of New Castle, is one of six patient escorts at the hospital, but he’s the only one who can make a yo-yo zip along a maze of string like a hyper monkey slingshotting around a jungle gym.
Kirk, you see, is one of the top yo-yo players in the world. He competes in the 5A division—or freehand as it’s known—and he captured third place in the World Yo Yo Championships in 2006.
In April, Kirk earned his second straight 5A title at the Northeast Regionals and he’s aiming for another appearance in the finals at Worlds in August. He last appeared in the finals (the top 10 players after preliminaries make it) in 2008, but he finished a mere eight points out of the finals at last year’s World Championships.
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Kirk is so good he has his own signature yo-yo. It is sold worldwide in toy stores, hobby shops, and online. The Ringmaster, so named because of Kirk’s penchant for juggling and other circus stunts, features a logo with his name etched into a likeness of his trademark bushy beard and sunglasses. The first edition quickly sold out and the newest is also doing well, he says.
Kirk is a member of Team YoYoJam, which is sponsored by the company that produces and markets his signature yo-yo. He gets a percentage of the toy’s sales (he won’t say how much), as well as the backing of the company when he competes in various contests around the world. He receives points from YoYoJam for making appearances and that translates into funding that helps cover costs. He also picks up a little cash from performing at birthday parties and the like.
No matter how successful he is, Kirk won’t be getting rich from winning contests. He says the largest tournaments pay a $1,000 cash prize to the winner. He competes in 10 to 15 contests per year.
According to Val Aaron, a vice president at YoYoJam, the 5A division is one of the most competitive and difficult divisions in professional yo-yoing.
“AJ is very good. He’s one of the top players in the United States in his division,” she says. “He’s placed top three in the United States and that’s pretty tough to do.”
Unlike traditional yo-yo style, in 5A competition the string is not tied to the player’s finger. Instead, it is tied to a counterweight that allows the player to move the yo-yo around the string as he uses both hands to twist the string into different configurations. Think Jacob’s Ladder when you played with string as a child.
“I’m only scored when I’m manipulating both ends of the string and still have the ability to bring the yo-yo back to my hand,” Kirk explains.
Even Kirk has a difficult time describing what he does. But as one would expect from any talented performer, Kirk develops his own tricks. And yes, these moves are much more sophisticated than the old “Walk the Dog” trick of yesteryear.
“There’s big emphasis on originality,” he says. “Being able to do your own stuff goes a long way.”
Aaron, the VP, is certainly a big fan.
“He is very innovative,” she says. “His style is just like AJ. It’s very smooth and it’s very mellow. He has a style of play that’s just really fluid. It’s enjoyable to watch. There is almost a grace to his play that you don’t see very often.”
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Ups and Downs
Kirk, who turns 28 in October, has been yo-yoing for nearly half of his life. When he was in his early teens his grandparents would take him to Mitchell’s toy store along Concord Pike to buy Boy Scouts accessories. Kirk discovered his passion for yo-yoing only by first becoming a juggler.
One day, while waiting in line at the toy store, the 14-year-old saw something he had to have: “Dr. Bob’s Instant Juggling Book.” Just a week later, after he had mastered basic three-ball tricks, it was back to Mitchell’s for “Dr. Bob’s Instant Ring Juggling Book.”
Kirk, who lived with his mother after his parents divorced, spent a lot of time with his father’s parents. His grandmother, Leontia Kirk—better known as “Nana”—doted on her only grandson at the time. “I bought him whatever he wanted,” she says.
Leontia and James Kirk, who has since passed, loved to take their grandson to their beach home in Fenwick Island. Once, when AJ Kirk was four, they took him to a diving show at a swimming pool. When they returned to New Castle, little AJ went to the basement. He asked Nana to announce his act in which he threw sofa cushions on the floor and dove from the sofa into the makeshift water.
That’s when Leontia Kirk realized her grandson was a performer.
“He played by himself a lot,” she says. “He’s his own person. He doesn’t talk much about himself, but he likes to be the show. He was always the kind of kid, when he got onto something he got on it and wouldn’t let up. Ninja Turtles, Ghost Busters, Power Rangers—he had to have everything. I still have a Ninja Turtle plate that he ate off of.”
It was during a trip to Mitchell’s that Kirk learned about its Yo-Yo Club. He began to dabble, but the yo-yoing took a back seat to his juggling for a few years.
In 2004, Kirk received an opportunity to do a gig for the famed Duncan Yo-Yo company. Joe Mitchell, who had hired Kirk to work at the toy store, was holding a yo-yo contest and wanted to bring in a two-story inflatable yo-yo that commemorated Duncan’s 75th anniversary.
Duncan would allow it, but only if Mitchell would send someone 18 or older to perform for a few days at Dollywood in Tennessee. Kirk was his man.
“Basically I ended up being a trade, a pawn, for Joe,” Kirk says laughing. “I spent four days performing at Dollywood with Jack Rinka, who is now captain of the Duncan Crew Worldwide. He taught me the basics of freehand and it just lit a fire under my ass.”
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Kirk would compete at his first national competition a few months later, but it didn’t go as well as he would have liked.
“I did horribly,” Kirk says. “They randomly select the order and my division started nationals. I was the very first person to go. My yo-yo knotted on the second trick. I went all the way to California to blow it in nine-and-a-half seconds.”
But that didn’t deter Kirk. The following year, 2005, he finished in fifth place in his first World Championship appearance. In 2006, he climbed to third in his division.
Mitchell, who now owns Yo Yo Joe’s Toys & Fun in North Wilmington, says Kirk’s knack for entertaining is what sets him apart. Kirk, who ran the yo-yo club for a while and co-hosted an Internet radio show with Mitchell, is one of about 60 people on the shop’s Yo-Yo Wall of Fame, meaning he had to master a list of 25 tricks.
“AJ is a really good performer,” Mitchell says. “There are plenty of kids who are really good at yo-yoing. They have the technical side down, but they are staring straight at their yo-yo. AJ is having fun and his performance is increased by that.”
It didn’t take long for Kirk’s competitive flair and cheerful personality to catch the attention of Team YoYoJam’s scouts. After the 2005 World Championships, he was invited to join the YoYoJam team of champion players from all over the world. That’s impressive, considering it’s an invitation-only gig.
“He is in a very elite group,” Aaron says. “To be a part of our team is a little bit different than some other teams. We don’t just take players based on their yo-yo skills. We’re also really big on having players who are good role models and who give back to their community. AJ certainly fits that bill. He is fantastic with kids. He does a fabulous job of sharing his skill and his love of yo-yoing.”
Aaron notes Kirk’s work with the company’s apprentice team during the World Championships. Kirk also serves as a mentor to two younger yo-yoers, including one he met at yo-yo club who happens to be a patient at the hospital.
“AJ is just a very peaceful soul,” she says. “He makes people happy and joyful. The kids always gravitate to AJ.”
Back at the hospital, Kirk recognizes a young lady in a wheelchair and gives her a hug. The teen’s mother, Debby Potter, is a big fan. “We request him all the time,” she says. “We love his tricks. He entertains us. We seek him out every time we come to the hospital.”
Kirk jokes with the teen, Danaya Lambert, about making sure that she eats her veggies. They then take turns naming vegetables. He asks her if she likes corn. She says corn isn’t a vegetable. It’s a starch. He then offers asparagus. “It makes your pee stink,” he says.
They both laugh. The Yo-Yo Man has done it again.
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