Rally 904: How Dean Grant Serves up Community in Atlantic Beach

Words and photos by Travis Zittrauer

While the last few months have brought families together around the dinner table, Dean Grant has been working hard to bring the Jacksonville community around a different kind of table: a table that is 9 feet long and 5 feet wide. Rally 904, which opened in October, is a ping pong bar located off Mayport Road in Atlantic Beach. What used to be Grant’s mixed martial arts gym once lined wall-to-wall with training mats has transformed into a space lined with tables and dedicated to the art and sport of ping pong.

The transition from an MMA gym to a ping pong bar represents a personal change for Grant and a desire to keep his mind and body sharp as he gets older. The former MMA fighter has been looking for a way to simulate the high-speed action of his fighting career: “You gotta be fast, you gotta be reactive.”

Grant found the overlap between the two sports while playing casual ping pong. “I’d go home, and my brain would be lit up. I would be tired mentally,” he said. “I really loved that feeling. It simulates boxing, but I’m not getting punched in the head!”

Rally 904 is located between Grant’s Beaches Rock Gym and a local skatepark. The ping pong bar has become a kind of cool-down for folks from both spots looking to grab a drink and have some casual back-and-forth. It is also a home for the more experienced players looking to challenge themselves against strangers. What becomes apparent in this warehouse — echoing with the sound of plastic hitting rubber — is that ping pong knows no age limit. Teens, parents, guys getting off work, couples on dates, die-hards and novices can all can find a spot around a ping pong table, which is exactly how Grant wants it. “The goal is to improve community,” he said. “Kids can play this, adults can play this, older people can play this. Or it can be a competitive sport where people sweat and change shirts and hurt themselves.”

I had the opportunity to play ping pong alongside some of the more competitive players during a tournament held at Rally 904. One of the few games I played was against an older man, maybe in his 60s. He was quiet, probably the oldest in the tournament. I thought I might have a chance against him. Yet, with each new serve came its own healthy dosage of humility as he dished out different techniques on this unsuspecting 20-something. Slices, backspins, loops, smashes. On the last play of the game (the score was sitting comfortably at 10-0), he tossed the ball into the air, watched it fall to the table, and, at the last second, swung his paddle around his back, hitting the ball from below his opposite waist, sending it rocketing over the net and whizzing past me as I stood stunned. He was a wild west sharpshooter with a rubber paddle. When I asked how long he had been playing, he responded simply: “Longer than you’ve been around.”

Kai Dumandan, a nursing student who works the bar at Rally 904, has experienced firsthand the thrill of playing night after night. When he isn’t serving up IPAs, seltzers and Red Stripes, Dumandan gets to serve against some of the best players who frequent the bar. 

“It was really fun getting beat, honestly,” he said, “getting to see how many different skill levels there are to ping pong.” Dumandan, like many who enter into the world of ping pong, quickly became hooked. He comes in on days off to work on his technique and has invested in his own paddle. This overlap between new and experienced players is what makes ping pong so appealing. No matter your skill level, there is something enticing about playing, even getting absolutely destroyed, that keeps you coming back over and over again. Maybe it is the hope of learning a new trick or mastering a serve, or maybe it’s just the nostalgia of playing as a child. When people come in, Grant hopes that “they’ll think of a story of a garage ping pong table that their dad taught them on.”

The space can be rented out for private events and tournaments. As the business grows, Grant is looking to expand Rally 904’s reach to after-school programs and homeschooling organizations, offering kids a community that others have quickly found. He also hopes to expand the existing bar, which currently sells canned and bottled beverages, to offer a wider beverage selection, as well as serving food, like pizza, hot dogs and other quick bites, optimal for getting in some quick calories between heated games.

For more information on Rally 904, visit rally904.com.

About Travis Zittrauer

Jacksonville taught Travis Zittrauer how to write. The smell of Maxwell House coffee, the colors of the city's hidden murals, the taste of Angie's Peruvian sauce. Much of his highschool years were spent exploring historic neighborhoods and finding inspiration through Jacksonville community members. He received his degree in Editing, Writing and Media from Florida State University and is eager to use his writing to document the city he loves. Aside from writing, he enjoys film photography, can roll his R’s, and still isn’t quite sure how to find his way out of Chamblin’s Bookmine. He works from home in Riverside with his two cats, Steve and Toast. You can contact him at zittrauertravis@gmail.com.