Games: Disk Jockeys

Ultimate Frisbee, invented in New Jersey, is no longer just a bunch of hippies in bandanas and bare feet tossing around a plastic disk. Now that the sport has had a surge in popularity, will it remain true to its original vision?

Ultimate Frisbee, invented in New Jersey, is no longer just a bunch of hippies in bandanas and bare feet tossing around a plastic disk. Now that the sport has had a surge in popularity, will it remain true to its original vision?

To the casual observer, Ultimate Frisbee looks like football, soccer, and a Frisbee toss rolled into one. Requiring only a field and a Frisbee, its object is to score points by passing the disk into the opposing end zone; unlike football, players aren’t allowed to run while holding the Frisbee. Ultimate Frisbee’s well-articulated core values—play hard but play fair, and never at the expense of another—make it a competitive, non-contact team sport that can be embraced by everyone, serious and non-serious athlete alike. The game is self-regulated; even at its highest levels players make their own calls without outside judges or referees. This is the game that New Jersey gave birth to—created and promoted by a group of Maplewood high school students during the 1960s, a time of wholesale social and cultural change fueled by a war, protest, and a general desire to turn anything “Establishment” on its ear.

Today, three decades after those tumultuous times, Ultimate Frisbee is blossoming. It is now played in every state in the union and in more than 40 countries from Singapore to Venezuela. The Ultimate Players Association says its membership has nearly doubled in the last four years. Members and nonmembers play on high school and college teams, in pickup games and summer leagues, and in more organized clubs and leagues, at various levels for men’s, women’s, and mixed teams. There’s even a master’s level for those 33 and older. In 2001, it became a medal sport, at the World Games in Japan; in 2005, the United States won the gold medal at World Games held in Germany.

The UPA’s youth division, for ages eighteen and younger, has grown some 800 percent in the last four years. “The explosion at the high school level is just beginning,” says association executive director Sandie Hammerly. New Jersey alone has more than 40 high school–age teams, although many are not officially sanctioned by the UPA or the schools they’re associated with. Each year a new team is formed, says Anthony Nunez, the UPA’s New Jersey youth coordinator, the most recent addition a team from Eldora in Dennis Township captained by high school student Will Adorno. Hammerly believes that someday Ultimate will be as visible and popular as basketball and soccer.

Of course, none of this would have come to pass without the Frisbee. In 1958 toy company Wham-O introduced a plastic disk it called the Pluto Platter. Six years later, after sales had exceeded expectations, the company released a “professional” model that could sail through the air without wobbling. Its long, straight arc presented the world with new possibilities.

Cut to summer 1968, when Amherst College student Jared Kass introduced a flying-disc game to Joel Silver, a student at Maplewood’s Columbia High School. Silver, who would later produce films such as Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, and The Matrix, was so taken with this unconventional sport and was so forceful a personality that he got the student council to pass a motion to make Frisbee part of the school’s phys ed curriculum.

Meanwhile, he started playing the game with friends and colleagues on the school newspaper. The more Silver, Buzzy Hellring, Jonny Hines, and others played, the more they began to tweak it, borrowing elements from basketball, soccer, and hockey. The high school didn’t sanction the Columbia High School Varsity Frisbee Squad, as they named themselves—their playing field was a new school parking lot down the hill from the building—and the gang loved that in creating an anti-sport, they were, in effect, thumbing their noses at the Establishment. An early team photograph, published in the school newspaper, identifies a head coach and a general manager; the former was the school’s janitor, Cono Pavone, and the latter the school’s security guard, Alexander Osinski.

By 1970, the trio realized that for more people to learn the game, the rules needed to be set down on paper. Hellring drafted a list of rules, which the others annotated. There were issues to resolve: How long should the games be? How many players? Equally important, what should they call it? Speed Frisbee was first suggested but eventually dropped in favor of Ultimate Frisbee. After all, to these guys who loved it, it was the ultimate game.

But if Silver and his colleagues created the game, surely members of the Columbia High School class of 1972 were its godparents. Once smitten with the game, this co-ed group began playing day and night, giving themselves the name the Richmond Avenue Gang. “It was our social life as well as our athletic life,” says former RAG member Ed Summers, who today works in project management for AT&T and lives in Millburn.

The Class of 1972 embraced the game with an almost evangelical zeal. Class member Joe Barbanel, who lives in Short Hills and runs a Linden company called Solar Compounds Corporation, recalls, “We didn’t have a firm vision of what and where, but we knew that we had something. And that would be something big.” They went wherever they could to teach others the game. They met with legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, who listened with half an ear, and Wham-O executives, who proposed Frisbee-based sports of their own devising. “There were other Frisbee games out there,” says Ed Summers, “but we’d go and demonstrate ours and challenge them to a game.” This Frisbee game was different, especially because of its “Spirit of the Game” clause (see box at left). “No one had tried to extract its essence and put it down on paper,” Summers says. “That became necessary as the sport grew.”

Although Wham-O wanted to own the game played with their product, in 1975, they gave up. By the next year, the company was distributing the Ultimate rules with every Frisbee it sold.

When the class of 1972 went off to college—to Rutgers, Tufts, Rensselaer, and Rochester Institute of Technology, among others—they established teams there. And while founder Joel Silver largely left Ultimate behind when he graduated from high school, teammates Hines and Hellring started a team at Princeton.

On November 6, 1972, the first Ultimate college game was played, Rutgers versus Princeton. The final score was 29–27 Rutgers. It was more than 100 years after Rutgers beat Princeton in the first collegiate football game, on November 6, 1869.

Today the Garden State has fourteen college-level teams, including Drew University’s Blood, the College of New Jersey’s Flying Pineapples, and Rutgers University’s Machine Ultimate. Like the hundreds of college teams nationwide, most can trace their origins to Columbia High School or other early New Jersey teams.

Vlad Preoteasa of Highland Park first encountered Ultimate at Tenafly High School. “I played many tennis and soccer games in middle school and high school, but I hadn’t yet found my sport,” he says. “When I saw Ultimate, I fell in love with it.” At age 30, Preoteasa plays as often as he can.

“Because it is a fringe sport, there is an Ultimate subculture. When you meet someone who loves it as much as you, you get giddy,” Preoteasa says, adding that wherever you go, you can find Ultimate players and feel welcome. He’s on a Philadelphia team, Philly KRU (Kids “R” Us), that caters primarily to couples in their late thirties and early forties, half of whom live in New Jersey. The team’s formal games tend to have few players beyond their early fifties, Preoteasa says, and the busy schedule and associated travel demand a flexible schedule and determination. Because so many players have children, traveling is often a family affair. The team stays in suite accommodations, and kids play on the sidelines, supervised either by players who are taking a break or significant others. Trips may be local, or they may take the team to places like Versailles, Ohio, whose Poultry Days festival has celebrated and promoted Ultimate Frisbee for 25 years.

Many players wonder whether Ultimate can stay the same. Can a growing sport rooted in peace, love, and understanding and centered around self-regulation survive in an increasingly competitive sports landscape? As games become more competitive, will cheating increase?

“Beauty and cheating are in the eyes of the beholder,” says Chris Knigge, a 47-year-old who works for the Princeton Borough Engineering Department and plays on a team called First Seven. “The beauty of the game, however, lies in the fact that a bad call—or any call—can be disputed right there, and then it is settled immediately without arbitration or officials, and the game continues.” Still, Preoteasa says, “Everyone wants a competitive edge, but some put more of an emphasis on winning than others. You can get caught up in the heat of the moment, and at the most competitive games, some people can use that. With self-officiating, it’s possible to get away with it.” Regardless, no one seems interested in moving away from the game’s core principles.

For those who dream, could a game without judges ever be considered for Olympic status? “You grow or you die,” says Joe Barbanel. “I see [Ultimate] growing but still staying a cult sport, even though it has all the features that could make it become mainstream—athleticism, action, strategy, grace, speed, pacing.”

If anything, Ultimate will endure as a sport that can transform lives. “Ultimate was the best thing I ever did,” says Barbanel, who describes himself as a chubby nerd before Ultimate. “The sport changed me, and I don’t think you get to say that about too many other sports.” As Sarah McNamara, who plays pickup games every Sunday morning in Maplewood, says, “If you can run, throw, and catch, we can explain the game to you in five minutes.” Playing the game, though, can last a lifetime.

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