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Catching the Ultimate Spirit : Frisbee Disc Jockeys Find Joy in a Game Long on Competition, Camaraderie and Integrity

December 09, 1989|BOB HOWELLS

At a casual glance, it may look like a lot of tanned beach-types tossing a Frisbee with a bit more than the normal gusto. Look closer, though, and some structure becomes apparent. A game of sorts is in progress. Defensive players are guarding potential Frisbee receivers, who are charging down or across a field. One player is attempting to toss the disc, while another is swarming all over him, arms flailing, and counting out loud to 10.

A game of Ultimate Frisbee is in progress, a sport that's quietly becoming hugely popular on college campuses, city playing fields and school playgrounds.

The Frisbee thrower manages to fake the spiderman who is guarding him. He zings the disc diagonally downfield with a backhand toss. It sails over several heads. Where is it going? It continues to float high in the air, seems to hang for a few seconds, when suddenly a teammate, pursued by an opponent a few steps back, leaps up and snatches the Frisbee at the acme of his leap and reach. He lands and immediately lets fly with a downfield toss of his own. One more catch, one more toss, and a diving reception; the team has apparently crossed the goal line, a theory quickly confirmed by congratulations and a momentary pause in the action.

The questioning bystander receives a quick summary of the sport from a couple of genial reserves before they're rushed into the fray. Two teams of seven play on a field a little shorter but wider than a football field, with goal lines and end zones at either end. Play begins with both teams behind opposite goal lines, one throwing off to the other: the "pull." The receiving team catches the disc and begins the advance downfield.

The Frisbee can be advanced only by throwing and catching. As soon as a receiver catches the disc, he must stop and look for a teammate to throw to. He has 10 seconds to do so. Hence the defensive player, the "marker," counts out loud to 10. If a toss isn't caught, it's a turnover, and the opposing team takes possession.

A reception in the end zone is a score--one point, in a game usually played to 21.

"It's a great game," says John Pierce, who organizes Ultimate Frisbee leagues for the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department. "Probably its best quality is the integrity it instills. Teams officiate themselves, which makes it interesting and holds the cost down. It has all the elements of excitement--so many things can happen while a Frisbee is suspended in the air."

"I've never played any game that's more cardiovascular, or that requires more physical attunement," says Tom Kennedy of Santa Barbara, a self-described "all-around jock" and one of the pioneers of the sport on the West Coast. "Yet I absolutely hate to run," Kennedy adds.

The sheer pleasure of the sport disguises its physical demands. Kennedy's wife, organizer of a women's Ultimate Frisbee club, adds: "There's no way you'd do all that running and sprinting on your own. But when you play this game, you have so much fun that your body just follows you around."

Ultimate Frisbee, or simply Ultimate, as its players call it, is physically demanding for its running, cutting and leaping, and requires disc handling skills far beyond those of the average Frisbee tosser on the beach.

Because the thrower is carefully guarded by the marker--who, though he cannot touch the thrower, does attempt to block the throw--Ultimate players must perfect three types of toss: the traditional backhand, a forehand, and a difficult-to-execute overhand. They must be equally adept at catching, not to mention judging the vagarious flight of the spinning disc.

But for all these requisites, the aspect of the game that stands out above the others is its spirit. An unusual camaraderie among teammates and opponents characterizes Ultimate at any level, whether a pickup game in the park or the national tournament. It's common for opposing teams to join each other for a beer or two after a game.

Spirit, in fact, is written into the rules of Ultimate:

"Ultimate has traditionally relied upon a spirit of sportsmanship which places the responsibility for fair play on the player himself. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of the bond of mutual respect between players . . . or the basic joy of play."

Ultimate began as a lark of sorts, devised in 1968 by high school students in Maplewood, N.J., as a game to be played by the Columbia High School newspaper against the student council. It grew out of Frisbee football, commonly played in the 1960s, but Ultimate eliminated running in possession of the disc--thereby eliminating tagging or tackling. Tom Kennedy and a group of Santa Barbara friends devised a similar sport almost concurrently. Eventually the East and West contingents met, created a national tournament, and formed the Ultimate Players Assn., the governing body of the sport.

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