By David Gessner ’79
Before David Gessner ’79 became a college professor, he played Ultimate Frisbee. More accurately, he lived Ultimate Frisbee, and he documented that life in the 2017 book Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth. This excerpt of Gessner’s book is our way of marking the 50th anniversary of the sport’s invention — which happened, in part, on the Northfield Mount Hermon campus.
We all labor over our big decisions and big dreams, but sometimes it’s the small things that change our lives forever. What could be smaller than this: It is the first week of my freshman year at Harvard, and I, looking for a sport to play, am walking down to the boathouse to sign up for crew, resigning myself to four years as a galley slave, when I see a Frisbee flying across the street.
The Frisbee, tossed from one long-haired boy to another, looks like freedom to me. Then I notice that there are several Frisbees flying back and forth between a band of young men, all wearing shorts, with cleats hanging over their shoulders. At the time, I am quite shy, but, uncharacteristically, I cross the street and ask them where they are going. To Ultimate Frisbee practice, it turns out, and I am going with them.
That was the beginning of almost 20 years lost in the world of Ultimate. If that first long-ago Frisbee looked like freedom, it would lead to a kind of servitude, two decades in lockstep with the growing sport.
Why did I keep coming back? Chasing down a disc, diving or jumping for it, is at the core of the game’s appeal. For many people, myself included, the action proves addictive. During my years playing I was driven by a complicated mix of motives that included ambition, whimsy, love, and vanity, but it wouldn’t be until many years later, when I had hung up my cleats, that I would start to recognize what I missed most about the game. I missed all the moments when I lost myself completely in it, when pestering thought disappeared and was replaced by a joyful thoughtfulness and a sense of being a strong and wild animal.
From the very beginning, people created games for the Frisbee. In fact, for a long time those very words — Play Catch, Invent Games — were printed along with the name right on the disc. One of those games was a form of Frisbee football that sprung up spontaneously at colleges around the country, and one of those colleges was Amherst.
In the summer of 1968, an Amherst student named Jared Kass took the game to Mount Hermon, where he was teaching in a summer program. The game was a hit, played on the large lawn behind the Crossley dorm where Kass was staying, but it likely would have remained a quickly forgotten summer diversion if not for the fact that one of the players who learned the game from Kass was a brash, somewhat loudmouthed but charismatic high school student from New Jersey named Joel Silver. Later in life, Silver would become famous as the producer of movies like Lethal Weapon and The Matrix. But what most people don’t know is that he was also the individual most responsible for the invention of Ultimate Frisbee.
It was Silver who brought the game home from his summer stint at Mount Hermon, who taught it to his friends, and who organized a game between his high school’s student council and the school newspaper (he was a member of both) in the spring of 1969.
There was some debate over who deserves the credit, or, depending on your point of view, blame for burdening the sport with the pretentious adjective “Ultimate.” It is possible that the sport was called that by some as far back as the Amherst-Mount Hermon days, when Jared Kass declared after making a great catch, “This is the ultimate game.” Future Frisbee scholars will no doubt argue endlessly over this matter of origin, but the point is that, for better or worse, the name stuck.
I knew none of this when I started. Of course I sensed that throwing so much energy into a game played with a toy, and not, say, studying hard or starting the novel I dreamed of writing was kind of absurd. There were plenty of people, my father included, who I simply decided not to tell what I was spending so much time doing.
During my freshman year I became obsessed with catching — “You are what you catch,” read a note on the wall over my desk — and this obsession ran like a parent stream back to my father. When I was 8 or 9, I loved nothing more than playing football with him on the front lawn of our house in Worcester, Massachusetts. He had been a scrappy high school athlete himself; he threw tight, mean, lefty spirals, and if they were out of my reach, I would dive for them, often ending up sprawled and cut in the bushes. If the ball tipped off my fingertips, he always said the same thing: “If you can touch it, you can catch it.”
“I began to bring a Frisbee along wherever I went, throwing it ahead of me when I walked to class, tossing it up in the air and running it down as I jogged along the Charles River. It became part of my identity, my security blanket.”
In college, that era of long hair and short shorts, I found a home on the Ultimate field. There was a carnival feel to those weekends in the fall or spring when we would either host tournaments behind Harvard stadium or head out on the road, to UMass-Amherst or SUNY Purchase, or, once a year, as far away as Washington, D.C. On a successful tournament weekend, we could conceivably play 10 to 12 hours of Ultimate, so Sunday evenings meant cramped legs, and Mondays brought general enervation after an entire weekend of running.
It was during this time that the phrase “spirit of the game” — meaning to perform honestly and do what’s right — was written into the rules, and it was officially decided that Ultimate would move forward without referees. The earliest games were unofficiated not due to any lofty ideals but because there were no refs handy. But what had been a practical reality was gradually elevated into the lofty position of a code of honor. Pragmatism begat idealism.
As for me, I tried to play fair but I rolled my eyes at the more pious notion of “spirit.” I was not unidealistic, but the spirit of the game reeked of the perfectibility of man, and I thought it was silly the way it was writ large in the rules as if its origins were biblical. It also neglected one small factor: human nature. I had played enough pickup basketball to know what really happened when players made their own calls.
But with each passing month, Ultimate seemed to have a deeper hold on me. I began to bring a Frisbee along wherever I went, throwing it ahead of me when I walked to class, tossing it up in the air and running it down as I jogged along the Charles River. It became part of my identity, my security blanket.
My father liked to talk a lot about the “real world,” which he clearly believed I did not inhabit. Who could blame him? As graduation approached, my Harvard roommates worried about which companies to go to work for. Meanwhile, I’d secretly begun to wonder which of the great Boston Ultimate teams to try out for. By then I’d become completely wrapped up in the lore and the lure of the game, and while I pretended not to be sure, it wasn’t so much a decision as an inevitability that I would continue to play after school.
Why? It was simple, really. I was addicted to that feeling I experienced when I dove through the air and a disc stuck to my hand, or when I jumped high and snatched one out of the air above someone’s head. Playing Ultimate was one of the few times in my young life when I felt potent. Trying to describe it now, I keep coming up with words like “primal” or “tribal,” and I’m afraid this might reek of the once-fashionable neoprimitivism of the men’s movement. But there was nothing contrived or literary about the feeling I was after, and I knew it to be real.
In the 21st century, the sport has changed, exploding with millions of people playing around the world in competitive and corporate leagues, with professional leagues sprouting up in a dozen American cities, and most recently, with official recognition from the International Olympic Committee as a contender sport for the Olympics.
What was long considered preposterous now appears to be coming true: In an age of concussions and corruption in pro sports, this untainted game seems to be realizing its dream of becoming a “real” sport.
“I was addicted to the feeling I experienced when I dove through the air and a disc stuck to my hand, or when I jumped high and snatched one out of the air above someone’s head.”
Despite a deep craving for legitimacy, there has always been an equally deep ambivalence among Ultimate players about the possibility of the sport becoming more popular. This was a psychological battle in which I, like so many others, fought on both sides. Yes, I understood the desire to make the sport bigger. At the same time, a big reason I was hooked on it was because of its wildness. I liked the fact that we refused to grow up, and that the game was really only understood by the band of brothers and sisters within it.
Some longtime players argue that the sport has become too tame, that its success will corrupt it. In my day, we didn’t worry too much about selling out. It wasn’t even a possibility. When I started playing, Ultimate was barely 10 years old, just emerging from its tangled countercultural roots, with the rules, and even the types of discs we used, still in flux. It never occurred to me as I ran around the fields in my too-short shorts and my too-long hair that I was a part of history. Now I understand that I am like one of those mustached men you see in the black-and-white pictures of early football teams. One of the men in the leather helmets.
We were the pioneers in uncharted territory, and pioneers know a freedom that later generations will never know. We had the thrill of being first, of making it up as we went along. We were idiots at times. But we were proud and joyful idiots.
David Gessner is the author of 10 books, chair of the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and editor-in-chief of the magazine Ecotone: Reimagining Place.
Last May, the boys’ varsity team won the 2018 New England Prep School Ultimate League (NEPSUL) championship, defeating Concord Academy, Choate, Wooster Academy, and top-seeded Hotchkiss all in one day and earning its seventh championship in 13 years.
Such a record should grant the team rock-star status on campus, but that’s not quite the case. “It’s a matter of culture,” says Sam Stone ’18, none of the captains of the 2018 team. “A lot of people at NMH still view Ultimate as a laid-back lawn sport.” Anyone who watches a game, however, would agree with Stone’s next comment: “It’s super-intense,” he says. “You have to be dedicated to do it.”
Ultimate is different from a lot of other sports, though, at NMH and elsewhere. That’s because of its “spirit of the game” philosophy, which essentially is sportsmanship on steroids. “You’re supporting your team, you’re supporting the integrity of the rules, and you’re supporting your opponent even if it’s a heated competition,” says Amelia Chalfant ’19, a captain of the girls’ varsity team. Players on the field officiate themselves, calling and negotiating fouls. Opposing teams share a camaraderie that would be unimaginable on, say, a hockey rink. Colton Sy ’18, who captained the boys’ team with Stone and also played varsity soccer and ice hockey at NMH, says, “I’ve never played a sport where after a game, after you beat up on another team 11–0, you sing them a ridiculous song you’ve written.”
Despite Ultimate’s invention on the Crossley lawn in 1968 — at least that’s how one of the origin stories goes — NMH’s official program took shape roughly 30 years ago. Later, science teacher Bob Sidorsky P’98, ’06 ran pickup games on the Northfield campus and took students to coed tournaments. Today, NMH’s single-gender teams compete against both prep schools and area public schools, which are frequently among the top-ranked teams in the eastern U.S. “Our philosophy is to play the hardest teams we can find,” says Mark Yates, who runs the boys’ program.
At NMH, Ultimate resembles rowing, with many participants competing for the first time as ninth and 10th graders. But they get up to speed quickly enough to help win New England championships and go on to play in college. Sy will play at Northeastern University this year, Stone at Wheaton College, and Chloe Chen ’18, another girls’ varsity captain, at Carnegie Mellon. How much did they and their teammates think about the sport’s germination at NMH 50 years ago? Not much, admits Gaelin Kingston ’18, who played four years of Ultimate and soccer at NMH and is now playing both at Wesleyan. But, he says, “there’s something beautiful about playing where the sport has been played the longest.”