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Ultimate Frisbee: Generations of players come home to where it all began
by Regina Romanaux
All across the country Thanksgiving is a day of food (in abundance), of hopeful gratitude, and normally, if you are heading "home" for the holiday, of catching up with friends and neighbors who you haven’t seen in a while. But for many Maplewood and South Orange residents (current and past) the turkey feast and televised football games are the mere pre-party to what it is really all about: Ultimate Frisbee.
Since 1970 on Thanksgiving night, diehard Ultimate Frisbee players and their fans have headed out for a couple of hours of serious competition and observation, as the current Columbia High School Ultimate team plays any and all Ultimate alumni who feel up to the challenge. More often than not, among the alumni will be a few of the inventors of this national phenomenon: throwing, catching, and occasionally, falling.
The original design for the miniature flying saucer was sketched out on paper over 40 years ago by a California World War II hero, Walter Frederick Morrison, and was marketed as the Whirlo-Way. Soon after, Morrison came up with the "Pluto Platter" – named specifically to take advantage of the American obsession with UFOs. It was in 1964 that the Wham-o company began promoting the plastic disc as the "Frisbee" and the craze took off.
But it was a group of CHS students who actually created the game of Ultimate Frisbee in 1968, evolving the rules as they played. Before graduating in 1970, a trio of them put those rules on paper, officially naming the sport. Ultimate: The First Four Decades, by Pasquale Anthony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria, quotes Joel Silver, CHS class of ‘70 and Hollywood producer (Lethal Weapon, The Matrix) as saying, "I really feel that it was me and Buzzy Hellring and Jonny Hines who kind of put the game together and got it working and made it happen." And a plethora of books, videos, newspaper clippings, and websites largely agree that this is where the credit is due. In fact, at least one Wham-o ultimate model is inscribed: "Invented in Maplewood."
Gradually the game spread to neighboring towns and other high schools in the state. CHS even gets credit for the first high school team formed outside of New Jersey: CHS alumnae Audrey Jolley sent her brother Al Jolley (CHS ’60), a teacher at Staples High School in Westport, CT, a copy of the rules in 1970, and by ’71, the Staples team was formed.
Starting with the class of ’70, CHS graduates have taken the game to colleges all around the country. By 1980, an estimated 60 collegiate teams were formed by CHS graduates alone. Ultimate took on a life of its own. In 1992, out in California where the Frisbee was born, Joe Seidler, the publisher of Ultimate, began watching his son Jason play for University of California at Santa Barbara. Ten years of devoted observation led him to the board of Ultimate Players Association, creating the book (published in 2005), and giving new meaning to the phrase: Ultimate Dad. Ultimate is not limited to academic institutions. Aside from regularly scheduled pick-up games for adults and town recreation centers offering classes for kids (see below), Ultimate was introduced at the World Games in 2001.
A lot of pride motivates the alumni to return to the hallowed ground where it all began. Sholom Simon, class of ’75 and major contributor to Ultimate, had a special kind of reunion when he came back to Maplewood. A resident of Washington, D.C., Simon took the opportunity to knock on the door of the home he grew up in. The current residents welcomed him in as if he were family. Geoff West had a distinctively different situation: A ’72 CHS grad whose team that year was undefeated, admits that, "I was just barely able to reconcile my own absence from our family’s Thanksgiving dinner table." And that dinner table was thousands of miles away in Arizona. But for an Ultimate player – who explains the ’72 perfect record in Ultimate, "The reason why nobody beat us was that it was our life. We literally played Frisbee 365 days a year," – it was worth the risk and the possibility of frostbite.
According to Spencer Rosengarten, CHS alumni coordinator and class of ’88, there have been years where the parking lot is covered in ice and surrounded by snow drifts. Thanksgiving crowds, including last year’s, have "easily measured in the hundreds." Rosengarten explained that Ultimate Frisbee is "a combination of basketball, football and soccer, with a lot of adrenaline thrown in." There’s something else that is of the essence: "S.O.G." (Spirit Of the Game). The players’ integrity and respect for the game are witnessed by the fact that there are no official referees in Ultimate; it’s common for players to call their own fouls. (For more information on the rules, go to the Ultimate Players Association’s website: www2.upa.org/ultimate/rules.)
The current CHS Ultimate team won last year’s Thanksgiving game, but a quick glance at the stats proves that youth isn’t always what counts. Since 1970, the alumni have won 24 reunion matches. However, CHS Coach Anthony Nunez, former captain (’96-’98) of CHS Ultimate, reminds us that "currently the active team is on a two-year win streak." When he was a student playing the alumni, Nunez declares, "I can honestly say that there is no better feeling than beating the alumni as an active student" – an experience he fondly recalls from his own senior year (he graduated in 1998). "The alumni game is very exciting and is really the big game in the fall. I remember as a player being really nervous to play not only great Ultimate players but people who created the sport."
"The alumni game is something that is very special," Nunez continued. "It makes a person feel like they are in a family setting. The active players are not just playing against another team; some are playing against their coaches, their brothers or sisters, and in a couple cases their teachers." This year’s team is being co-captained by juniors Zander Padget and Josh Cincotta – both who have alumni siblings. Another alumni they may be up against is one of last year’s co-captains. Steve Panasci, a freshman at North Carolina State (where there is an Ultimate team) said, "Zander and Josh are two extremely qualified individuals as players and leaders. Last season my co-captain Ryan Thompson and I went through many different injuries and the two of them when healthy were able to step up and fill our void. It was a very easy decision to make them captains this year."
To truly capture the emotion of what it’s all about, stand among the crowd, and let the wave of passion hit you as the teens of today play the inventors of yesterday on a dimly lit strip of asphalt. (The CHS team, and other teams all over usually play on a grass field.) Just down the road from the high school, off of West Parker Avenue and 20 feet below the railroad tracks in Maplewood, is where you’ll find this reunion. It starts at 8:30 p.m. CHS alumni will run into classmates. Children watch their dads play with old friends; parents witness their teenagers play to win against the older generations. So get off your couch and ignore the fullness in your belly. The adrenaline is palpable and the spirit... contagious.
Regina Romanaux is in awe of the game and still waiting for her big toe to thaw. To purchase Ultimate: The First Four Decades go to www.ultimatehistory.com
More info on Ultimate Frisbee:
Co-ed pick-up games for adults are played at Memorial Park on Sunday mornings, 9:00 a.m. (warm-up) 9:30 game. For more information, call Sarah McNamara at 973-763-1875.
Maplewood Recreation department offers Ultimate classes for children (5th through 8th grades). Call: 973-763-4202.
CHS Ultimate practices five days a week at Memorial Park. For more information and upcoming games, e-mail Coach Nunez: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flying Saucers, The Ultimate Frisbee Story, produced by James Ford Nussbaum, CHS class of ’80. This story focuses on Columbia High School’s Ultimate story. It is available on DVD at www.galileoproductions.com/inproduction
Ultimate Players Association website: www2.upa.org
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