In 2006, I gave the keynote speech at the Pittsburgh High School Ultimate League scholarship fundraiser. My speech focused on some of the life lessons you could learn from playing ultimate. I reminisced that when I was young and had just started to have some success, I wished that just once before I retired when I was too old (presumably at age 25 or so) that I could make Nationals. Years later, I have accomplished that goal and then some and so could presumably retire satisfied, but , I said, “sometimes I don’t know why I still play the game, I just know that I can’t quit.”
I started off in Pittsburgh in 1983 as a high school senior playing pickup and summer league, then played with the club team in Cleveland during my college years (little known fact: I was also a varsity golfer and wrestler). I lost in the game to go to Nationals in 1986 with Pittsburgh and was heartbroken (there is something about losing a winnable game that just eats at you and brings you back), then again in 1987 with Cleveland (though 21-8 isn’t really “winnable”). I had a little more personal success and pictured myself unstoppable and tireless, though in retrospect I was quite raw and nowhere near as effective as I thought I was. My dreams were still pretty small then, and I played for pretty simple reasons: the game was fun, I thought I was good at it, and I liked hanging out with the guys (and my generous teammates bought me beer).
I wanted to switch jobs in 1989 and found one in Boston. I was really excited about moving there not because of the great ultimate scene, which included perennial Nationals semifinalist Titanic (they changed their name every year but we always called them Titanic) but because I wanted to live in a city. I had found an apartment in the historic Beacon Hill, was enjoying my new life, and wasn’t even sure I was going to keep playing because there was so much to do and I was a little unsure of my abilities (it took me another two years to really understand that I belonged and that I didn’t really need to fear anyone or anything out there). But after a few months, I discovered that I missed the game and fortuitously found myself at an Earth Atomizer practice, where I skyed their best jumper several times and was immediately added to the team. We had a mediocre season and went into Regionals as the sixth seed but knocked off New York’s Graffiti twice to take the third bid to Nationals. I can still feel the excitement of the game to go to Nationals, can still picture the field, when it was becoming clear that we were actually going to win it. This is one of my fondest memories of my career, the pure joy of finally making Nationals (at the ripe old age of 24). Actually playing at Nationals was almost an afterthought.
It was the following year when I started to think big. I turned down an invitation to join Titanic because I thought Earth was going places, and I was a central part of it. It was almost like we were a startup company working on the next big thing trying to unseat the giants. We were still innocent and every time on the field was a gift. We were learning about the game, and we felt that we were on the cutting edge of technology with our clam, stat books, and use of the dump. Just thinking about the couple of occasions where we were able to knock off Titanic brings a big smile to my face even now. This whole time period is the favorite era of my career, even though we won only one tournament in three years. We eventually got bought out by Titanic, because doing cool and fun things just wasn’t enough.
I wanted to win, I wanted to play against the best, and I wanted to be the best—and I wanted people to notice. That’s what drove me over the next 15 years. Well, actually, it’s more that I wanted to compete, to get completely lost in the moment where the only things that exist are me, the field, and a piece of plastic. There was one play that really captures this feeling. DoG had won our first National championship in 1994 but slumped badly in 1995. We managed to pull it together at Nationals but found ourselves in a dogfight in the semifinals against our longtime archrivals from New York. Late in the game, with the field packed three deep with spectators, we were clinging to a one-goal lead and were stuck on our own goal line. Alex de Frondeville, who I had played with since 1989 and who I continue to play with today, had the disc and we both recognized a hole in the defense and knew what to do. As soon as the disc was put into play, I took off deep and he threw it, but so far offline that it soared out of bounds on the other side of the field maybe 25 yards from where he threw it. Nevertheless, I continued chasing it with my very fast defender in hot pursuit. We both tracked it the length of the field as the disc continued to hug the sideline. Eventually, a couple yards from the other goal line, the disc came down close enough that I was able to toe the line and grab the disc while my defender flew by in a diving bid. I staggered back in-bounds and wobbled off a pass for the goal, and then suddenly became aware of the crowd shouting and my team celebrating. We went on to win that game, and dominated the next day in the final.
Since that time, I have become quite jaded with my expectations of success, even when it’s completely unrealistic, such as last fall. I entered Mixed Sectionals with my sometimes summer pickup team The Tea Party (bolstered by some high school kids on the state championship team), and in the back of my mind I thought we had some chance at taking one of the five bids to Nationals. It turns out we weren’t strong enough to take one of the seven bids to Regionals, though we did drop three winnable games on Sunday, any one of which would have qualified us.
Why do I even bother with those games? As I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t really know. The once great gambler Nick the Greek was eventually reduced to playing $5 games. When someone asked him how he could bear to gamble for peanuts after so many years of winning and losing millions, Nick replied, “Hey, it’s action, ain’t it?” I had surgery in 2010 that should have ended my career, and when I started to play again, I realized that it’s not necessarily that I like to play ultimate, it’s that I like to play ultimate well. I think what allows me to keep playing is that I have adjusted my definition of “playing well”, whereas some of my retired ex-teammates instead kept the same reference point. Some of these guys were even natural fits for Masters and beyond, but somehow it was beneath them. (I do have to point out that on more than one occasion in my Open playing days I said that I would never play Masters, as several people like to remind me on occasion.) The commitment and effort is a lot less, and therefore so is the joy or the disappointment, but hey, it’s action.
And in many ways, the action is more rewarding. Other than some of the Grand Masters games where the opponents were a bunch of old summer leaguers, almost every single game in the post-Open era has been a worthwhile competition. Gone are the days where a tournament victory or at least a finals appearance is a near certainty. No longer are Saturdays a series of games where one of the teams has less than a 1% chance of winning. I even got the chance to play some defensive points. I like beating 23 year olds deep for goals, and then the following week playing against people my own age. Sometimes I truly feel my age and wonder what the heck I am doing out there embarrassing myself, but the good days make up for it.
Equally important to me has been the opportunity to play with and talk with so many players young and old, former opponents who I never really knew and new fans who are still so excited by the game. My recent trips to Paganello have been such a thrill, and something I don’t think I would have appreciated as much 20 years ago. I’m a quiet and private person by nature who doesn’t initiate a lot of conversation, but I’ve always made it a point to engage with anyone who wants to engage with me. In my younger days, I was often defensive and would never engage in self-deprecating humor. But I’ve aged and gotten less serious about myself, though I still like to play the Big Ego role for amusement. At Paganello, I get to experience my whole ultimate career at once.
So how can I possibly leave this life when it’s been so good to me and has helped me grow as a person? I like to joke that I am entering my eleventh (or is it twelfth?) “final season”, but I still get a thrill out of the competition and I still have those moments where I am playing well. I know I’m over the hill and am often quite the curmudgeon, but I still want to be relevant in this post-modern ultimate world with its ESPN, professional leagues, and media. I’m honored that people think I still have something to contribute to the discussion and I’m very pleased to have this forum. I’d like to reexamine some of my old beliefs this year, trying to determine whether increased skill in the game has changed the decision calculus or if it’s just “these kids today with their dumb old hucks”. I want to see if the game has changed that much that the old way to structure teams and practices and tournaments still makes sense. But mostly I just want to look at this wonderful sport and talk about what inspires me, to experience a few more special moments where I lose track of the rest of the world, and to prove to myself that I still got it.
Feature photo by Keegan Uhl