The Carleton CUT tragedy earlier this year was a shocking blow to the ultimate community. It is extremely hard to imagine losing a teammate in such a tight-knit world, a person who has lived, trained, and fought alongside their team as a brother for years.
For Carleton’s North Central regional rival, the University of Iowa, the terrible day brought back memories of another sad time, as well as a chance to reflect on all that had happened to a program who had lost its leader.
In January of 2008, Brian Gleason, captain of IHUC, and one of the individuals credited with revitalizing the Iowa ultimate community, died in a car accident. As an Iowa alum, I witnessed members of the program mourn for the Carleton players and remember their own experiences since that winter. I had a chance to talk with two of Iowa’s leaders, current IHUC board members and former team captains about Brian’s legacy. This is a piece dedicated to Carleton, from brothers on another ultimate team, hoping to provide experiences and encouragement in wake of the tragedy.
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Brian Gleason was not your traditional ultimate player.
He did not join the team as a freshman, indeed he was unconnected to IHUC for many years, and was largely known as a “City Park” player – the area in Iowa City where fun and relaxed pickup games could be found. Gleason’s ultimate career was a slow build, but eventually the fire would catch in earnest and he would become a beacon for the university’s program.
“We recruited Gleason in the Fall of 2004,” says former player Andrew Edwards (AE), “which was the beginning of my senior year. He was a guy that played ultimate all the time in a city park on campus with a bunch of his friends. He also played intramurals each year, but he had never actually come out for the club team. We finally got him to come out and he was hooked.”
“I met him in the fall of 2006,” Jake Bradley, former all-region player, remembers. “when he decided he was going back to school and also considering coming back to play for IHUC. Several of the other guys knew him from playing at City Park and he was an immediate asset to a team that was struggling to rebuild from a nationals run in 2004. It was no secret that Gleason was an intense guy, and his energetic (and sometimes reckless) style of play got rookies excited about IHUC. At first it was just about playing the game whenever we could and hanging out as a team outside of practice, the structure and success would come later.”
Gleason’s energy and his drive were key for IHUC’s resurgence. Using his graduate school eligibility, he was an older leader that helped inspire many young players to join. After several tough years since the last time Iowa had made the National Championships, Gleason helped build the program back up. Earnest in his dedication, his passion was contagious. He was well-known for his emails (many of which are still saved by IHUC alumni), exhorting his team to new effort and heights, and he became a captain that helped recruit and build one of the largest Iowa teams in years in the fall of 2007.
When, over winter break in early 2008, the unthinkable happened, most were in shock. “I found out when I was at work in Chicago,” AE recalls. “I can’t remember if it was a call or an email but I couldn’t believe it. The details gradually trickled out to everyone. Brian lived a few miles from town so he had to take a highway back and forth between class, work, and practice. If I remember correctly, there was a real bad storm and his car hit a patch of ice and there was nothing he could do.”
“Because it was winter break, a lot of our guys were away from Iowa City, somewhat isolated,” Bradley says. “But once we all got to Dubuque, the guys rallied pretty closely together, hitting a couple of Brian’s favorite spots, including Paul’s Tavern.”
The team paid their respects and did their best to recover. But obviously, the months immediately following the spring season – when IHUC, who had been fired up and ready to make a big move with Gleason and Bradley at the helm – were very difficult.
“There definitely was a couple weeks when the team was in a bit of shock,” remembers Bradley. “Brian was also one of the primary drivers and motivators of team workouts, especially during school breaks. However it wasn’t long after that we knew that we had to give that season all we had. Knowing Gleason wouldn’t want us to lay down, we got back to work and had a new sense of focus.”
The regular season results of 2008 were promising, but not all Iowa had hoped for. The team experienced a majority of wins across several tournaments in that muddy spring, but also suffered some tough losses. And the squad knew that Central Regionals – in a time before ranking algorithms and earned strength bids – were looming, as well as defending National Champion Wisconsin.
But that spring, the team put Gleason’s number, 16, on the sleeves of their jerseys and were ready to play in his memory.
“Brian was the lifeblood of the team, the emotional and motivational leader,” says Bradley. “The pulse of the team relied on his ability to pick us up when we were down or finish off a universe point. All of the rookies looked up to him and he was probably the main reason many of them decided to stick with the team initially. With Brian gone it became more about the team then just one of us. In a way I see it as a blessing in disguise because we now relied on the whole team to motivate each other instead of putting the burden on one guy. With Gleason being the guy who ultimately inspired us to become a real team.”
That Regionals was a memorable one. It was cold, wet, and windy in Decorah, Iowa. Wisconsin, as memorialized in their documentary from that year “The Blue Print”, played Iowa in a late semi-final game. The epic match was captured extremely well in a scene from the film. The defending champs went up big, but had their path very threatened when Iowa went on an 8-0 run late, using zone in the windy conditions to force universe point. Iowa players remember it as a turning point for the program, an achievement greatly inspired by Gleason. The sudden-death point drew a large crowd and lasted through numerous turnovers each way, but Wisconsin prevailed and would go on to win the National Championship again that year.
Although, Iowa didn’t make Nationals in 2008, Gleason’s work and memory are still greatly credited for what would come in the years after. In 2009, IHUC continued to grow and continued to progress. The team was large enough to split into an A and B squad for the first time in history, and IHUC reached the backdoor game at regionals that spring, being close to Nationals, but falling short once more.
In 2010, Iowa broke through, making Nationals, largely with many of the players that had been recruited under Gleason. Iowa took 9th, defeating the Wisconsin Hodags in their final game, wearing the number 16 on their sleeves and with his memory – and stories of his legacy for the younger players – in their hearts. In 2011, Iowa reached the peak of the program’s history, taking second place at the Regional Championships and making the semis in Boulder for Nationals, falling and finishing 3rd.
Through it all, Gleason’s memory has been very present in a variety of ways. “Matt Berry and Michael Schaefer spearheaded the move to start an endowment fund in Brian’s name,” AE explains. “Additionally, someone put in a gear order with what has become sort of an iconic image that we still put on IHUC discs: a silhouette of Gleason pulling the disc (he was our main puller) with his trademark backwards hat. They also made jerseys that said ‘Gleason’s Army’.”
Gleason’s family was the largest contributors to the Memorial Fund, which is now an endowment fund that is still growing and hopes to help Iowa players in the future. Players and alumni started several traditions, from taking pictures in the gear around the world to visiting places Gleason liked to hang out and playing in his honor.
The program has created a legacy for him that is present for newer generations in the university and players in the community. Many people continue to work to keep his memory very present. “Even the current players who never knew Brian or played with him know about him,” AE says.
“By now there isn’t a player left on IHUC that played with Brian,” echoes Bradley. “There are some physical mementos like the #16 on the jersey or the discs showcasing his trademark pull. But the real legacy I want to see continue with IHUC is Gleason’s style of play. IHUC is a team that is often overlooked in the shadow of Wisconsin, Carleton, etc, but we have found success in playing our kind of game. Gleason wasn’t the most refined ultimate player but he made up for it with his relentless energy and creativity. My hope is the IHUC continues play the way he did.”
Iowa experienced the painful loss of its captain anew this year when receiving the news of the Carleton car crash. “The CUT tragedy immediately took me back to 2008 – sort of a deja vu moment,” says AE. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way they play and how hard they work. It just seemed like a terrible thing to happen.”
This article was intended to help keep Gleason’s memory alive, but also to share Iowa’s experiences with the Carleton players. It is clear that the CUT team and the entire ultimate community will help create a similar legacy and help support the Carleton program in any way possible.
“The first few months after the Gleason tragedy was a sad time and people were looking for answers,” AE remembers. “Even after six years, people still think about him and remember him each January, so that will never go away, but at this point, he has become an inspiration for the program.His legacy has sort of pulled the IHUC and local Iowa City community closer and will have a real impact on future teams, not only with his intensity/spirit/epic stories passed onto future teams, but with the endowment in his name that will be able to help as well.”
“With Carleton, it will take time, but I think you can take positive things from any incident – even tragedies like this,” AE continues. “There was no Ultiworld or Skyd or anything back in 2008 and I saw there were a few articles recently about this [the Carleton tragedy] and the community reaction was amazing. The ultimate community is bigger and more connected than ever before and getting that support seems like it would be beneficial. Tragedies do happen, so it helps you remember that you should really value those practices and times you spend with your teammates and learn as much as you can from them.”
Jake Bradley also has perspective. “My advice more goes out to the ultimate community in general,” he says. “Ultimate relies on carpooling and driving long distances to get where we need to be. No practice or tournament is worth it if the road conditions aren’t safe. Cancel practice, be a day late to the tournament, catch the next flight if you have to.”
Iowa sends their support to the Carleton community and hopes Gleason’s story helps in some small way. I know IHUC will be there to support CUT in any way the program decides to honor the memory of their fallen teammates.