I played Ultimate for eighteen years, from 1979 when I was a Harvard freshman, through many years in Boston, until the fall of 1996 when I went to Nationals with my Colorado team. The whole time I was also trying to write but I didn’t publish my first book until I quit playing. When that book came out in 1997, I moved from Colorado back to Cape Cod. The book was with a university press, nothing flashy, but it did land me representation with an agent who worked for a big agency called ICM. My ICM agent asked to see all the various projects I was working on so she could strategize about what book to do next. She was looking for a big book, a “break out” book. The projects I sent her included a new novel and a memoir and a book about birds. But she wasn’t interested in those books, but another, a simple proposal that I’d dashed off before mailing her the package.
“I think we should go with the one about Ultimate Frisbee,” she said.
The book proposal suggested that I would return, in George Plimpton fashion, and play with Boston, then both National and World Champs, for a season. Even though I’d played for almost two decades while simultaneously struggling to become a writer, two efforts that proved metaphoric mirrors, I had never really considered writing about Ultimate before. But now that my agent was excited so was I. Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone and both win Nationals and write a big book. The year was 1998 and though I had been out of the sport for a couple of seasons I was a still relatively-young thirty-seven.
The Boston team was receptive, and I travelled with them down to a spring tournament in New Jersey. I went to the tourney as more of a writer than a player, and between games I interviewed as many of the players as I could. And while I was there to take notes and do research, I played okay for someone who had been out of the game for a while. But it wasn’t playing Ultimate that I was really excited about. I couldn’t wait to get back home and start writing.
The night after we won the Jersey tournament, I returned to Cape Cod and went to bed early, excited about getting up the next morning to type up the Ultimate notes I’d been accumulating. But I didn’t make it until morning. At midnight I sat up in bed, wide awake, and since I couldn’t sleep I decided to head to my study and get to work. I started typing and didn’t stop for the next week. I caught snatches of sleep but other than that just wrote and wrote and wrote, an experience unique in my writing life. Up until then the subjects of my writing had been nature, my father’s death, Thoreau, profound stuff. Now I was writing about Ultimate! It was perfect really: I might finally make people understand that Ultimate was not a joke but a real thing, a great thing.
* * *
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 I hung up my cleats that I would start to recognize what I missed most about the game. What I missed most was not just camaraderie but camaraderie with a purpose. I missed all the moments, few and far between, when I lost myself completely in the game, when pestering thought disappeared and was replaced by a joyful thoughtfulness and a sense of being a strong animal.
Over the years I became interested in players who seemed in the throes of what I called “going animal.” More than once I saw a wild glimmer in the eyes of my teammate, Scott “Turbo” Conrad, for instance, and there were times when he could appear practically feral. But Turbo was naturally pretty wild and the story that most intrigued me was one involving a more unlikely Wildman.
It happened in 1997 while Boston’s team DoG (Death or Glory) was playing a North Carolina team, Ring of Fire, in the Semifinals of the National Championships. Boston was a team with immensely talented players, and when they were flowing, their offense was a ballet of nonstop running and jumping, the disc zinging from hand to hand. But now DoG was in disarray, down 6 to 1 in a game to 18, and after winning three championships in a row it looked like their dynasty was over. Their play looking more like comic opera than ballet: players overthrew open receivers, tripped and fell, let out anguished cries after dropping easy passes.
Ring of Fire couldn’t believe their good luck. Ring had always been a solid team, a top ten team, but no one had really given them much of a chance to beat Boston. Now they were playing out of their heads, diving and skying to snatch discs out of the air as the adrenaline pumped through their blood. As with any underdog that suddenly finds themselves way ahead, a part of them wondered when the magic would end, but for now they rode the wave.
Finally, Boston began to show a little life, and it was Jim Parinella who started to lead them back. Of average height with a slightly exotic blur to his eyes and dark curly hair, Parinella was a tireless runner and one of the game’s best players. He was also a self-admitted engineering geek, who could look at his own game as disinterestedly as a computer program that needed debugging. In fact, he worked for Raytheon, where he studied enterprise systems with an eye toward creating efficiency. Earlier in the tournament, after dropping a pass, he’d considered changing his receiving style and actually said, “I will probably adjust my pass-catching algorithm to incorporate this new information.” It wasn’t particularly surprising that Parinella would be a factor in Boston’s comeback. What would surprise everyone is the manner in which he did it.
Down 6-2, sensing the desperation of the situation, the Boston players began laying-out everywhere. Ring of Fire, however, still rode its early confidence; their offensive players dove, too, catching the disc just beyond the reach of the Boston defenders. Near the goal line, just when it looked like Ring would score, Boston’s John Axon anticipated a pass, threw himself through the air, and intercepted the disc with his outstretched hand. Boston now had it—this could have been what swung the game’s momentum—but suddenly there was yelling, confusion, and play stopped.
What had stopped the game is that someone on the North Carolina team had called a foul. Finally, after a long argument, the disc was returned to Ring of Fire, and, soon after, they scored to make it 7-2. But while Ring had won the battle, the argument seemed to have added fire to Boston. When Parinella caught the next goal, he became wildly excited, screaming and exhorting the Boston players.
“Come on, we’re still in it!” he yelled. “We’re not going to lose this thing! Come on!”
Later, Parinella would recall this as perhaps the most emotional moment of his entire life, and for a second his teammates didn’t know what to make of him. They were shocked. It was like watching the episode of Star Trek where Spock finally finds passion. But as Parinella continued, his face uncharacteristically animated, they got swept up in his emotion. That’s right, we’re not going to lose this thing, we’ve worked too fucking hard! The Boston sideline came alive, players pumping their fists and yelling encouragement.
And suddenly Boston had it. The defense made several spectacular blocks, and the gap in the score gradually tightened. 10-6. 11-6. 11-7. 11-8. 12-8. Soon Boston was in a kind of place where even bad plays turn good. Parinella, perhaps overamped by the endorphins pumping through him, put a little too much mustard on a throw to Chris Corcoran and the Frisbee sailed past him down the field. But Mike Cooper, a long-limbed man who was built to run, anticipated the screwup and caught up to the disc for a 40-yard gain. Jordan Haskell, who was running the team’s offensive substitutions, began to criticize Parinella’s throw, but Parinella uncharacteristically turned on him.
“Don’t even fucking think of pulling me,” Parinella snapped, and Haskell stepped back, slightly amused but also intimidated by this new creature. Parinella, meanwhile, was caught up in whatever it was he was becoming. The feeling surging up in him may be the real reason that people put so much into a sport that seems to give back so little of what’s usually considered important. This wasn’t about money or trophies or reputation, or even about that satisfying afterglow that can come once the game is won. Right then it was about feeling. He could suddenly hear the breathing of the man he was defending and knew where that man would cut before he did. It was a primal sensation: running, skying, diving, hucking. In his normal life he might study enterprise systems, but at that moment he was a strong animal who couldn’t be contained. When he caught a goal to pull Boston closer, he felt something he’d never felt on a Frisbee field before. Tears welled up in his eyes.
“I felt I wasn’t going to let the team lose,” he’d say later. Ring of Fire remained ahead by 2, but Boston would win this game; Parinella was certain of that now. And as great—as absorbing and enlivening—as this feeling was, it was made better because he was part of a team. For Parinella, it wasn’t hard to see a physical manifestation of the feeling that was welling up in his chest. He only had to look at the faces of his teammates, faces that shined with joyous savagery. They moved with one surging purpose, trusting their teammates as they trusted their own muscles and judgement.
It was, as Parinella sensed, a shared thing. They were part of something and they all felt it and it showed more and more in how they played. Steve Mooney, the team’s captain, flew around the field, directing traffic, throwing strikes, giving his teammates an easy target. Lenny Engel, the team’s emotional sparkplug, had been hobbled by a knee injury all year, but now he was suddenly sticking to his man, celebrating wildly after each goal, and breathing fire. At the other extreme was Jeremy Seeger, the man that my Harvard teammate Simon Long had once dubbed “God.” As a god Jeremy was fairly unassuming, certainly not the Old Testament one, closer to a wisp thin Modigliani Jesus with hollowed eyes. But if Jeremy sometimes appeared unassuming off the field, on the field he was set free.
For Ring of Fire, the goals were getting harder and harder to come by. What had been flow was now a trickle. Boston had many spectacular blocks, but the one that really seemed to break Ring’s back was made by a relatively unheralded player, Jeff Yu, also known as “Jethro.” Always quietly intense, Jethro would later admit to being even more fired up by what he’d come to call Parinella’s “primal scream.” He was ready when the man he was defending cut upfield and another Ring player got ready to throw. Jethro baited the thrower by pretending to be a little further off his man than he really was, and when the throw was made, Jethro pounced. He flew through the air, stretched out to his full length, and the disc stuck to his fully extended left hand. The Boston bench exploded.
It was gradually beginning to dawn on Ring of Fire that their little dreamtime was over. When Boston received the disc, up 15-14, they called a set play that involved Moons throwing to Alex de Frondeville who in turn would throw to Parinella who would throw to Chris Corcoran. But when de Frondeville received the disc on his own ten yard line, Parinella sensed that the Ring defender was overplaying him. He faked out, then in, and the defender bit hard. Parinella took off deep and de Frondeville launched the disc up and out. Eighty yards later, Parinella caught it for a goal. 16-14. At that point the game was capped. Ring of Fire scored to make it a one point game, but Boston could put them away by simply scoring one more time.
Then the inexplicable happened. The disc was worked up the field to Jeremy Seeger, who saw Parinella streaking across the end zone. This was it for the game, and when it left Seeger’s hand, it felt good. The man guarding Jeremy practically conceded defeat by saying, “Damn, nice throw, how’d you get that off?” But Parinella somehow didn’t catch the disc and, as there was no game film, the why of it would remain open to debate. To many spectators, it seemed as if the Frisbee could easily have been caught; it was described on the sport’s internet newsgroup as “an inexplicable drop on an easy lay-out catch.” Parinella didn’t see it that way. In his mind, he made a tremendous effort but couldn’t quite make a “best catch of the game” grab. But a mistake could no longer could send Parinella into a funk. He had become a different player, a sloppier player perhaps, but a better one.
Parinella’s miscue was soon rendered moot. A Ring player dropped a difficult blade, and DoG quickly converted for the winning goal. Parinella felt his chest starting to heave. They had won, despite his fucking up, and part of what he felt was relief. But it wasn’t all relief. His emotional high had been tailing off, but now the whole surge of it came back strong again, washing over him. The rest of his teammates raced onto the field, losing themselves in an orgy of high fives, hugs, and victory hoots. After calming down a little, they went through the ritual of shaking hands with the vanquished Ring of Fire players, before setting to the serious business of beer drinking, reliving great plays, and basking.
The next day Boston would beat Seattle in the finals and find themselves partying again. In Ultimate, there is no locker room to which players retire, so the celebration occurs right on the field. This tradition, which is known as “the milling period,” or simply “the mill,” can last as long as two or three hours after the finals. Most of the fans are usually players from other teams, and, drinking beer, they try to forget about their team’s losses or their own poor plays, and join in the carnival spirit of the mill. For Boston, it was time for pure revelry, with no need to forget. DoG players sought out friends from other teams who had watched the game, basking in praise (and occasionally fishing for a few more compliments) and beginning the endless process of reliving their greatest plays and gravest errors.
Though more and more games were being filmed, Ultimate was still a sport remembered not by instant replay, but through the oral tradition, through the retelling of great plays and heroic feats, and already today’s tales were being spun. We may live in a country where it’s hard for people to imagine the concept of glory and achievement without national television or magazine coverage, but at that moment you couldn’t convince Jim Parinella that what he had gone through has been anything short of glorious.
“I wish I could describe exactly what was going through my head,” he said, thinking back to that surge during the semifinals comeback . “But I can’t…I can barely remember it. At the time, though, every action looked perfectly clear, every motion was exaggerated. I have never before in my life been in such a heightened state of awareness.”
* * *
I wrote the above pages in approximately the same mood in which Parinella played the semifinals. For a week, in an unwinterized attic room of a house on Cape Cod back in the cold spring 1998, I kept warm by typing around the clock, not just scenes of the DoG team playing but games remembered from my own years playing. I was full or fire and energy and wrote with a fluidity I had never felt before. Could it have been that during my twenty years playing Ultimate I hadn’t been a player so much as a spy, a sponge, a reporter? That my real job had been to take the stories from the game’s oral tradition and put them on the page? Whatever the case, it felt great to get what I remembered down on paper. I sent some sample pages to my agent who was also excited. And sure enough there was interest in the Ultimate book from New York publishers! I drove down to New York to attend meetings, thrilled to think that I would finally be published by a big press. From my journal, I know that my wife and I had less than fifty dollars in our joint bank account at the time.
It was close, my agent told me later, they almost took it. Why didn’t they, I asked. In the end, no publishers would buy the book, mostly because the marketers and publicists were afraid no one would know what Ultimate was. There it was again. Is that the thing you do with the dogs?
That was almost twenty years ago. It hurt, I won’t lie, and it took a while until I moved onto the next subject, the next book. It wouldn’t be until another eighteen years that I would return to writing about ultimate.
But while I remember well the sting of the moment, I also remember the joy of first discovering ultimate as an unexpected muse. Most of all I remember losing myself in the subject, and that is a feeling that I know Jim Parinella understands.
There was one other moment during that long-ago Finals that I took notes on but never wrote about. Sometime during the mill after that ’97 Finals, a player from another team, who himself was eliminated early in the tournament, teased Parinella about having dropped what could have been the final pass of the semis the day before. At first, Parinella felt tempted to rush to his own defense. But, in his state of near blissful calm, he stopped. He could handle the teasing. Let the snickerers snicker, the hecklers heckle, the nitpickers pick nits. The appropriate attitude toward those who had merely watched, Parinella decided as he sipped his beer, was not defensiveness, but pity. Pity the poor observers. After all, they had not been in it. They hadn’t experienced that overwhelming tribal sensation that Parinella would always remember. They had no way to comprehend what it was like to be part of that surging whole.
More info about Ultimate Glory:
Order Ultimate Glory by David Gessner here.
Book website: www.ultimateglory.net
Book trailer: https://vimeo.com/217178323