When I initially sat down to write Universe Point, I envisioned the final chapter being about the events surrounding the first time I stepped onto the fields at nationals after twenty odd years of playing this crazy sport. But as I reached the final stages, I realized that the book wasn’t actually about me. It was about ultimate itself and whether or not I actually got to play at nationals was weirdly irrelevant. (Thus pushing aside my ego for what I believe was the first time ever) But after experiencing nationals (grandmasters) for the first time, I felt compelled to write that final chapter anyway because it was such an amazing experience. Skyd has graciously given me a space to share that chapter. Hope you enjoy.
Universe Point – After Afterword
Sometime in the spring of 2011, (around the time I started writing my book) I received a message from my old friend Black Tide Matt. It basically went like this:
“Hey Cramer, are you 40 yet?”
“Uh….I’m only 34.”
“Damn it. I was hoping you were old enough for grandmasters.”
Fast forward to 2012.
“Hey Cramer, are you 40 this year?”
“Hey Cramer are you….”
“I’m 36. I actually crunched the numbers and I’ve found that so far I’m aging at damn near the same rate as other humans,” I responded. “If that pattern holds, it puts me at a definite yes around 2017. I’ll let you know if anything changes though.”
He asked in 2014, 15 & 16 anyway just in case I’d made a radical discovery about the accuracy of my birth certificate until finally 2017 rolled around. This time he didn’t have to ask. I sent a preemptive strike on January 1st.
“Matt, I’m going to be 40 this year and yes I will play on your Grandmasters team if you still want me.”
When he said yes, I floated to the ceiling. His team, Endless Sunset, out of San Diego had made grandmasters nationals five years in a row and were pretty certain to do it again. Having been injured at my only chance to play at (college) nationals back in 2003, the mere thought of being on those fields revved me up for weeks even though the tournament was damn near eight months away. So I set out to do what all grandmasters players do in the months before a big tournament – try not to get hurt. Which at 40 can happen during any life event – doing squats, swinging kettlebells, going for a run, watching hockey, putting on pants, opening a drawer, reading stuff– you’re pretty much dodging grenades at every single moment.
To keep my ultimate skills game ready, I played in the Wednesday Night Pittsburgh Summer League on a fluorescent orange team that was either named Cutie Tang or Scorange or Not a Deer depending on the week. In our final game before I was set to fly to California for regionals, we were marching the disc downfield on universe point when I came across the back of the end zone wide open. A floaty backhand went up that allowed my defender, Pittsburgh Thunderbirds play-by play-man and long time ultimate stalwart Matt Weiss, to catch up. Somehow my age-depleted vertical allowed me to go over him to make a sweet catch along the sideline, picking it and stretching to get my toes down in bounds.
When I was five years old, my mom sent me to a gymnastics class where the instructor said, “You should stretch every day.” So I did. And I needed every bit of those thirty-five years of flexibility training to ensure that bits of my knee didn’t end up in the bleachers when Weiss rocked me an inch before my cleats hit the grass.
With all of his weight still pressed down on my legs, Weiss extended his hand to me with panic in his eyes. “Oh shit, Cramer. Please tell me I didn’t just take you out on the last point before regionals.”
“Hold on,” I said, pulling my leg out from underneath him and flexing it. “Nope, I think….yeah, I’m good,” I said trying to hide my surprise.
“Oh thank god,” he responded, rolling off me and flopping to the grass.
It may have taken a minor miracle, but I was going to be healthy headed to….
The next day at work a concrete block I was smashing offered a lot less resistance than I anticipated. My sledgehammer crashed through it, ricocheted off a railroad tie and crushed my left hand against a fence post. I was headed to California with a broken middle finger. Life is an asshole.
So that Friday morning after a cross country flight to San Francisco, lunch with my ex-teammate Iron Mike, and a surprisingly cool drive through the mountains northeast of the Bay Area, I arrived in Sacramento to meet my new teammates at a super sick AirBnB with thousands of bedrooms, a refrigerator bigger than my kitchen, and an in-ground pool. It was the first sign that grandmasters was going to be a rather large departure from college and club. For the first time ever my teammates obviously had some cash to spend – since ya know, we’re all middle aged now and (supposed to) have careers and shit. This was not the “cram eight guys into a seedy Motel 6 in downtown Rochester” experience that I was used to. I slept in a real bed that I didn’t have to share with anyone else. Let me repeat. 2,000 miles from home – slept in a real bed – by myself – in my own room. What was I, playing at Wimbledon? It didn’t make sense.
Black Tide Matt and I realized that even though we’d chatted a bunch on social media, we hadn’t actually seen each other in going on fifteen years. It was an awesome reunion. He looked basically the same and though he told a lot less Black Tide stories during the weekend, I did arrive at the house to find them screening “I Bleed Black,” (the old UCSB documentary) on the flat screen in the livingroom.
“Ya know I used to play for…”
“We know, Matt. Some of us were your teammates.”
A couple other great dudes were staying with us at the house that weekend as well. Matt’s co-captain, Ryan, was as California as it gets – tall, wind-swept blonde hair that didn’t move, and this unassuming yet somehow vitally important to the economy kind of vibe. Bryan was a lanky west coast surfer with glasses, who from a distance could’ve passed for the kid who does the morning announcements at your local high school. Guillermo was another of our out of region guys, a speedy Argentinian soccer player from Memphis who at 40 looked like he could still be playing on Lionel Messi’s wing.
And then there was my old buddy Brody who’d founded the University of Pittsburgh’s college team back in the late 90’s. Many ultimate players would recognize him on sight from his trademark floppy hat and the bazooka-sized camera he lugs around taking pictures at most national tournaments. We’d played against each other a ton in summer league in our late teens and early 20’s, but had never been on the same team. So when Black Tide Matt asked if I knew any other top tier out of region players, I put the two of them in contact – excited at the possibility of sharing the field with him. Later on, it could easily be argued that it was my most valuable contribution to Endless Sunset.
Our games that day were at noon, 2:00, and 4:00, right in the heat of the day, a fact that loomed over us as we drove to the fields on an already broiling morning.
“What’s it saying?” I asked as Brody checked the weather on his phone.
“Ninety-five and sunny.”
“Ninety-five? Maybe uh…..they’ll be wrong.”
Turned out I was a prophet. The high reached 100.
So our warm up consisted of a bunch of guys who really wanted to play ultimate – just in Vancouver or Anchorage or somewhere that wasn’t Sacramento on that particular Saturday. Guillermo and I did our yoga and stretching routines in the skinny shadow of a light stanchion while other guys chugged water like it was beer and tried not to spontaneously combust. As we were called out to warm up, a lot of dudes suddenly remembered they still needed to put on sunscreen in the tent or go hit the pisser. It felt like the sun had crept up to where the moon hangs out. It was neck baking.
But I hadn’t flown in from Pittsburgh to sit in a tent, so I put on the kick ass blue, orange, and every other color known to man Endless Sunset jersey that I was borrowing for the weekend and ran on the field with our defensive line. Our first game was against what felt like a pickup team out of Los Angeles. They had a few good players but not a lot of numbers and we coasted to a 15-4 victory.
We huddled up before our next game against a team called Old Growth out of San Jose. “This is the game we need,” Black Tide Matt implored us. “If we’re a nationals caliber team, we thump these guys. It’s hot, but that’s no excuse. We know what to do, so let’s do it. Sunset on three. One, two, three…”
I came out as hot as the air temperature in that game. We were up 1-0 when I went in on defense. We forced a turn on the goal line and set a vertical stack. From the back I saw that our handler had overshot the guy he was aiming for. I bailed him out, racing over to catch it for the goal, my first with Endless Sunset.
Feeling great, (even with my broken finger) I stayed on. About halfway up the field, I forced a high swilly throw that we easily knocked down. As I jogged across the field to my outside cutter position, I was unexpectedly open and whoever picked it up shot a crossfield flick way out in front of me. I slid to catch it with a guy on my back, then popped up and floated a high release flick over a defender’s fingertips for our third goal. I only rested for a point before coming back in to catch the goal that put us up 5-1. At that point, I was obviously feeling pretty confident. I was playing solid D and on our first five points, I’d scored or assisted on three of them.
Then just before halftime came the point that almost sent me back across the country in a body bag. I was feeling awesome as I went out on D yet again. Old Growth worked it the whole way down the field before turning it just outside the end zone. I started to sprint deep and…..we turned it damn near immediately. I hauled ass back to cover my guy and…..they turfed the first pass. We worked it halfway up the field and overthrew a deep shot to the end zone. After four turns, the point was getting a little long for a bunch of old guys in the heat. I believe an automatic text went out to every EMT in greater Sacramento that they should be on alert for a pending mass casualty incident.
Old Growth brought it to the goal line and my guy cut in. I stuck with him and shut down the passing lane, then jumped inside for a hopeful poach before turning and following my guy deep down the middle. As I was chasing him, OG put up a long outside in flick down the sideline that I turned and hustled for, backing up my teammate, a skinny D hound named Dennis. He knocked it out of bounds, rendering my help completely needless so I turned and once again focused on offense.
In grandmasters at the age of 40, you’re actually considered young. And the problem with being young and comparatively big, fast, and athletic is you’re still expected to do big, fast, and athletic things. Unfortunately your body is no longer 19. It’s just not 49 yet. And what I found on that point is that there’s a huge difference between 19 and “not 49 yet.”
After the turn, I cut in and didn’t get the disc, so I released upfield. The guy guarding me was heaving breaths like a wounded gorilla. His hands briefly went to his hips, a sure sign I had him beat. At midfield I accelerated. Three quick steps and I was streaking past everyone up the sideline. The thrower saw me. It was going to be an easy…..
The only way I can describe what happened is that my legs just….shrunk. It was like in high school when the teacher handed out a test that was unnecessarily difficult and you pushed it aside and went, “Yeah, screw this.” That’s what my legs did. I saw it later on video. One second I’m a serious athlete sprinting down the sideline and the next I’m a cross between a scarecrow and a monster sewn together from random body parts. I didn’t lay out so much as collapse. The disc hit the ground an inch from my outstretched fingers. It was the last time I could reasonably say I felt “fine” that day.
Based on that debacle, a whole bunch of guys who I’d just met that morning began to give me running advice.
“So Cramer uh….you really need to work on your stride. That was the most awkward run I believe I’ve ever seen. We thought you pulled both hamstrings.”
“Nah, my stride is fine. I was just dead at the end of that point.”
“Yeah but your stride though. You’re like an old robot out there. Like a rusty one that’s been in a shed since the 50’s and needs lots of repairs.”
“Seriously though, my stride is ok,” I said. “There were five turnovers on that point. Five.”
“No offense. I’m not trying to be critical. You just need someone to show you how to run. Because it’s obvious you’ve never been taught proper technique.”
“I was a runner in college. I know how to…..it’s a hundred degrees and I ran up and down the…..” The argument wasn’t worth it. “Yeah, I’ll try to work on my stride.”
I played sparingly in the second half as we got past OG rather easily, 15-6. But though I guzzled more water than actually fell on California the year before, I still couldn’t catch up.
The two words that would describe my next game against Shadows (the top seed) out of San Francisco would be dizzy….and ineffective. I played four points, realized that I most likely had a minor case of heat stroke and then was told I should probably sit out the second half.
“We’re going to need you for tomorrow,” they told me, which was a really nice way of saying, “Dude, we’re going to let someone who isn’t sucking as hard play a little more. Cool?”
That night, our team and a bunch of the LA dudes got some beers and chilled in the pool. Black Tide Matt ordered enough pizza that the local Dominos thought it was a prank, and we all chilled watching the sun set over the palm trees talking of our ultimate origin stories – of how we’d discovered the sport in the 80’s & 90’s back when the sport wasn’t even “fringe.” Nobody got plowed and jumped off the roof into the pool. Nobody puked. Nobody got “a tiny bit confrontational.” It was just a chill night. Grandmasters style.
After a gallon of chocolate milk and what felt like fifteen Gatorades, I was almost back to normal the next morning. It helped that the games started at 9:00AM before the sun decided to burn off the atmosphere. In the 2 vs. 3 game against Old Growth, I got a hand block on the first point, which my confidence desperately needed. We played a solid game and when Guillermo caught a little backhand in traffic over the goal line and raised his hand in the air signifying our 15th goal, I pumped my fist and smiled, damn near skipping onto the field. It assured us 2nd place in the Southwest Region. After 22 years, I was at long last going to play at nationals.
The final against Shadows was a big test and though both teams were assured a trip to Denver for the big tourney in July, Sunset had apparently never beaten them. So it was a huge deal to my teammates. The full name of their team was apparently Shadows (Of Our Former Selves). And damn if they were only shadows of their former selves, it was scary to imagine the players they were at 25. I’m (arguably) the fastest over 40 ultimate player in Pittsburgh, a decent sized city with a great ultimate scene. And they had fourteen guys at minimum who were as fast as I was. As a side note, I’m no longer convinced that the fog that rolls into the Bay Area each day isn’t just a cloud of human growth hormone.
Unlike the day before, I felt pretty good as I took the field against them. Late in the first half I laid out to snag a low throw, then popped up and saw Guillermo fake in and take his guy deep. My high release flick hit him in stride to put us within 6-5.
After my biggest moment of the tournament so far, I stormed into the tent and high fived my teammates. “See…see, I’m a pretty good player when I know where the hell I am!”
Then on the next point Defensive Dennis had a sick layout along the sideline to start a break that tied the game 6-6. It was looking like we were going to hang with and perhaps even upset the beasts of the Southwest.
I went in on the next point and glued myself to my guy, not letting him go anywhere without my tattoos in his face. We forced a turn. Feeling confident, I faked deep, stuck my heel in the ground and left my guy behind me. Our handler put up a flick that maybe needed some more zip, but it didn’t matter. I was going to catch it and start the break that was going to put us up 7-6. There was no other possibility.
I just assumed the dude who was guarding me was old and would never be able to recover from the juke I threw on him. And you know the saying about what happens when you assume – it makes you look like a goddamned lazy idiot when you don’t run through the disc and allow your guy to sneak past you and tip it away. (I may have modified that saying slightly to fit the circumstances.)
After that, Shadows went on a four goal run and we never quite recovered losing 15-8 in a game that I’d definitely helped squander. Though disappointed, we came together with the guys from Shadows in a great spirit circle after the game, laughing and shaking hands.
“See you fellas in Colorado.”
Being in that circle with a bunch of athletes who now had gray hairs, a little less muscle, and a few more ailments, I could definitely appreciate the quote at the bottom of the Shadows uniforms.
The older we get, the better we were.
It’s true. I’m far better at 22 now than I ever was when I was actually 22. I think my vertical from back then is up to 70 or 80 inches. My forty yard dash time comes in around four flat. I once scored 17 goals in a game that ended 15-1.
The older we get, the better we were.
It’s the one great thing that us ancients have on the new wave of players who find themselves promoted in slick ass Callahan videos and ESPN live streams. They’re always going to be exactly as good as their actual performance. They can’t stretch the truth. So when I start feeling slightly depressed that the pro leagues and television contracts missed me by half a decade, I can always smile at the young’uns and say, “You should’ve seen me way back when, junior.” And laugh because they won’t be able to verify shit.
You kids may have your Evan Lepler interviews and your Sportscenter Top Tens, but we have legends. Which let’s face it, I’m going to try (and likely fail) to convince myself is somehow cooler.
I spent the entire plane ride home in a middle seat waiting for the leg cramps I knew were on the way. Honestly, it felt like my own hamstrings were stalking me. Somewhere over central Indiana they finally jumped out of the bushes, frightening the hell out of the business people on either side of me. If I were on top of my game, I’d have patted my pocket and said something along the lines of, “Damn it Brutus, quit scratching daddy! Little guy sure hates flying. But that’s squirrels for ya, am I right?” As it was, I just got to chuckle uncomfortably as they both began desperate searches for their headphones.
Uncomfortable plane ride aside, it had all been worth it. At long last, I’d be playing in the tournament that had eluded me for over two decades.
Universe Point is available now on Amazon!