It was a real pleasure to chat with, Dan “Stork” Roddick, one of the founding fathers of ultimate. Stork was inducted into the US Hall of Fame in 2004, having performed long and impressive service in the creation, development and growth of Ultimate, both in the US and globally. Not only was he there at the first Rutgers college game, on that carpark (see interviews with Geoff West and David Leiwant) but he also worked for Wham-O during one of the golden periods for the sport and general disc sports.
Simon: You started playing with discs when you were 5. What were you throwing and spinning as a kid?
Dan “Stork” Roddick: Yes at five years old I got a flying saucer as a Christmas present. I was fascinated with it and took it everywhere. My dad was a bit of a character too, an astronomer, and used to take us on his motor bike, me and my mother for our summer vacations. There wasn’t a lot of room to bring much, so the flying saucer was something that I could bring along with us. I have a picture of me catching it when I was 8. My dad is 94 and still into playing lots of games, so I guess that’s where my interest in games comes from.
It’s funny too, because my dad was a big golfer and we played something like disc golf too. Though we never called it that. I wish we could lay claim to having invented disc golf, but we didn’t quite!
Frisbee always seemed like a silly name. To me I always thought they should be called flying saucers, because that’s what they were.
Also it sounds like you were a freestyler prior to meeting the guys at Rutgers. Is this the case? How did you get into that / what did you get up to?
Yes, my dad and I used to do a lot of trick catching. Initially it was trick catching but no freestyle. The freestyle came later, and was much more collaborative too.
For a long time GUTS was only really played in Michigan, but you might have up to 70 teams playing. It was a real happening. GUTS was seen as the most macho thing you could do with a disc. After all you were hurling it at your opponents, as hard as you possibly could.
Also with GUTS you pretty quickly knew who the weak players were, and you isolated them and threw the disc as hard and as often at them as possible. This wasn’t necessarily conducive to encouraging them to come back a second time! Ultimate in comparison was a lot more accessible. You got to run around, you might touch it a couple of times, and you could ease your way in. Ultimate, unlike GUTS, was also always college based.
This really helped in terms of the people who were running the sport. They were organizers, who had time to organize. Unlike GUTS players, who worked, ultimate, with it’s college roots, kept getting lots of new players coming into the game. They got a lot of good players, athletes, who were talented, but not scholarship students. This meant they were not on the scholarship based teams, but they still wanted to play sport. For this reason ultimate took off in the way that it did, and GUTS did not. Though it is of course played around the world, and is even more popular for some, like Taiwan.
I’ve watched videos of ultimate finals in California from the late 70s in packed arenas. I’m guessing you were there / involved, what was the atmosphere like?
In California in the 1970s ultimate was big. Wham-o had lots of money coming in from the sales of 119, 141 and 165 discs. This was new money coming in, from sporting shop sales. We had regional directors, a magazine, I had a staff of 6 to 8 people working on the magazine and proficiency ratings.
By the time of the Rose Bowl event we had 30 to 40 people and a lot of advertising. There were tv ads, ticket give aways, there was fifty thousand people, it really was ‘a happening’ in Pasadena. I walk around the area and people still remember the event to this day. ABC tv covered the event and it got a 42 share viewing rating.
You might say it dropped since then, but across the world disc sports are far larger now than it was then. Remember that was a big event in one city, whereas it is now played every weekend, all across the US and globally. Far more people play now than they did then.
What do you think about the latest attempt to launch pro ultimate?
Well you wouldn’t imagine that after years of trying to get something going, then suddenly along come two pro leagues at the same time! I’m really excited for them, and I wish them all as much success as possible, but whew, two leagues at once seems like making a tough proposition even more difficult. But, I went to my first LA Aviators game just a couple of nights ago and it was really cool. I’m getting a season ticket next year.
That said, with the reaction against brain injuries in other contact sports, maybe ultimate will be the next big thing. Already though the pro leagues are running weekly highlights, and often these clips are making it into wider sporting action montages. We always said if you filmed ultimate, in any game, there are many great epic plays. The fact that ultimate action sequences are making it into these sports highlights shows that we were right. This can only help to promote the sport, as non ultimate fans see these awesome plays being made on a regular basis.
What about other disc sports?
I was always interested in all the things you could do with a disc. This is why I think it has such potential, you can just do so much more with a disc than a football. Back in the 70’s we were creating games to try things out. DDC for example (double disc court), this could be part of a decathlon of disc related events, to really test the overall disc skills. Some people are just into ultimate, but as you grow older you and your buddies might want to still meet up, but not be able to play ultimate so easily. In this context disc sports offer a great opportunity, to allow you to keep socializing with your buddies but doing other disc sports.
175g has been the current match weight for a while, but prior to that it was 165 and possibly even less. Looking back did the increase in size & weight (a la tennis rackets) help to increase the distance and range of throws consistently possible in game situations? Were you an advocate for moving to the 175g, in retrospect it seems like the right move, but was it contentious at the time?
When it switched from 165 grams to the 175 grams ultrastar for ultimate it was a very close thing. It may have even been only a single vote. It’s definitely easier to make the throws with a 175 gram disc. The 165 at its best was more of a “touch” disc. I’m a game designer. I’m interested in rewarding those who have the best disc skills, and also allowing the wind to have an impact too. Make the disc too controllable and you take that away, you lose some of the subtleties.
Is there anything you’d have liked to have done differently?
I’d have liked freestyle to have been more artistic, more subjective and open to interpretation. Whereas it became a little formulaic and by numbers.
Is there a fundamental flaw at the heart of ultimate, in terms of the ability of a player to make a bad call, so negating a clear score.
Well first of all, if in doubt, it’s out. Now, are you deliberately referring to that incident, that, 35 years later, I’m still talking about. Are you setting me up here?
No no, it’s a general question. What incident?
Well I don’t want to say I’m not over it. But I did have personal experience of this happening to me. In a big big game, to win the National semi finals, to play for the championship, and I was called out of the end zone. We had a long discussion and because nobody could say for certain, we ended up calling it a turnover. We ended up losing. A few weeks later one of the fellows from the other team, who was in the back of the end zone said “you were in” but that he didn’t want to “get involved.” I’m not saying it still rankles now (laughs)! Things go as they go. Almost every nationally-televised sports event features calls by officials that are clearly wrong. I’ll still take my chances with self-officiation.
With ultimate, with all sports, you get jerks. Observers could help on line calls. Also perhaps three bad calls and you’re out of the game. Overall you, the rest of us, should still play in the way we would like the game to be played. I’d rather see it as a reminder that we have to be the game we’d like it to be.
Any differences between the US and Europe in how the game is played?
London is a big place, ultimate is geocity based. I think it’s better than ultimate is not a scholarship based college sport. It makes it less specialized. I think the NBA and NFL are quite damaged in the model they operate by. Many many players don’t make it to the pro leagues, and are dumped by the wayside. Ultimate can demonstrate their shortcomings by how it does things. If sport can help in modern life then I think it’s a good thing, and ultimate can offer a great outlet for good, healthy safe sporting activities.
In one of your youtube interviews you discuss that it’s not necessarily the best thing for ultimate to go completely mainstream – simply because by having to look at little harder for the sport, it helps to filter out some people who might not really ‘get it’. With the current professional league(s) running how do you think the preservation of the ethos of ‘spirit’ is holding up.
Thanks a million for chatting with me, a pleasure and an honour.
You’re welcome, and it’s a shame we didn’t chat before I came over to Ireland last year!