Before his injury, when Ben Banyas was trapped on the sideline with the disc, I’d never leave my guy. I’d seen one too many of his precise flick-blades send an unfortunate poacher to the sideline repeatedly smacking their forehead. But this was 2016 and sneaking toward the center of the end zone was the right play. Clog the middle and make his only option a throw I thought he no longer had.
The scoober he let go shredded the air like a paper bag. My uncovered man didn’t even have to move. Goal.
I wasn’t even mad. In fact, I’m pretty sure I smiled a little bit – my only thought as I smacked my forehead and returned to the sideline being, “damn, I didn’t think he could do that anymore.”
Shattered. Exploded. Demolished. Obliterated.
These were only some of the adjectives that the doctors used to describe what happened to Ben’s right elbow in the fall of 2014.
“They found bits of it down here,” Ben says, pointing to a spot on his forearm much closer to his wrist than his funny bone.
On Black Friday there’s an indoor tournament called Fowl Contest at Pittsburgh’s Neville Island Sports Complex – a stall nine backhand floats in the air above Ben’s head. He leaps straight up from his standing position at the back of a vertical stack. He never gets to make a play on the disc.
At one point or another, most of us who’ve played the game long enough have been hit just like Ben was. An overzealous defender tries to go over you to make the play and bumps you from behind in the air. Most times it’s forgotten foul somewhere in the middle of a too soon forgotten game. But not this one. Knocked off balance, Ben’s first point of contact with the field turf was his right elbow.
“I was looking right at it when I hit the ground,” Ben sighs. “The head of my radius, that little bump by your elbow – it just disappeared. Became a crater.”
To make matters worse, his defender landed across his legs, which also tore the PCL in his knee.
“I stood up and almost passed out,” Ben says, reflexively taking a sip of water at the bar where I interviewed him. “The funniest thing is that the guy who did it is a good friend of mine. He wasn’t even going to play in the tournament until I convinced him to sign up that morning. So I guess it’s sort of my own fault,” he chuckles.
I first met Banyas in 2001 when he was a sixteen year old kid who was still doe-eyed enough to play an entire summer league season barefoot. At that point, you wouldn’t have pegged him as an ultimate lifer, let alone someone who’d become one of the pillars of the Pittsburgh ultimate community fifteen years later.
But that’s what Ben is now. Along the way, he’s been the program director for “Camp Spirit of the Game,” a Community for Pittsburgh Ultimate board member, and captain of the (now Temper-fused) Dire Wolf club team amongst a flurry of other efforts.
He’s one of those players that every community has – an incredibly hard worker who just seems to be everywhere, always doing something, never simply watching. Which was why his injury resonated across Pittsburgh ultimate.
“At first, the doctors were talking about a prosthetic elbow,” he says. “Full replacement that I’d have to get redone every five years. That was a depressing thought. Devastating, really. That was a tough future to envision. But luckily they found three pieces that were big enough to keep.”
Two surgeries, two screws, and ten months later he had his elbow back. Sort of. Even now, two years later, he extends his hands over the table to demonstrate his limitations. While his left hand can rotate to face palm up, his right hand can’t get much past handshake position.
Now for many players, that would be it. They’d examine the situation and determine that life has unceremoniously pushed them down a different path. But this isn’t where Ben’s ultimate story ends.
“I knew from the first time I threw a disc that I’d be playing until I couldn’t walk anymore,” he laughs. “I could still walk. I just couldn’t throw. Which sucks for a guy who’s only 5’9”. As you get older, you sort of have to make a living on your throws. If I wanted to keep playing, I had to do something drastic.”
By March of 2015, Ben’s knee was finally stable enough to begin throwing again. But there were now two large screws in his dominant arm – which left only one exciting but remarkably difficult option. Teaching himself how to throw with his off hand.
“It only took me a week to get a fifty yard backhand. But it was flat. No inside outs. No lobs. Just straight and flat. My flick came and went. My hammer flopped straight into the ground five feet in front of me. Pivoting on my right foot was alien. It’s incredibly weird to do everything literally the opposite of how you’d been doing it for fifteen years. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it was….” he pauses, “more difficult than I first imagined.”
Even so, with all that practice driving him forward, by the summer of 2015 he was ready to get back on the field. Not as confident as he’d been before the injury, but back on the field nonetheless.
“In my first game, I got a poach D and threw a lefty huck for a goal. And all I could do was laugh to myself. After you’ve hit bottom physically like I did, you have to seek out those little moments that make you feel normal again. The normal moments become amazing.”
Ben had some fun and enjoyable times as an unexpected lefty. He played summer league, Pada Mosh, and even fired a (slightly wind aided) lefty pull out of the back of the end zone at Sarasota Sunset.
“My goal was to make Temper (Pittsburgh’s open club team). I knew it was a lofty objective, but I needed something pushing me forward.”
Unfortunately though, Pittsburgh has some really good players. It’s hard to make Temper in the first place, let alone when you’re 30, recovering from a catastrophic injury and throwing with your non-dominant hand. So Ben’s dream went unrealized. But in many ways, it was a watershed moment.
“My dad always told me life isn’t fair. If you want something, you have to work hard for it. And I knew if I wanted to climb back to the level I was used to, I was going to have to do something really crazy. So I promised myself I’d throw every day. Sun, rain, snow, sickness – didn’t matter. Throw every day.”
And so he did. If he wasn’t organizing tossing sessions on Facebook, he was outside in dress pants firing discs in the parking lot of Ross Park Mall during breaks from his retail job. Each day he’d post pictures of some random collection of twenty-some Frisbees in a scattershot pattern across a small hill, looking like the debris field from an Ultrastar explosion.
And the thing about people like Ben Banyas is that they somehow dig deep and find a way to turn their own misfortune into something that benefits others. Enter the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, a caring, local, (and perpetually underfunded) organization that he knew of through his own volunteer work.
“When I realized at the end of August (2016) that I was coming up on throwing every single day for an entire year, I thought I should mark the occasion somehow. And do something good. So I set out to throw a disc that day (September 1st) with 365 different people. One per day – well, I guess 366 because of leap year. And try to get them all to donate at least a dollar to the Women’s Shelter.”
So he did. All day. Five minutes with a good friend, one or two throws with a stranger, ten minutes with a long time teammate. Hour after hour.
“At 10PM, even after throwing all day, I still had over a hundred people to go. I thought I’d never make it. So I just started wandering around the University of Pittsburgh campus hoping to convince a bunch of people to help me out. And luckily, there was a huge pep rally going on at the Cathedral. I ended up tossing with 368 different people that day including half the Pitt football team. And we raised over $600 for the shelter.”
And the Women’s Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh isn’t the only group who benefitted from the wisdom Ben acquired on the detour life had forced upon him. In 2015 (a few months after the injury), he was given the opportunity to become the head coach of Danger, the University of Pittsburgh’s Women’s Team. Subsequently, those players have seen him go through the rigorous process of rebuilding his game and in many ways, his life.
“They’re (the players) actually a big inspiration for me,” Ben says. “If I ‘m telling a player to ignore the little voice that says they can’t do something, then the worst thing I can do is not ignore that same voice. If I tell them to trust themselves and strive for more than they ever thought possible, then I better not be a hypocrite.”
That attitude, (and a lot of hard working great players) led them to nationals in 2016. On ultimate’s biggest stage, they even came out of it with a win against a very good Western Washington team.
As we talked, Ben passionately told the story of how Danger never kept track of the score during their games. “Always play like you’re down by two,” he told me. “Play to be better than you were the day before….the game before….the point before and the results will come naturally.” He beamed when relaying how the Pitt Women won the Commonwealth Cup against a Virginia team that they’d lost to the previous day.
When standout Katie Schreiber caught a huck to win the game and the tournament, no one on the field had any idea they were the champs.
“I had to tell them we’d just won the tournament,” Ben laughed. “They were ready to line up for another point.”
According to his players, Ben’s attitude pushed them toward success by encouraging them to smash through whatever self imposed limits they may have entered the season with.
“His perseverance definitely helped me on an individual level,” says Schreiber. “Whenever I thought I couldn’t achieve something, Ben was right there teaching himself how to throw with his left arm. That’s nothing short of inspiration. He taught me to be more confident in myself and to take risks. Personally I’d have never made the U20 National Team without him.”
And when Schreiber recently went through her own injury troubles with a torn meniscus, Banyas was there each step of the way.
“He called me instantly when he found out I scheduled surgery,” Schreiber recalls. “And he knew my favorite ultimate player was Qxhna Titcomb. I didn’t know she was also going through knee surgery until Ben reached out to her and asked her to talk with me. And she did because she’s an amazing woman. This meant the world to me. Qxhna’s experience along with Ben’s experience with his own injury truly helped me cope, understand, and accept the entire healing process. I’ve never had such a caring coach.”
And Ben’s not done yet. He might just be playing until he can’t walk after all. Over the last year, he’s gradually figured out how to throw righty again, albeit with much different grips that don’t stress his arm quite as much – something I didn’t know until he surprised the hell out of me on the third point of our winter league matchup a few weeks ago.
Ben grins. “Yeah, everyone assumes I suck now. So I usually get a few good throws in before people realize, ‘Oh shit, Banyas is back.’ But I mean in the last eighteen months I’ve actually had to completely relearn how to throw with two different hands. It’s not how I expected things to go. I still dream of throwing that perfect flick huck like I used to. I’m not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But I’m going to keep working as if it’s possible.”
He stares off toward the rafters as if suddenly in a first person recollection, watching the disc rotate off the tip of his middle finger and sail off toward a distant receiver at Chicago Heavyweights or Colorado Cup back before a bomb went off in his elbow.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”
And after watching that scoober fly over my head, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Ben Banyas will be raising money for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh at every tournament he attends in 2017 through his “Throw Every Day” initiative. So if you see him and you’ve got a dollar in your pocket and a few throws to launch, don’t hesitate to say hello.