The following is an excerpt from Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession and My Wild Youth available now on Amazon.
Most people are surprised when they learn that Ultimate began on the East Coast. In the popular imagination all Frisbee games were born in California and played on a sunny day at the beach, or, perhaps, on a grassy bluff above the beach, and this vision would soon enough come true in places like Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. But the early days of Ultimate were all Jersey.
It wasn’t just that the game was born in the parking lot of Columbia High School in Maplewood either. Or the fact that first intercollegiate game in history was played on November 6, 1972, between Rutgers and Princeton. No, it wasn’t only that these people were the first: they were also, for a good stretch, the best. During the early 70s, the Rutgers team, with Irv “Dr. I” Kalb and Stork Roddik, not to mention numbered shirts, a team bus and a huge wooden scoreboard, won three straight national championships, though “national” at the time essentially meant the northeast and mid-Atlantic. While Rutgers took the game quite seriously, others were less earnest, and throughout the ‘70s there would be a kind of pulsing between the players’ desire to excel at the game and the original spirit of Joel Silver’s “anti-sport.” This was typified by the early Tufts’ team’s response to the numbered jerseys that Irv Kalb and the Rutgers team wore. The Tufts captains, Jim Pistrang and Ed Summers, wanting to puncture what they saw as the pomposity and over-seriousness of the three-time champions, decided that they would wear numbers, too. So the next time they played Rutgers the whole Tufts team sported shirts with the number 3 on their back.
A decade that would begin with Jersey’s dominance would end with the same. Glassboro State College, known in the Ultimate world as the ’Boro, would win what was by then a true National Championship in 1979 and repeat in 1980. Glassboro was a New Jersey college that focused on education and their team was made up of would-be teachers who played a zone defense, just like Rutgers, and ran something like basketball’s four corners offense to stall out the play clock after they got ahead.
The heart and soul of the ’Boro was Tom D’Urso, known to all as Timba. Timba, a skinny kid with a white man’s afro, had transferred to Glassboro as a sophomore and spent his first fall red-shirting for the cross-country team. While he waited to begin cross-country he was nagged by his roommate to come out to try a game called Ultimate that a bunch of guys were all playing on the quad below the President’s house. That spring he finally gave into the cajoling and within a week of his first practice his life was changed forever. It’s a familiar Ultimate story, but what distinguishes it is the sheer passion of both Timba and his team.
“If Springsteen were an Ultimate player, he’d have played for the ’Boro,” Timba, who would eventually see the Boss in concert more than seventy times, would say, and it’s hard to deny.
It wasn’t just the fact that another of the team’s stars, Frankie Bono, was Timba’s cousin that gave the team the feel of a family. They practiced every day on the sloped lawn below the President’s house and while they never did sprints or officially trained they felt they didn’t need to. “We played for two and a half hours every day and basically sprinted the whole time,” said Timba. For him it was good-bye to cross-country and hello to a group of guys he would stay close to for the next forty years: “We always gave each other shit, but I loved those guys then and I love them now. I made my closest friends out on that field.” This closeness translated almost immediately into wins. In 1979 the ’Boro won the National Championships by upsetting a Santa Barbara Condors team that had smoked them in round-robin pool play. Before that game they spent forty-five minutes dancing and singing, and blowing trumpets, and building themselves into a froth. In Pasquale Anthony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria’s comprehensive history, Ultimate—The First Four Decades, a Glassboro player describes the team’s method of warming up:
Our pre-game rituals evolved into a 30-minute psych-up rant, involving calisthenics, songs (with guitar accompaniment) and, finally, The Balok chant. “Balok” was a rubber dinosaur attached to a long pole. The name originated from a “Star Trek” episode featuring a character of that name. We started whispering “Balok” over and over again, slowly increasing the volume until everyone was screaming at the top of his lungs. . . . In addition, team players wore different outfits, including bathrobes, capes and helmets, creating an atmosphere that combined Mardi Gras and Halloween.
The frenzy spilled over onto the field and the ’Boro beat the Condors to win it all in 1979, following it up with a win over Boston Aereodisc the next year. Both games were decided by one goal.
“I was so ready to play,” said Timba of the first Nationals. “I knew we were going to win that day. We all had each others’ back. No one could have beaten us that day.”
After winning their second Nationals the ’Boro team was presented with a trophy, a large cup that rivaled Lord Stanley’s in size, and that Cup would become an important part of Glassboro lore. They took the Cup out to a bar and drank from it for hours, telling the bartender, “Just keep filling it up and let us know how much it costs.” Over the next decades that same cup would be passed from player to player and would attend countless weddings and several births, and even make it to the hospital room of one dying teammate, Dave Flood. Timba himself drank out of it the night before his wedding and then ate Cheerios out of it the next morning (despite rumors that it had been recently used to potty train another player’s child).