The following is an excerpt from Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession and My Wild Youth available now on Amazon.
It was during my sophomore year of college that ultimate began to devour the rest of my life. While my throws were still just developing, it was my hands that were my real strength as a player. During my freshman year I became obsessed with catching–“You are what you catch,” read a note on my wall over my desk–and this obsession, like most of mine, ran like a parent stream back to my father. When I was eight or nine I loved nothing more than playing football with him on our front lawn. He had been a scrappy high school athlete himself and would line up at quarterback, taking the imaginary snap, while I’d run patterns: buttonhooks and down-and-outs and square-outs. I remember the square-outs best because they sent me directly into the front hedges. He threw tight mean lefty spirals and if they were out of my reach I would dive for them, often ending up sprawled and cut in the bushes. If the ball tipped off my fingertips he always said the same thing: “If you can touch it you can catch it.” This was a phrase that stayed with me, sometimes resurfacing in my dreams. Now, playing Ultimate at eighteen, I felt I could catch anything, however poorly thrown.
My father loomed over my athletic life, and I suppose he still does. He is long gone, dead almost twenty years now, but he lives on in me in middle age whenever I bitterly lose a ping-pong game or fret to myself, the next day, over not having tossed a bocce ball better. His peculiar brand of competitiveness–cocksure, slightly crazed, nearly constant–marked my childhood in a thousand ways. From the rounds of “duck-duck goose” where if you dared tag him goose he would tag you right back (without once in recorded family history leaving his own seat), to the games of Hearts where I would run bawling from the room after he had stuck me, once again, with the deadly queen of spades.
He had gone to Harvard, and was a snob about it, though in his own unique and boisterous way. No Thurston Howell the Third, he had grown up in less than opulent surroundings in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was as much street urchin as patrician. The main thing he seemed to like about Harvard was that he could use it as a cudgel to bludgeon those of his friends who had gone to what he liked to refer to as “lesser” schools. He did this in an arrogant chortling manner that he thought funny. And it wasn’t just his buddies who he liked to tease and pick and prod. Many of us hear little whispers of doubt when we shoot a foul shot late in the game or serve on match point, but unlike most I have no problem putting a face to that whisper. Since I was more athletic than he was, he worked on my weakness: my young mind.
My father gradually learned that my less-competitive brother was better left unteased, and he also went a little easier on my two sisters. Whether this was subtly sexist or just inherent in the father-daughter relationship, I don’t know. For whatever reason I, the firstborn male, bore the brunt, which in retrospect I don’t really mind.
I do regret, however, that I never won our family’s coveted annual award, KID OF THE YEAR. My father gave the award at random times (often it seemed to me, more than once a year) and made quite a ceremony out of it for a few years running until my mother finally made him stop. During the peak years of the award he actually, to my mother’s chagrin, had trophies made up at Olympic Sports in downtown Worcester. They were just like the trophies you won at junior tennis or swimming competitions, but these little people, instead of serving or diving into the pool, just stood there doing nothing. KID OF THE YEAR was engraved on one trophy, and on another KID OF THE YEAR– RUNNER UP. I was never quite sure what the criteria for KID OF THE YEAR was, but as I got older I began to suspect that it was based on varying parts pity, whim, and perceived need. Whatever the case, the best I ever did was runner-up, and I began to understand that this was because it was assumed that I could take it, which by then I could. During one of the final years of the tournament, my mother insisted that, if he was going to give out the damn trophies, he better at least give everyone a trophy. This was much more in the spirit of equality popular in today’s schools, grating against my father’s child-rearing philosophy, which was equal parts Darwin and Teddy Roosevelt, but he relented and bought four trophies. At that year’s ceremony he made his usual speech before announcing the results and handing out the trophies in reverse order in the manner of beauty contests. It was a while ago and I don’t remember all the specifics, but I’m pretty sure my brother won and that I was handed either the first or second trophy. What I do know for certain is what it says on my trophy, because it sits here in front of me like a muse as I type. It reads:
KID OF THE YEAR: PARTICIPANT.