Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Starting at the Bottom

For the remainder of that winter, I played with the lower San Francisco team. After a few weeks of playing and talking and drinking after games in the park, I started to get the lay of the land out west.

Apparently, the top of the top was a team called “Tsunami.” They were the best players from all over the Bay Area and as far south as Santa Cruz. They were untouchable gods. Next step down was a team forming in the east bay with young guns and wily vets. Next step down was the new, competitive half of the San Francisco city crowd. They took the name Acme. I hated them.

Then there was us. The lowest link on the food chain. The Wild Bunch. We hadn’t taken the name immediately. There wasn’t much of a need for a name if you could never get enough people interested to go to a tournament. Hell, we could barely get fourteen people for a practice. Or even twelve. Usually a good, mediocre ten could be counted on.

While I was excited to be playing ultimate, I was not encouraged by the progress of our group. Never the same aggregation twice. Lots of wandering in and out of the loose gatherings we called practices. No real leaders beyond the guys that were willing to host a beer party at their house after playing. I was grateful to these guys for giving me a chance, but I wanted more.

Paul and his roommate had spent one long, rainy Saturday night teaching me to lay out for the disc. When it became apparent that no one beyond the three of us was going to brave the cool, wet conditions, Paul decided that a soggy, muddy field was perfect for teaching the art of launching for a disc. Throw after throw, time after time, he threw it beyond my reach and insisted that I catch it. Running hard, I would sometimes catch up with the overthrown disc on the small field without hitting the ground. “No, no! Slow down if you have to, but go hard at the end. Then launch.”

At first I was slightly hesitant, landing awkwardly, knocking the wind out of myself. He just laughed and said, “Try it again. Stop thinking and just do it.” By the end of the night, I had it. Or at least, I was getting close. I learned how to spread the impact over my torso. How to relax slightly, without allowing elbows or knees to hit first. I even began to enjoy the feeling of gliding along the sopping grass, disc in hand, smile on my face. Now I just had to incorporate making the play around another player. Baby steps.

I believe it was sometime in February or March when the pick-up games expanded to the polo fields in the western end of Golden Gate Park. On Sunday afternoons, there were increasingly large gatherings of ultimate players - men and women. The games were played with a fluctuating “first one back to the line” kind of hierarchy. Mostly, there was a continuous flow of players in and out of the lines. Generally, it was all men on the line, but when there were women, they lined up against each other. The days were cool and generally sunny. When it was rainy or unusually cold and foggy the turn-out was noticeably worse.

Occasionally, towards the end of the day, the game would evolve into a contest between teams mostly composed of Acme (those guys) pitted against the Wild Bunch (or whatever we were). At these times, the competition would start to heat up. Not nearly as much laughing and goofing around. It was a little more serious. There was still some bad blood between the few Wild Bunch players that felt slighted and there was a concerted effort on the part of the Acme players to prove that they had made the right decision to break off. Then there was me. I was still trying to learn the game, but I just knew that I could be as good as most of those damn Acme guys. I just needed a little coaching and some more experience. Unfortunately for me and underdog lovers everywhere, we always got soundly trounced. Never much of a contest. We generally celebrated excessively during the few times we managed to score. They just buckled down and crushed us even harder.

There were always women on the sidelines, mostly spectating after playing. They enjoyed the one sided contests. Mostly they dated the Acme guys. We earned their pity, but not much more.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, while the early, mixed game was proceeding, I noticed a new face on the field. There were always new people showing up. There was no shortage of players in the Bay Area, but there seemed to be a shortage of people that were willing to commit to more than one casual game every month or so when the weather was right.

This new guy was different. Not only was he better than most of the players out there, he also didn’t seem to have the ego that some of the Acme players sported. At one point he and I were taking the line on the same end of the field.

“Hey, my name is Bill.”

“I’m Mike Pomeroy,” he said shaking my hand and smiling.

“You new out here?”

“Yep, just glad to find a game of ultimate.” He was about five foot ten and completely ripped. Head to toe, no body fat visible. Not in an Arnold Schwartzeneger way, but in a rock climber way. Loose mop of blondish hair and light blue eyes. He wouldn’t have any trouble attracting the ladies.

As the point unfolded, I came to appreciate some of what he brought to the field. At this time, I was one of the main cutters for the ragged Wild Bunch. My five foot six inch frame wasn’t much of a deep threat, but they knew that I would keep running around out there until I got open. Once in a while, when one of the more competent throwers got the disc, I would break deep and hope for a long leading pass. I couldn’t do much if it floated, but I could beat just about anyone on the field in a sprint to the endzone.

So, as this particular point progressed with the usual number of annoying turnovers and slack defense, there was a chance for me to go deep. Mike Chico caught the disc on the left side at about mid-field. I was 15 yards down field in the center. I broke deep knowing noone would catch me. One of the Acme players was covering me and I was savoring the chance to roast him for the score.

I take off with one glance back to my left. Disc in the air and my defender falling behind. Just like I like it. No problem. All mine. Except, as I start accelerating to meet the disc, I am overtaken by a blur rushing past me on my right. Startled, I realize that it is this Mike guy, and he is pulling away from me like I am standing still. I, and everyone else, watch as he easily catches the score and quietly drops the disc, not even breathing hard.

As I look back on this moment, and many others when Mike and I were playing together, I can more completely appreciate his ability. When I was new to the game, say, in that long ago winter in San Francisco, I hadn’t encountered too many people that could outrun me. So, when Mike blazed past me with little effort, I was shocked. Now, thinking about it through the filter of hundreds of tournaments and decades of playing against thousands of opponents, I realize that there were only a few other players that made me feel as slow as he did. And mind you, I was still young and in shape back then. The various injuries were years in the future. Mike Pomeroy demolished the top speed I could ever muster.

And the best thing of all, he didn’t want to play with the Acme guys.

Once they got scorched by him in those informal games in the park, they knew enough to want to have him on their side rather than chance facing him when it might matter a little more. He wasn’t interested.

He had sussed out the situation, the various players, the attitudes and the expectations, he decided he would rather hang out with the low key losers than with the ego-inflated Acme players. Thank god. It was all the difference for me.

At this time, I was getting to the point where I was thinking that I might just give up playing. I wasn’t getting any better because I wasn’t playing with anyone that could teach me much more than I already knew. We were getting beaten consistently whenever we managed to cobble together a team to play in the one day Northern California Ultimate League (NUCL) [pronounced “knuckle”] tournaments (a group of mostly informal corporate teams around the Bay Area). I was starting to think that maybe I should concentrate on work with the occasional bike ride to stay in shape.

Then Mike Pomeroy waltzed into San Francisco. He and I and another infrequent ultimate player, Tom Asher, ended up being close friends and having many off field laughs and memories. But it was the fact that Mike was going to be on the field and at practice that kept me playing with the Wild Bunch. I remember multiple times when, during a heavily foggy day, I would ride my bike out to practice in the park and the only other players that would show up would be Mike Pomeroy and Leon. Leon was, at the time, in his late forties, married, with grown children. He played ultimate simply because he loved it. He played with the Wild Bunch simply because we were the only team that would have him.

It was during these times that Mike and I would start throwing and talking. Talking about how we wished we could play - the circumstances, the opportunities to compete. To prove that we could play with really good players and hold our own. That is what we wanted. Me even more so than him.

My playing days with the Wild Bunch and Mike Pomeroy culminated in our afternoon playing in the NCUL “B” division championships. A single Saturday afternoon round-robin that would determine the ranking of the lowest ten corporate, co-ed, and pick-up teams around the Bay Area. The top team would have a chance to play in the “A” division tourney two weeks later. Since the Wild Bunch hadn’t managed to win more than a handful of games in multiple weekends playing against these same teams, I wasn’t holding out much hope for greatness. Especially considering the fact that we didn’t even have our “A” team competing. Some of our better athletes were non-committal types that only showed up when it was convenient for them. Apparently, this particular weekend in late May wasn’t very convenient.

We had our usual assortment of enthusiastic guys that had never played much in the way of sports before ultimate. They loved playing, but the rudiments of 1) catching, 2) throwing, and 3) running were too much. They could all do one or two of the basics, but very few could do all three.

But we also had Mike Pomeroy this time.

It was surprisingly warm that afternoon at Roble field on Stanford’s campus. Tucked in a back northwest corner, Roble could only accommodate two full length and slightly narrow fields. You could squeeze another short field in if you were willing to truncate the other two pitches. This was the grand venue for NUCL B finals.

Somehow at this point, I guess out of sheer force of will on my part and general apathy on my teammate’s part, I had become the captain for our team. After our first game, which we surprisingly won, another one of the team captains came up to me.

“Hey, are you the captain of The Wild Bunch?” He is only half containing his obvious disdain for our team and me as a captain.

“Yeah. Why?”

“I’m Frank. Captain of the Hammer Heads. We play you guys in the last round today.”

“OK. So?” I’m not sure what he’s getting at and we have another game coming up immediately.

“Well, we were hoping to squeeze our game in against you guys earlier. What do you think?”

“I think that we have a game right now. I also think that we might as well stick to the schedule since there is limited field space anyway.” I am walking away to meet the rest of my team in the shade.

“Whatever. Maybe not now, but after the next round?” he’s pushing and I don’t like it.

“We’ll see.”

We play the next round, and shockingly, win again. Mostly our games can be summarized in a few phrases:

...Opponent turns it over. Mike Pomeroy breaks deep. Dan Handler or Mike Chico throw it long. Mike out-runs or out-jumps everyone for the disc.

...Wild Bunch has the disc. Bill runs around, fast, not stopping until his guy gets too tired to chase him. Eventually they throw a short pass to Bill in the endzone.

...Opponent tries throwing it to Mike Pomeroy’s guy. Mike gets a sick layout D. Mike or Bill break deep. Throw goes up. Score for the Wild Bunch.

So the day progresses. Improbably, we continue to win our games. Irritatingly, after each game it seems, Frank from the Hammer Heads keeps coming up to me, trying to squeeze our last round game against them into the intermission between succeeding rounds.

“Listen, what is the problem? Why don’t you just play us at the end when it is scheduled?” I ask him. Not only am I irritated, but I am dehydrated and exhausted. Its hot and we don’t have many subs. I don’t need this asshole in my face after every game.

He explains it all so reasonably to me, “We’re going to win this thing anyway and a bunch of us are supposed to be at a pool party this afternoon. We’d just like to get this out of the way and get to the party.”

Being the nice, understanding guy that I am, I reply, “Forget it! We’ll play you at the end like we’re scheduled. There’s no extra field space anyway.”

I can see that he is pissed, but I couldn’t care less. “You guys should either have figured on being late for the party or not shown up here.” I am walking away, too tired to deal with this any more.

“You little prick!” He is definitely not trying to be my next best ultimate pal.

We play our fourth game and manage to win. Apparently, Frank and the Hammerheads are, so far, equal to his boasting and have also won every game. Thus, the final game will be for all the marbles. Yes, the next hour or two would decide the Grand Champion of the NCUL B Division. The magnitude of the moment can not be overstated.

Unfortunately, it appears the unusual spring heat, lack of conditioning, and perhaps a little too much partying for some have taken a toll on the fearsome Wild Bunch line up. We are down to eight willing bodies. A couple of whom are mostly going through the motions at this point. A couple more of whom might as well be. This would be bad enough, but the other shoe falls just as I am rallying the troops to get out from under the surrounding shade trees to start warming up. Mike Pomeroy has had enough.

We’re doomed.

I am trying to be reasonable about the situation. It is hot. In the grand scheme of things, this one little game on this particular day doesn’t mean anything. It is certainly not worth anyone getting injured or, worse, heat stroke over.

I drop to my knees and beg Mike.

“Come on ...” [whine...whine...whine] “...we’re so close to actually winning a tournament...” [snivel...sob] “...look at what we have left to work with.”

We glance over at our line:

There’s Greg with the pony tail and glasses. He has managed to catch nearly 50 percent of the throws that have hit his hands. This is a good day. Next to him is Anthony. He can actually get open often and usually catches the disc. Unfortunately, his throw completion rate is hovering somewhere in the vicinity of 60 percent.

Jeff has some disc skills and some veteran savvy. His problem is getting his beer belly moving and then, changing direction without falling over. Mike Chico and Dan Handler are both solid. They have better throws than me and actually try on defense. The remaining couple of players fall somewhere in between.

I look at Mike, “Come on. We need you.”

He looks at me, “Listen, I would. I really wish I could. But I feel like shit. I’m trying to drink as much water as possible, but it’s almost gagging me. That can’t be too good a sign.” He has played out of his head for just about every point of the day. Many of those points were long, drawn out turnover fests.

As I stand up, looking down at Mike, I try to decide what the best course of action is. I turn and head out to the field. We’ll just give it everything we’ve got.

Frank walks across the field for the disc flip. His first words to me are encouraging. “Happy? Huh? Now we’re all late for our damn party.”

“Even or odd?” I ask, choosing to ignore him.

“You are such a shit. Why couldn’t you just have played us earlier?”

“What is your fucking problem?” I have just about had it. This is not the world championships for gods’ sake.

“Whatever, go back to your sorry team so we can beat you and get out of here.”

We lose the flip. They elect to receive.

On the line, I try to get someone else to cover barrel-chested Frank. He of one black glove on his throwing hand. I don’t really need that big galoot taking his frustrations out on me today.

No one else will take him. Fine. Fine. I’ll take him and run him until he pukes.

I sprint down the field and arrive a second after Frank claps the pull between his hands. I start the stall count and keep a half step off. For whatever else he is, Dan has told me that Frank can, and will, throw just about anything at any time. I get to about “three” when Frank rears back for a huge backhand huck. As I start to shift across to cut off the open angle, he lets fly. In his follow through, his backhand swings wide and crashes into my jaw.

A flash of white and a brief roaring noise in my head. I’m shocked not only by the impact but also in the sure knowledge that it was intentional. I try to shake it off as I step back.

Smirking at me, Frank leans forward and yells, “Foul!” right into my face. Then adds for good measure, “How do you like that you fucking pussy?”

The throw was complete for a score. Frank chuckles as he jogs down to the far end of the field. I’m still a little stunned by the whole exchange. I hold my right hand up to my cheek. There’s a little blood due to a scrape from something on the back of Frank’s Glove. All my teeth are in place, but my neck hurts a little bit. Then the adrenaline starts to take hold. We may lose, but I will do everything I can to smother Frank and his laughing scum teammates.

“What the FUCK was that all about?!” Mike Pomeroy, having witnessed the events from the sideline is outraged. He is hauling himself up by the tree trunk. He starts stiffly shaking out his legs as he sways out onto the field.

“Did I just see that? Did he just hit you? Did he really call you a ‘Fucking Pussy’?”

“That about sums it up.”

The rest of the Wild Bunch has gathered at our end of the field. The ones that saw it can’t believe it. The others are asking for details.

“Hey! You guys want a timeout or are you going to get on the line?” Frank yells. His team thinks it is quite witty.

The Wild Bunch, including me with a huge load of adrenaline coursing through my veins and a furious Mike Pomeroy, stalk to the line. Our hands go up. The hammer falls on the Hammer Heads.

I’m not going to lie and say we destroyed them. Also, it was no epic contest elevated to stratospheric heights by the force of wills battling for the dominion of Good or Evil. No, it was typically sloppy, with moments of minor brilliance. But we tried harder than we ever had.

Dan and Mike Chico play great. Anthony takes care of the disc by throwing mostly dumps and easy swings. Mike Pomeroy is simply a monster. He is catching everything whether it was thrown to him or not. On defense, I don’t know exactly how many blocks he had, but eventually he had to start poaching because they wouldn’t throw it anywhere near his man.

I had the exquisite joy of getting a couple blocks on Frank while shutting down many of his ridiculous spiral cuts that circle back and around the disc constantly. I also schooled him up and down the field mercilessly.

It all came down to next point wins. They are pulling to us. I don’t recall any particular words exchanged on the line. I think Dan said something along the lines of, “Let’s take our time, score this point, beat these fucks, and drink some beer.” We are all completely spent, but it was enough.

We slowly, agonizingly, push the disc down the field. Finally, there is an open receiver in the back of the end zone. The throw goes up, it looks good until a Hammer Head steps in front of it. With a quick swing, Frank gets the disc with no marker, he has a man sprinting down field, let’s it fly. In horror and desperation, I turn and start digging after the throw, “maybe it will float ... maybe ... something.” I just can’t allow us to lose. Not now. Not after this day.

I look down field, my cramping legs starting to give up. Mike Pomeroy, coming from nowhere, is leaping high over the complacent receiver. He comes down with the interception. With a quick flick, it is in Mike Chico’s hands. He throws a rocket of a forehand to young James five yards from the goal line. Bobbling it, James cradles the disc as he sinks to his knees to secure the catch. The stall count is mounting. There is absolute chaos in the endzone. I am staggering towards the disc from 25 yards away screaming, “Dump!” James has set the wrong foot as a pivot. He is desperately swaying back and forth, both hands on the disc as the marker presses, “Eight ... Nine ...” James let’s fly with a sky-high blade as he falls backwards.

I can still see the slow motion arc of that dying quail of a throw. It is knifing down towards a pack of at least five players all jostling for position in the endzone. I am sickened by the thought of the moment to follow. As all seems lost, I see a single hand rising above the crowd. There is a macrame bracelet on it. The disc punches into the palm and sticks like it is rooted there forever. The mass of swarming bodies collapses. At its center is ponytailed Greg, disc held aloft in a mixture of jubilation and disbelief. The dawning smile on his face is making me laugh as we mob him.

Mike Pomeroy crumbled at mid-field right after he saw the score. The rest of us are slapping Greg on the back and screaming in delicious victory. The Hammer Heads and Frank Hugenard walk off quickly. Now they can finally get to their party. I don’t have enough energy left to expend any on them.

For a couple hours after that game, we all sat around and drank cold beer and ate potato chips while laughing and recalling how great we actually weren’t. Mike Pomeroy began vomiting about 5 minutes after the game. We put ice on his head and gave him water, refusing to let him have any beer. That was the extent of our medical attention.

As the evening began to settle, cooling off the air, our players started heading off home. My head was swimming from a combination of too little food, too much beer, and the sweet taste of unexpected victory. Mike started coming around and we started laughing about various moments from the day. We drove off exhausted, buzzed and happy.

It has always been one of the greatest victories throughout my many years of playing.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Head West Young Man ... Whoa, Where do You Think You’re Going?

The Utah desert is flashing by at 80 miles an hour. A blur of dust and smoky greys, browns, and distant pastels. No air conditioning in the car. Windows down to offset the oven-like heat. U2 blaring out of the speakers. It is September 1987 and I am off to San Francisco.

I am heading away back home. I had lived in Marin county, north of San Francisco, from ages seven to thirteen. I am familiar enough with the area to know that I love the geography and the weather. I know that Sandy, my college girlfriend, is living with her parents in the South Bay while going to graduate school. I also know that what seemed to be my best job offer came from a small civil/structural engineering firm in downtown San Francisco. When everything in the universe points in one direction, I eventually get the message.

Before leaving New England, I called Gary. “Yeah, I finally decided on the job in San Fran.”

He’s not too happy. He was hoping that I’d be moving to Boston and we’d end up rooming together while taking the town and the ultimate scene over by sheer force of will. That is, as long as we hadn’t torn each other’s faces off first. We get along great, as long as we are not confined alone in close quarters for long periods of time.

“Well, as soon as you get sick of it out there, let me know. I’ll help you find a job in Boston. They need engineers there too, you know.”

I appreciate his friendship more than I ever really tell him.

“You sure they have ultimate teams in San Francisco?”

“Yeah. Definitely. There’s a really good team called ... uhhhh ... Flying Circus out there. Great name.”

“Any other not-really-great teams?” I ask, being more realistic.

“There must be. You’ll find ‘em if you look around.”

Mind you, this is in the day before the internet, before news groups and web logs. This is still in the informational stone age. Ok, maybe not stone age, but not much better than the bronze age when compared to the resources that an aspiring ultimate player has at their disposal these days. Also, there was the fact that it was still a definite fringe, cult sport. Almost nobody had heard of it unless they had personally played. OK, that hasn't changed much, but it was even worse back then.

My job, my relationship, my unsettled housing situation were all much higher up on the priority ladder than some silly sport is. But, deep down, lying quietly in the dark corners of my self, was a small but strong desire to continue playing. I hadn’t quite scratched the itch completely.

After two months of living at my girlfriend’s parent’s house, commuting by train to The City, I was still trying to come to grips with life outside of college. As an immediate reminder that I was in the Real World™ now, I called my new boss the Friday afternoon when I first arrived in the Bay Area.

“So, when do you want me to start?”

“Well, immediately, if that works for you.”

Full of gusto, “Sure, that would be great.”

“Good, we’ll see you on Monday at around eight AM then.”

“Um,” I say, not wanting to be too much of a pain immediately, “Isn’t Monday Columbus Day?”

“Yes,” slight chuckle, “but we’ll all be working here if you want to join us.”

A mental slap of my palm to my head. You’re not in college anymore Toto. Columbus Day is just another day to work. Man, am I really ready for this?

“I’ll be there by eight.” Doh!

Once I moved up to the city and into my own apartment, I started to realize how much I liked this concept of getting paid to do what I was doing in college. As a huge bonus, I actually laughed to myself each night when I went home without homework. No problem sets, no papers, no long nights of frustration spent banging a keyboard trying to debug ten thousand lines of poorly conceived computer code. I was free after work hours and on weekends. This feeling of overwhelming relief at the lack of homework would stick with me for at least ten years. No joke.

Now all I had to do was find someone to do something with.

Sandy was too busy during the week - and also many weekends - to get together. I knew absolutely no one outside of work. I started riding my bike around Golden Gate Park, prowling for signs of an ultimate game.

One Saturday afternoon, sometime in January or February, I am riding my bike along the south edge of the park enjoying the brisk but sunny day. No more shoveling driveways for me. I glance into a glade to my right. I see an upside-down disc sailing through the air. A little high, a little wobbly. But definitely an ultimate throw. Someone in the dozens down there knows how to play.

I brake to a stop and quickly zero in on two guys throwing confidently back and forth. Pivots, forehands, backhands. No wobbly “beach backhands” or sailing, flailing back-over-the-thrower’s-head ducks. This what I have been looking for.

I pedal towards them, drop my bike to the side, “Hey there. You guys play ultimate?”

The one nearest to me, long brownish near-dreadlocks, turns and smiles, “Yep. Wanna throw?” That’s all the invitation I need.

After about an hour of throwing, catching, jumping, cutting, we wind it down. Ed and Paul are their names. They have asked me about my extent of playing ultimate, where I came from, where I am living. They have provided me with the information that, yes, there is a game here most every Sunday around two o’clock. They say I’d be welcome to stop by anytime.

I pedal home totally psyched. I have managed to find my niche. The sport I am psyched to play and a group of people with an instant common bond. Both exactly what I needed. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s game so much that it is hard to sleep that night.

The next day doesn’t go exactly as I had envisioned it. In fact, it is basically a kick in the stomach. I show up early and start throwing with the few people that are there already. I haven’t become familiar with the concept of Ultimate Time yet. Cleats on, legs strong, slight sweat starting up, I notice the gathering throng. At least 30 players mostly men, a few women. The skill level seems to vary greatly. As does the apparent athleticism and degree of fitness.

Just as I think it is about time to break up into teams to start playing, one guys speaks up. He says something along the lines that it is time for a change. Things can’t stay the way they are. Apparently, this huge, structure-less mass has been a single team. Apparently, there are players that feel that it is time to “get serious”, to “demand commitment” to “try to get far at regionals.” Apparently, there is going to be a splitting of the group. And it appears to be happening today.

The guy in charge, Jeff, is gesturing as he says, “Everyone that wants to be serious, train hard, and practice, head over here,” he is pointing to his near right, “Everyone that simply wants to have fun and goof around, move over there.” Indifferent wave to the far left.

Now, I have played sports my whole life. First baseball for eight years. That was overlapped and exceeded by soccer for twelve years. Five years of diving including all four years of college. I know that I am not going to be a professional athlete, but I also know that I can’t be satisfied without a competitive outlet in my life. I need it like food and water. I head over towards the “serious” group off to the right.

“Hey. Whoa. Where are you heading? Who are you?”

I hesitate, he’s talking to me? “I’m going with this group. My name’s Bill.”

“Yeah, well Bill, how long have you been playing?” Sneering skepticism.

“A little over a year. But I’m pretty fast and I was learning the game this last summer.”

Just as he suspected, “Well, that’s nice, but we’re not looking to take on newbies.” I am starting to bristle. “Why don’t you just head over there with those guys. Learn the game a bit. Then maybe you can try out with us.” He’s already dismissed me.

“Listen! Why don’t you just give me a look, then decide.” I am pissed.

“Right, well we already have to make cuts, so ... forget it.”

Shaking my head in frustration and anger, I veer towards the “loser” group. My pals from the day before, Ed and Paul are there. They are happy to see me. I am less than happy to be with them. But I suppose it is better than nothing.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Is There Ultimate After College?

College ended and my days of playing ultimate were done. At least, that is what I assumed. Immediately after graduating, despite not having a post-college job lined up, I headed off for a five week trip through Europe. The first ten days were spent traveling with my girlfriend. After that, she joined up with some of her college friends, and I met up with my closest high school buddy - one of my original ultimate teammates. I managed to pack a disc with me and we actually tossed a few times in Amsterdam, outside the Black Forest, and on the French Riviera (although it was difficult to concentrate with the scenery exposed before our eyes).

After returning to Connecticut, I picked up my old summer job with an architecture firm in Hartford and started mass-mailing resumes to engineering firms around the country. I mainly concentrated on the Boston area (where Gary and other college friends were heading) and San Francisco (where my girlfriend was going to graduate school). As I anxiously awaited responses, I obsessively rode my bicycle - about 200 miles a week, as much as 120 miles on some Saturdays. And played softball on the company team (I think I was originally hired because I could play centerfield, my drafting abilities were merely a bonus for them).

In the midst of my employment turmoil, I get a call from Gary who has returned to Worcester to begin his own job hunt (a separate and very long story).

“Hey, how are you doing?” he asks.

“Well, let’s see. I just got done spending almost every dollar I have in Europe. I still don’t have a real job. My mother is charging me rent to live in my own bedroom. I’m not sure if Sandy and I are actually still dating while we’re 3,000 miles apart. And my dog is getting distressingly old. Other than that, I’d say I’m just fine.”

Gary, in his best casual voice, “What are you doing next weekend?”

“You mean other than trying to find a job and get the hell out of Connecticut? Oh, nothing.”

“Good. There’s a big ultimate tournament in Ottawa Canada. I’ve got most of a team together. Bunch of people from Wash U, plus some guys from around here. Wanna go?”

“Are you crazy?” Pause. Considering the alternatives. “How far a drive is it to Ottawa?”

“Maybe five hours. Tops. Out on Friday afternoon, back late Sunday night.”

I’m weakening, “I don’t know. I’ve got so much ... not ... going on.”

“Come on, we’re out of college.” Then he comes with one of the most ironic lines I will probably hear in my entire life, “This may be our last chance to play together. Hell, this will probably be the last time we ever play ultimate.”

That does it. He’s right. Why not go to this crazy No Borders tournament in faraway Ottawa to spend one last glorious weekend playing a game. Time enough to grow up once I get a real job.

In mid-July 1987, we headed up to Ottawa. Chris, my high school ultimate friend, is driving with me. Gary allowed him to join the team even though he never played college ultimate. It wasn’t until we got to Canada that I found out that we only had about 14 players, including two women and Gary’s older brother who hasn’t played ultimate for at least 5 years and never above casual pick-up level.

Our team name was a matter that Gary and I had actually talked about back in St. Louis. It was, at least to me at the time, mainly a hypothetical discussion of “What would be the best name for an ultimate team?” I think the closing reasoning could be distilled down to our final few thoughts.

Gary says something along the lines of, “You want a team name that isn’t too cliche.”

I added, “Yeah, but you also don’t want something too cutesy or , you know, so obscure that no one gets it.”

“Clever, without being too much of an inside kind of joke.”

“Yep. Something like that. Not too serious, not too stupid. And something you can cheer from the sidelines would help.”

Gary pauses, then switches tacks, “What would be the worst team to lose to?”

“What do you mean?” I’m not sure where he’s going with this.

“Like, when another team asks you, ‘Who do you play next?’ you can say, “The Titans” or you can say, ‘The Fluffy Bunnies.’”

[Actually, as an aside, I don’t exactly recall these conversations or many of these details I’m recounting, I’m just fleshing out the nebulous interstices between the moments I do recall. Hey maybe I can write a memoir and get on Oprah with that kind of attitude. But I digress. What prompted this aside is the fact that part of me actually likes the name of the team I just came up with, “The Fluffy Bunnies.” Think of the cheers. Think of the shirts. Think of the appeal to the chicks. OK, maybe not. But it is still kind of funny to me.]

“So, you’re picturing a scene where a team is coming off the field and another team is asking them, ‘Who did you guys just lose to?’” I’m asking as much as saying.

“Yeah, exactly! And that is the moment you want your team name to come rolling off their tongue. For them to have to admit they lost to ... I don’t know ... the Blind Nuns.”

Getting into the spirit of the contemplation, I jump in with, “Yeah. It’s one thing to mention that you just lost to a bunch of tall, athletic guys on Team Rambo.”

“While, it is quite another thing to admit that you are trudging off a field after being beaten into submission by a bunch of ... uh ... short, fat guys.”

We both look at each other. We simultaneously recognize the genius of the moment.

“The Short Fat Guys!” In unison.

“That’s it! No one wants to announce that they just lost to a bunch of Short Fat Guys.”

We were laughing and congratulating ourselves with conceiving of the greatest ultimate team name ever. Too bad it would probably never be emblazoned on a uniform.

At the hotel in Ottawa on Friday night, Gary hands out the dark green t-shirts that he has printed for the team. Across the chest, in spindly white lettering, “ShortFatGuys.” All one word. Underneath that, there is an outline drawing of a short, rotund, caricature completely horizontal, his stubby, outstretched arms about to snare a disc. His shirt straining to contain his stomach has no chance of staying near his waist band. I see it. I immediately recall our conversation late one night, months ago, and half-way across the country. I smile. I begin to laugh. It’s perfect.

We hit the fields the next day. I am buoyant with excitement. It is about 100 degrees. We win some, we lose some.

At the team dinner that night, Gary decides to tell the hostess that it is Steve’s birthday. Which it is not. So, at the end of the meal, as we are all sitting around relaxing, a large portion of the wait-staff clusters around Steve and, producing the cake and candle, begins the birthday serenade that we all immediately join in. It would become a ShortFatGuy tradition to last many years. One unlucky soul singled out for a surprise non-birthday birthday.

On Sunday, we scratch and claw our way into the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, our players are dropping like flies. We play the local Worcester team, Worm Town. It is a hard fought game. By the end, we have maybe 10 players standing. They win on the last point. The ShortFatGuys gather under a nearby tree for shade. Heads down, little moisture left to sweat out of our overheated bodies. We are spent and dejected.

Darren, the captain of Worm Town and, apparently, one of Gary’s local rivals back home, comes over to our circle. “Well, I just got done talking to my team.”

We all look up, not quite sure where this is headed.

“It seems that a lot of people are too hot and tired to play the semis. And some of us have to be home so we can get to work early tomorrow.”

Dawning realization that we may have an opening here.

“So, we would just rather, uh, forfeit our place in the semis to you guys. If you want to take it.”

Gary looks around at his bedraggled troops, “I’ll be right with you” he says to Darren.

“I’m hot.”

“I’m exhausted.”

“No way! I’m done!”

That’s the spirit! That’s the attitude that makes the ShortFatGuys ... short and fat.

“WHAT!?!” Gary can’t believe what he is hearing. “We have a chance to keep playing!”

“What time is it?” someone asks.

“Who the fuck cares what time it is? We can play in the semis. We have a chance to win this thing!” He is standing in the middle of us, slowly spinning so he can pin each person with his eyes. “Are you telling me you want to quit? Now?”

“Well, we didn’t actually win, so why should we keep playing?”

Now I’m up on my feet. This is making me sick. This is the last chance I have to play ultimate in my entire life and these little ninnies are willing to let two days of hundred degree temperatures and lack of adequate substitutes be an excuse? I am not going to let that happen.

Gary and I harangue our team, appealing to the lowliest metaphors and basest analogies that we can think of. We even try the inspirational and transcendent approach. We pull out all the stops. I expend so much energy that, by the end of our combined diatribe in the shade, I am light headed and wondering if I actually do have anything left for another game.

The team slowly concedes, one by one, to play on. I don’t know if I am relieved or fearful. We tell Worm Town. They tell our semis opponents of the change of plans.

Gary’s brother is going to sit this one out. Now, I probably wouldn’t mention this, except for the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this development. Jack had begun the weekend with a surprisingly dismissive attitude towards ultimate. As I have said, he had only a minimal amount of pick-up level experience with ultimate prior to the tournament. But he still maintained that ultimate wasn’t a “real sport.” “It doesn’t take any great skill or athleticism. Just about anyone off the street can pick it up and be good immediately.” That was his attitude before Ottawa.

He based his assessment on his long and distinguished involvement in martial arts - a real sport. After the first day, he conceded that some of the throws did take a certain amount of skill, but it was something that could be picked up quickly by anyone with a base level of coordination. He brushed off the fact that he struggled to cover the slowest of receivers on any team saying, “I’m just not familiar with the basic flow of the game. Give me a day or two and I would own most of these guys.”

By the time Sunday semis rolled around, Jack was completely spent. He was a pale, quivering mass huddled in the shade, clutching a water bottle. He wasn’t spewing much about how easy it was to play ultimate. Of course, he did end up getting admitted to the local Ottawa hospital for dehydration, heat exhaustion and severe electrolyte imbalance. He was in observation for three days before they allowed him to drive home.

But the important thing is, we showed him! Ultimate is too a real sport! Nyeah!

Semifinals. We are to play ... I can’t remember ... Electric Bus? Northern Bus? Yellow Bus? Magic Bus? Something Bus? I can’t remember. Anyway, Gary says that they are good. They won the tournament last year and are expected to win this year. They have a woman on the team, but she is as good as just about any guy on the field.

We have nine players still willing to drag their sorry carcasses onto the line. Gary and I are playing every point. He’s throwing. I’m running and catching. And trying not to throw it away. Towards the end of the game, when we still have a small, but real chance to win the game, we are playing defense. I’m chasing some rested son of a bitch around the field. He’s running like he knows he has plenty of subs waiting after this point - which he does. I’m running like a guy who has played almost every point in the tournament and I’m half delirious. They turn it over near our goal line. After a quick swing, Gary gets the disc with his backhand wide open. Standing five yards deep and all the way across the field, I gaze towards the far endzone to see who is cutting. No one. I look back at Gary. He’s looking at me as if to say, “Well? Are you going to cut deep or what?” I put my head down and take off.

My defender, sluggishly responds and starts chasing. “If he thinks he’s tired, he should try being me!” I am running for the open endzone, no defenders around, with all I have left. The long, scorching backhand goes up. I glance over my shoulder to track it. I shake my head as I look for another gear, “Does he really think I can catch up with that?”

I’m separating from my defender and gaining ground on the slowing disc, but I am also starting to feel like my legs are made of silly string. Just as the disc starts to settle about five yards short of the goal line - hovering about ten feet off the ground - my left leg buckles. I go down on one knee, still stepping forward with my right. That leg collapses as well. I am all alone, at least ten yards between me and the nearest defender. The disc is slowly settling two yards away from me. I am now on both knees, arching my back, straining my arms forward, head bowed back as if in supplication. “Please, allow me to somehow reach this one disc. That is all I want in life.”

I attempt to leap forward from my knees. My face plants with my hands slapping the ground beyond my head as the disc gently nestles in the grass two feet further down field.


I’m not sure if I actually managed to get my head up out of the dirt before they scooped up the disc and retaliated with a huck and score. It seemed very quick to me. It was the end of the game. They win. ShortFatGuys lose, again, today.

Later, Gary would laugh and compare the spectacle of my full field collapse with the penultimate scene in the movie “Platoon”. Elias bloodied and staggering, trying to outrun the entire Vietnamese army as the helicopters pull away. Down on one knee, up again, down on both knees, arms reaching to the unpitying god above as bullets riddle his convulsing body. I’m not sure I really like being the major role in that comparison.

I return back to West Hartford exhausted but happy. We didn’t win, but damn! was that fun. Now, to the business of finding a job.

But, that guy I met in Ottawa, the one that said he played somewhere in Connecticut and that I should call him. Where is that scrap of paper with his name and number? I scrounge through my back pack and find it. “Denis Cronin” it says, with a local phone number. On a whim, I call him a few days after No Borders.

“Hello, uh, this is Bill Layden, you gave me your number up in Ottawa. Told me to call you if I wanted to play ultimate in Connecticut.”

“Yeah, I remember you. Short, curly hair?”


“Well we play in Whethersfield on Tuesday nights. Can you make it?”

“Sure!” He gives me the specifics. I’m rationalizing to myself, “Well, I might as well stay in shape until I get a job. Might as well play ultimate for a little while longer.”

I drive down to Whethersfield the next week, full of trepidation. “What if I can’t throw well enough? What if I can’t keep up? What if they laugh me off the field?”

As I approach the end of the directions, I turn into a parking lot. I catch sight of a white disc blading across a field. I see the receiver turn and throw a forehand. Ultimate players for sure. I pull up and the butterflies start their migration through my innards.

I lace up my cleats and head out onto the field. This is the first time I have ever tried playing with a bunch of strangers. I know no one. I’m nervous. One guy I barely recognize comes up to me, hand outstretched, “Hi, I’m Dennis. You’re Bill, right?”

“Yeah. Thanks for letting me come out.”

“No problem. We always look forward to having new players.”

[Digression again. This was the prevailing attitude when I started playing. This was in 1987. I know it was still like this, a feeling of open camaraderie and eagerness to bring new people into the fold, for most of the years I played. Over the years, I noticed a subtle but definite change in attitudes. Not quite as welcoming. Not quite as open. I am assuming that this is partly due to the “higher level” of the sport I was associated with for a number of years. I am hoping that this is not a sport-wide shift. It will be a sad day when the local town team is not willing to accept the unknown newcomer. Not willing to include them in the warm social scene while nurturing an appreciation and knowledge of the game.]

As people start arriving at the field, Dennis introduces me around. They seem like a nice bunch of guys. Some of them look very athletic, some not. Of course, I have already learned that you can’t necessarily judge an ultimate player by how they look. Some of the guys I have played against haven’t looked threatening, but once they, somehow, managed to get the disc, they could kill you with a deep, pinpoint throw. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

I meet the regulars. Dan Powers. Mike Farris. Mark Somebody-or-other. A guy named Love. Many others. They are all nice to me. They don’t criticize me when my throws go astray or when my taller opponent catches the disc over me. They are too busy having fun and giving each other shit. When they do notice me, they compliment me and encourage me. I’m relaxing and having fun. I’m running with more abandon. Being more aggressive. At the end of practice, one of the best players comes up to me. He is a little intimidating, wearing a faux viking helmet with horns and all. His name is Lenny Engle. He says, “Listen, you’re pretty damn fast, you should keep playing this sport. I mean it. Seriously.”

I know he is just trying to be encouraging, but it makes me feel good.

Hopefully, I’m going to be moving soon. I secretly wish that there is some kind of ultimate team where ever I end up. I think I’d like to keep playing. Recreationally at least.