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.


At February 02, 2006 9:49 PM, Blogger parinella said...

Boy, the way you make these characters come alive, I feel like I know them!

At February 03, 2006 11:04 AM, Blogger Alex de Frondeville said...

Yup. Familiar names, one and all. Can't wait to find out if you moved to Boston or San Francisco (Wait! I know the answer...).

BTW, make your comments settings so that it pops up in a separate window. Easier to manage.

At February 03, 2006 3:37 PM, Blogger Billy said...

So, here I am, the poor little newbie blogger, and I am getting subtly chapped by two legendary blogger bullies. I don't know whether to be flattered or hurt.

I guess all I can do is try to embellish my true life story.

Then there is Flash giving me a hard time for not starting with the golden stories, and he can't even get his second post off the ground.

By the way Alex, thanks for the tip about the comments window. But I'm not sure I want to encourage you guys.

Gotta go so I can create some better history.

At February 03, 2006 4:15 PM, Blogger parinella said...

Wah, wah, wah. More like "ShortFatBaby".

At February 03, 2006 4:32 PM, Blogger Billy said...

Now THAT is funny!

Speaking of which ...
... isn't it about time we changed the name to "ShortFatOldGuys"?

How embarrassing would it be to lose to THAT team?

At February 05, 2006 3:05 PM, Blogger parinella said...

I think the name is a little too close to home.

At February 05, 2006 10:54 PM, Blogger luke said...

what about team name 'YOURMOM'
i'll work on it...

don't let stadlter and waldorf get you down... they're prettty much down to the 'no nose... how does it smelll ... horrible... ha ha ha...' level...

At February 06, 2006 10:36 AM, Blogger parinella said...

I don't know if a team ever called themselves this, but Sackley says he was on a team called "With Our Johnsons."

At February 06, 2006 4:26 PM, Blogger Billy said...

Reminds me of Worm's favorite unrealized team name, "The Tournament Director's an Asshole."

Tough to cheer for, but funny to hear announced over the P.A. system.

Then there was the team name I always wanted to use, "The Ultimate Missonaries". Uniforms - Black Shirts, little white collars. Endless cheers: "We're always on top!" or the other direction, "We will convert you."

Come on ... funny ... right?

The all-catholic team at west coast Fools did actually have this uniform one year. We lost to the all-jewish team in the semis in what was billed as the "Holy Crusade." Wait, I'm getting ahead of my own blog here. Damn.

At February 15, 2008 5:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi.nice blog.I am fresh jobseeker.please help me that where can i get
links of free job posts sites.
Thank you.....


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