Friday, April 28, 2006

The New Kids

In the summer of ‘90, The Boot was trying to find a way to break through into the upper crust of the West Coast elite ultimate scene. We had a few exceptionally talented players, we had picked up yet more promising college graduates, and we still had the best of the veteran vanguard. Yet we still weren’t quite where we wanted to be.

As we approached June, we had also suffered some losses from our roster. Apparently our surprise success from last season had helped us in recruiting, but it had also attracted the attention of the vultures. The top Bay Area teams had swung their greedy gaze towards our team and had identified some potential reinforcements for their own stalwart ranks. We lost Dave Lippy, John “Truth” Knuth, and Will Debello to the hated Tsunami. Russell had headed south and was playing with the disgusting LA Iguana. Dante had ... drifted off in other pursuits. On the plus side, we picked up Mikey G. from Santa Cruz, Kyle from Kansas, and Raymo from ... outer space. We also got a couple of tryouts from back east.

Practice that summer had been moved to Half Moon Bay high school as an acknowledgment to the fact that the geographic center of the team had been drifting slightly south. It also happened to be within five minutes of Barney’s new home. Very convenient. It was an hour drive for just about everyone except the lucky, local one.

I remember one practice in particular. We are warming up on a bright and surprisingly warm summer afternoon in the middle of the high school football field. An unfamiliar car pulls up in the adjacent parking lot and two obvious ultimate players emerge. They quickly gather their stuff and head confidently towards the sidelines. I’m looking around our team for someone to acknowledge them as familiar. No one does. All eyes are on the new pair.

One of them is short, not much taller than me. He’s got thick framed, geeky-type glasses, longish hair, and an easy smile. The other is about five foot ten, rather heavy in frame, and looks pretty serious. In fact, he reminds me a little of Fred Flintstone.

They drop their stuff and cleat up. As they are exchanging greetings with some of the crew, they lace up and pull some plastic out of a bag. They seem ready to start playing, only I don’t have any idea who they are or what they are doing at our practice.

“I’m Billy,” I say extending a hand. “I guess you are here to play?”

Fred Flintstone takes charge, “I’m Danny and this is Benny. This is the Boot practice, right?”

A little bewildered I respond, “Yeah. Uh ... how did you know where to find us?”

“We just moved out here from New York. Albany and Birmingham. We talked to Raymo and he said this was the team to play on.”

Raymo hadn’t made it to practice that day. In fact, he didn’t make it too many of the practices that season. Yet, he was still a very competent player, and a great guy to have at the party. While Bryan From Hell and Dante were like sharks with the women, methodical and efficient machines, Raymo was more of a wolf. He was a little hairier, a little friendlier, a little less efficient. He was often more successful picking up the scraps from other’s attempts than from taking down the prey by himself.

In any event, he had apparently convinced these new college grads that The Boot was the new-wave team in the Bay Area. Raymo had originally had come from the upper New York state area, so he must have had a line on these guys. Either way, that was some sales job. Now we just had to find out if they could play.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I do know for sure that within the first half hour of that practice, a gauntlet was thrown down. I guess there might have been a couple of sly comments or open ended questions directed to the two newbies. Something must have triggered the pronouncement. Or maybe it was just the bravado boasting of the new kid trying to establish his turf. Either way, I remember Danny (the Fred Flintstone impersonator) announcing to the team in general that he could beat any of us in a full field sprint.

Now, you have to understand the circumstances. Here is this guy that is ... thick framed. Not heavy like average American heavy, but still, when compared to the typical top ultimate player’s build, he was large. Anyway, he is challenging all comers to a 70 yard sprint.

At the time, The Boot had a few players that would be some of the fastest players on most any teams in the west. Seth was just beginning to refine his combination of strength, speed, agility, and confidence into the presence that he would wield for a number of years at the top-most level of play. Mikey G. had just come out of UC Santa Cruz, but he was blazing fast and had some crazy defensive intensity that spoke to his internal competitiveness. And then there was me. I was not as young as Mikey G. and not as flashy or talented as Seth, but at 25 years old, I could still fly. It was really the one thing I had going for me. I could run fast - for a long time.

And here comes this blowhard, east coast college kid with a bit of a spare tire claiming he can beat any and all of us in a race.

The three Boot players looked around, nodded to each other, and gathered on the nearest endline. Danny, or rather “Dilly” as his preferred nickname, strode confidently out next to us. For a brief second, I considered the possibility that there might be more to this punk than met the eye. Maybe he could beat one or even all or us. Well, I was determined that it wasn’t going to be me. I think the rest of us must have been thinking the same thing.

With the sound of a, “Three, two, one ... GO!” we were off. Dilly finished fourth out of four. Maybe three steps separated him from the slowest of our trio. He seemed shocked and only slightly embarrassed. Benny heckled him from a full field away. We instantly knew we would like the Benny kid. We weren’t sure about Dilly. But he was certainly fast ... for a big guy.

By the end of practice, we had a better idea of what, exactly, had fallen into our team lap.

Benny was a pretty good player. OK disc skills. Good defensive intensity. Not as fast as maybe might be required at the top level, but he looked like he’d give his all. Besides, he was hilarious. His razor tongue and searchlight wit could hunt and destroy most anyone or anything without hesitation. His biggest target was himself - which always seems to sit well in a crowd - but given a little provocation, he could whittle down the biggest tree trunk of an ego to a shredded toothpick.

Dilly was big. Big all around. As stated before, he seemed to be too large to have the speed and hops that he evidently had. His throws were huge - and often. His ego was almost equally well developed. He was used to being the big fish in the little pond that was upper state New York college ultimate. He hadn’t had much exposure to the national level, but he was sure he could take on all comers there too. And he could laugh. While he maybe wasn’t as funny as his sidekick Benny, he was obviously smart. And he could take a good chap or two - or three.

After a few beers at the local burrito place in Half Moon Bay, I think both Worm and I figured they’d be perfect for The Boot.

By mid-June, we had started to put some of our pieces together. We had a core of intense, young defenders that could run forever. We had an offensive unit that relied on the speed of some of the youngsters to keep the disc moving, the big throws of the veterans and Dilly, and the receiving talents of “Big” Dave Smith, Kyle when he wasn’t injured, and Raymo when he could be enticed to show up, along with a few others.

We headed up to Eugene, Oregon for the Summer Solstice tournament. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we definitely aimed to break out of the cycle of “lose-close-pool-play-game-then-lose-tough-match-up-in-quarters” pattern that we seemed to be stuck in.

Saturday, I think we actually managed to win our pool. While the competition at Solstice wasn’t quite National caliber, there were some pretty good teams there. Combo teams and unusual mixes, but still most all the best players from the west, plus a few select others from around the country. It was a “fun” tourney, but you wouldn’t try telling that to the reigning, multi-repeating champs, the Long List of Whores (LLOW). Mostly a conglomeration of former and current Chicago studs, they were seriously talented and had an attitude to rival New York at their height. This was their once a year chance to gather their diaspora and reassert their male dominance.

Saturday night, I experienced my first Solstice party. Different from other tournament parties in many ways. First, it was located dozens of miles away from the fields, from Eugene, from ... well just about everything except trees and mountains. Second, it was a camping-only party. There were no hotels, motels, or even homes nearby. Everyone camped out within hearing range of the band and remote from everything else. Last, the isolation and the beautiful surroundings (a huge clearing in the middle of endless pine forests draped across rolling hills) was eminently conducive to both romance and “what-the-hell” excess.

That first year, I didn’t really avail myself of either the romantic or the bacchanalian opportunities. I was, maybe, a little too focused on ultimate. The Boot was finally looking like we could actually make some noise beyond the quarterfinals.

Sunday. Our first game was against a Las Positas /Chabot College reunion team. They had some serious club players (including Rojo and Kerry Karter) and some recently graduated and current college players that had won college nationals a few years before. This was the game we were always losing.

Not this tourney. A combination of too much intense defense, too many big throws, and too much Dave Smith finally smothered the LPC/Chabot team. One play though, at the end of the game, probably changed the face of the tournament. Towards the very end of the contest, Worm was breaking back towards the disc for a score in the near corner of the endzone. Covering him was Kerry Karter. A stalwart on the Tsunami teams of the late 80's, KK as he was known, was tall, athletic, and fiercely competitive. As these two “take-no-prisoners” players converged on an important moment in the game, we all held our breath.

Worm made the catch, but KK, in the aftermath of his huge, launching (and late) shot on defense, landed squarely on Worm’s back and drove him, shoulder-first, into the ground. After the dust had settled, The Boot had scored a crucial point, but had lost Worm for the rest of the tournament. A badly separated shoulder is an ugly thing. His shoulder was hanging down near mid-chest. It was one of the few times I actually heard Worm vocalize pain. After we carted him off the field, his spectating girlfriend drove him to the hospital.

We were without our defensive captain, but we had a three point cushion with two to play.

We barely won. But win we did. “Bye, Bye” quarterfinals loss. One monkey off our backs.

In the semifinals, we faced Roadside Trash. Mostly East Bay players with assorted friends and ringers thrown in. They were definitely talented and I am sure they were happy they weren’t on the other side of the draw - facing LLOW and their invincible army.

I only remember a few specific plays in this game. One, because it affected me directly, one because it was one of the most spectacular plays I have ever seen.

About mid-way or a little later in the game, I was playing defense on Jesse Cortez. He was a scary opponent, capable of beating you with quick squirrely cuts, big throws, or by bolting deep and skying you for the score. Somehow, I am matched up on him. And I am (barely) holding my own. As he cuts across the field for a give-and-go pass, I am trailing him, but the throw is a little too close. I lay out, full extension, hoping to get a single fingertip on the disc. Jesse senses the bid and dives back for the disc. He got the catch. I got a dislocated right shoulder.

This wasn’t the first time for me. It had started with a fateful play way back in 1988, but had gotten worse over the years. I was now at the point where it wasn’t a shock when I felt my arm and body separate from each other in an oddly unnatural way. But that did not diminish the pain. And this was a particularly painful one. I lay, writhing on the ground for a minute, then was helped off. Not knowing any better, and bowing to my competitive instincts, I was back in on defense a few points later.

The second memorable play of the game I was only witness to. I am sure that anyone that has played ultimate for a while at a competitive level has seen plays that they wish had been captured for posterity. “Why wasn’t someone filming this!” I have often asked myself, or others, immediately after one of these stupendous plays. The fact is, we have all seen brief moments of athletic transcendence that were shared with only a few other people out of the entire population of the world.

I used to think that this somehow diminished the importance or even the reality of what I had seen. A kind of, “If it didn’t show up on millions of re-run highlights on SportsCenter, then it couldn’t be important,” mentality. I am now well beyond that. I have been privileged to witness enough of these moments to know that a special part of the beauty is in knowing that you and only a select few others, of all the billions on the planet, were granted the memory of a particularly beautiful moment in space and time.

Towards the end of our semifinal game, I don’t know who was more surprised. Us at being so close to winning, or Roadside Trash at being so close to losing to us. Either way, it came down to the wire and we desperately needed a defensive stop and score. They were working their way toward a goal, abandoning their freewheeling, huck-happy offense of earlier, they had reigned it in and were struggling to advance the disc. The Boot defenders were young and fired up. We were giving no ground. We wanted the disc, and we wanted it now.

My mind frames the memory this way:

Roadside Trash is working the disc mainly with swings and throws to come-back cuts on the sidelines. Our defenders are all over them, but can’t seem to get the disc. Finally, they see an apparent mismatch with one of their taller deeps guarded by Mikey G. Mike is no taller than me, five foot six or seven at best. But he is scary fast and extremely intense. He is right on the tail of the tall receiver as he cuts back for a big 30 yard gainer. The throw is solid and fast, right to the receiver’s chest. Mikey sees this from his vantage two steps back and slightly inside. Instead of pulling up and getting ready to set a strong mark, he decides he can get the disc. No hesitation. He accelerates and launches simultaneously. As the receiver, who is at least six foot two, slows down to cushion the impact of the oncoming throw, he has no idea of what everyone on the nearest sideline is seeing. Mikey is vaulting over his inside shoulder, screaming past him horizontally in full layout, and reaching down for a disc that is five feet off the ground.

He makes the catch, not just the block. He catches the damn disc. He then lands six feet in front of the intended receiver in an explosion of grass and dirt. Disc in hand. Never came close to contacting his opponent.

No one immediately believes what they have just seen. Indeed, I still sometimes wonder if it was really physically possible. A moment's hesitation is followed by an immediate gasp, a few cheers, and multiple exclamations of “Holy Shit!” or something similar from the crowd.

I think that defense took the last of the wind out of their sails.

The Boot won the game. “Finals, here we come!”

I was a little nervous before the game. I had never played in the finals of a decent sized tournament, let alone managed to win one. In fact, I doubt that many of our players at that time had played in the finals of a Club tourney. And here we were, playing the Long List of Whores. Every one of their players was battle-hardened from years of contesting and winning big tourneys everywhere, including Nationals.

As we approach the field, the sidelines are slowly gathering spectators from other teams. It is going to be a nice night with the latest sunset of the year. The Whores are gathered on the far sideline, either lounging or carousing, not a butterfly to be found in any of their stomachs.

Meanwhile, as I am warming up my throws in mid-field, I hear this loud, brash voice yell, “Who’s the captain of this runner-up team?”

I catch the disc and start walking towards him, “That’s me.”

He looks incredulously at me, does a dramatic double-take, and says, “You can’t be the captain - you’re too short.”

He adds, looking all around, high above my head, “Where’s the real captain?”

I can take the chapping, and it is actually kind of funny. My introduction to Mike O’Dowd.

For those too young to know of him, Mike, also sometimes known as MOD, was one of the major characters in ultimate in the 80's and 90's. He captained Windy City the year they won Nationals - and subsequently spiked the Nationals trophy. He preached an in-your-face, testosterone laced brand of disc. And his teammates were more than willing acolytes.

The game starts and The Boot comes out on fire. Our offense has been clicking all weekend and the youthful defense, even with a drugged and drinking Worm on the sidelines, is hounding LLOW’s slower veterans. I think we manage to open a 3 or 4 point lead at one point near half-time. In particular, the combination of Barney hucking to Dave Smith is killing them.

Then, they start adjusting. They are actually buckling down and taking this game a little more seriously. They certainly don’t want their growing streak of Solstice wins to be interrupted by this team of upstarts and nobodies. And, eventually, a combination of inexperience and exhaustion started taking the wind out of our sails. Despite our best efforts (Mike G. had a few more highlight-reel blocks, I dislocated my shoulder at least twice more getting blocks, Seth was terrorizing their entire D squad), we couldn’t hold on. They beat us 19-17 or something close to that. We were disappointed to lose, but the crowd cheered us as worthy underdogs none the less.

Then the hard reality of the trip home set in. Worm was practically hallucinating from hospital prescribed pain-killers and team inspired beer. I was nearly delirious from the exhaustion of playing so much and the pain from multiple shoulder dislocations. Kristin (yes, the same Kristin from earlier in the blog - see here and here), couldn’t drive a stick shift. Worm’s girlfriend, Amy. had a broken right foot in a cast. And we had a hard 8 hour drive home.

Eventually, between Amy and me, we managed to get all the way back to the Bay Area on Monday morning ... just in time to hit morning rush hour. It took us an hour and a half to cover the final 30 miles to make a total of 9 and a half hours of driving straight from the fields. They dropped me off at my office and drove off in my car.

It was a long day at work.


At May 09, 2006 3:54 PM, Blogger luke said...

more dude...

At May 12, 2006 12:54 PM, Blogger worm said...

LLOW...........hated that team. When they beat us in 1990 it was their 4 win in a row at that tournament. I remember through my drugged/alcohol haze a chant they did at the end of the tournament. "BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK.......WE'LL BE BACK" I heard the chant for 6 more years. Finally, Billy lead another team to victory over the LLOW that finally destroyed them. But that is for another day.

At June 09, 2006 7:16 PM, Anonymous Steve S. said...

Nice story and blog Billy... Just don't let it find its way to the Wells Fargo corporate offices ;-)

At June 30, 2006 5:28 AM, Blogger bfh said...

Raymo is suing you for slander! Dante and I will cover the court costs...


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