Greatest Sportswriter of 2013? David Gessner!

categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Essays / Reading Under the Influence

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The Greatest Sportswriter

 

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USA Today has picked our own David Gessner’s essay “Ultimate Glory” as one of the greatest pieces of sportswriting for 2013.  That puts him in great company, of course, and puts Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour on the list with ESPN.com and The New Yorker.  Here’s the link, and now, here’s the essay:

 

ULTIMATE GLORY

A Frisbee Memoir

 

What you gave me you gave whole

But as for telling

Me how to best use it

You weren’t a genius at that.

Twenties, my soul

Is yours for the asking

You know that, if you ever come back

 

“To My Twenties” by Kenneth Koch

 

We labor over our big decision and big dreams, but sometimes it’s the small things that change our lives forever.  What could be smaller than this: It is the first week of my freshman year of college and I, looking for a sport to play, am walking down to the boathouse for crew, resigning myself to four years of servitude as a galley slave, when I see a Frisbee flying across the street.  The Frisbee, tossed from one long-haired boy to another, looks like freedom to me.  Then I notice that there are several Frisbees flying back and forth between a band of young men, all wearing shorts, with cleats hanging over their shoulders.  At the time I am quite shy but, uncharacteristically, I cross the street and ask them where they are going.  To Ultimate Frisbee practice, it turns out, and I am going with them.    

It is my first practice, and almost my last.  The college I am attending is Harvard but if I thought there would be plenty of snobbery at the boathouse, I didn’t expect it out on an open field tossing Frisbees around with a bunch of semi-athletic half-hippies.  But it’s here all right, mostly in the form of a tall, skinny preppie-nosed boy named Paul Edwards.  I’m not yet aware of the caste-like layers of the sport, not aware that Edwards has spent the last season playing for the soon-to-be national champion Boston Aerodisc and considers himself laughably above practicing with a bunch of beginners (some, like me, who can’t even throw forehands!)  But if I am shy during that first practice it isn’t because I’m naturally passive or subdued.  I might not say much to other people, but inside my head plans already broil, slights are carefully noted, and words wait to pour out.  By the third time Edwards criticizes the way I cut for the disc I am ready to storm off.  Who does this skinny prick think he is?  I played high school football and tennis, and am a decent basketball player, and though I might not know how to make the fancy little throws he can, I know right off that I’m a better athlete.  It’s true he can do almost anything with a Frisbee–on the sideline he very seriously sprays silicone on the disc (with the air of a doctor starting an IV) so that he can spin it on his well-trimmed nails–but does that give him the right to criticize me?  The next time he opens his mouth I storm off.  Fuck this, I think, and start walking back toward the boathouse.  Full of righteous indignation, huffing and puffing, I make it about fifty yards until one of the team’s captains catches up with me.  He is a small energetic man named Stuart and he gives me a pat on the back, acknowledging that Edwards can sometimes be hard to play with.  He talks me into staying.  As it turns out, he knows the right way to win me over.  “You’re going to be great at this,” he says.  Music to my young ears.

 

* * *

 

That was the beginning of almost twenty years lost in the world of Ultimate.  A friend of mine once said that our bodies are like credit cards; we get the bills later on.  I am forty now and have been paying my bills lately in the form of varicose veins, arthritis and a torn rotator cuff from almost two decades of playing that silly sport; I’ve become like an old sailor who can feel weather coming in across the Bay in my bones.  Not long ago, on a particularly achy day, I said to my wife: “If I were young again, I wouldn’t play that stupid sport.”  She looked at me the way she does sometimes.  “If you were young again,” she said.  “I’d give you a beer, toss you a Frisbee, and you’d chase after it like a border collie.”

Ultimate Frisbee, which when I started to play was barely ten years old, was invented in a high school parking lot in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1968, and is played seven men or women to a side, on fields 70 yards long with 25 yard endzones, the object being to advance a plastic disc across a goal line in the air.  But instead of running with the disc, players must stop, establish a pivot foot, and throw it within ten seconds.  If the disc is dropped or knocked down, play instantly changes direction, offense becoming defense.  There are no stoppages of play until a goal is scored.  Then the Ultimate equivalent of a kick-off occurs; the scoring team throws or “pulls” the disc to the receiving team, which waits to receive on their own goal line.

The sport is filled with running, jumping, and diving, but has the unfortunate distinction of being played with an object universally considered a child’s toy.  In fact cardiovascular studies have shown Ultimate, with its non-stop running, to be a match for soccer, but though teams often share the fields with–and often practice harder than–rugby squads, they can never quite escape the taint of the whimsical.  For those who devote their lives to the sport, it’s a little more serious.  For instance, the throws used to advance the disc are hardly the casual from-behind-the-hip flips seen thrown by old guys at picnics.  Long passes, called “hucks,” occasionally carry the full distance from end zone to end zone.  Players uncurl traditional backhands or flick forehands, but they also employ a varied arsenal of non-floating passes.  These include the spear-like overhead, where the disc is hurled in football style and can travel fifty yards upside down before turning back over and dropping into a receiver’s hands, and the “blade,” a knifing pass that describes an absurd parabola, and that the very best players slice surgically round the field.

When watching Ultimate the first thing that strikes the uninitiated is the way men and women throw their bodies around.  Often they do this on fields only a little more forgiving than the parking lot where the sport was invented.   And if Ultimate is a game of moments–of improbable dives and acrobatic catches–then these moments are heightened by two physical facts: 1) a disc is a hell of a lot easier to catch than a football or basketball, and 2) a disc hovers.

There’s a bumper sticker that reads: “When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee.”  Players make wild stabs or catch the trailing plastic edge, the disc seeming to stick to their hands.  Throws curve twenty yards out of bounds and then boomerang back in, and there are times the disc actually seems to wait for players to catch it.

For many, myself included, all this action can prove addictive.  The Ultimate world is full of people who, for reasons they can never quite explain, have given up the normal benefits of life to chase plastic, men and women brimming with the passion and impracticality of the cliched artist, a band of jock Van Goghs, painting on and on without the faintest hope of a sale.

Whatever the mysterious motivation, each year more innocents are drawn into Ultimate underworld, often leaving behind mystified parents wondering exactly where they went wrong.  After graduating from some of the country’s best schools, their minds are subtly warped, and, instead of putting their energies into sensible pursuits like law or medicine, they throw them into this ridiculous sport.  It’s kind of like a new LSD in this way: Turn on and drop out.  Suddenly Ivy league graduates are working at warehouses so that they can have time to pile in a van to drive down, stuffed in with ten rank-smelling teammates, to a tournament in Texas.  Meanwhile they live in warrens filled with other players, and drink beer and talk incessantly of Ultimate.  It’s enough to make parents want to call in the de-programers.

* * *

 

My own immersion began on that field Freshman year.  Soon I became friends with two of my classmates, Jon Epstein and Simon Long, and when the older guys put us on the field together they called us the “freshman death squad.”  Both Epstein and Long had attended Brookline High School, a progressive public school in the Boston area that had its own tradition of Ultimate, and they came into the game as full-blown players, complete with forehands (or, in Long’s case, an ugly but effective throw called the “thumber” in which the disc was launched from closer into the body with the thumb, not the fingers.)  While I lacked their skills, I made up for it through a kind of brutal effort, playing defense for the whole season in about the same mood I’d been in when I stormed away from Paul Edwards, and running deep to catch the passes Epstein and Long threw.

My hands were my strength as a player.  As college wore on I became obsessed with catching–”You are what you catch,” read a note on my wall–and this obsession, like most of mine, ran like a parent stream back to my father.  When I was nine or ten 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 it was out of my reach I would dive for it, 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.

I loved running hard and throwing my body around and skying after discs, and I worked on my throws much harder than I worked on my classes.  After practice I would often head back to Simon Long’s room and drink beer and listen to Springsteen and talk for hours about Ultimate.  Like a lot of people who go to Harvard, I was unimpressed with my classmates as a whole.  I’d expected to be in the presence of “genius” and though they were a lively group, with varied talents and interest, I wasn’t nearly as dazzled by their intelligence as I’d imagined I’d be.  But Simon was smart.  Perhaps a little too delighted by his own raconteur’s wit, but smart.  Long’s favorite form of speech was the loud monologue which he, brooking no interruptions, could keep going for surprising stretches of time.  But if it was sometimes hard to get in a word edgewise, Long was a good and generous friend.  Already, he was playing the stock market and, one day, after a lucrative surge, he bought me a gift.  At first I’d played Ultimate barefoot, then in a pair of narrow Adidas cleats barely held together with athletic tape, but I was soon eyeing a new pair of expensive cleats in a local store window.  Long told me that if the stock market did a certain thing he would buy them for me, and when the market obeyed, he did.  I was ecstatic.  They were big black Johnny Unitas-style hightops with long plastic spikes that were painted silver so that almost everyone I covered asked the same frightened question; “Are those metal cleats?”  Not only were the cleats physically impressive, but they had a name which I liked.  They were called “Barbarians.”

 

* * *

 

“You’re playing what?” my father asked when I first told him what I was doing.  If he still held any illusions that his son would evolve into the reincarnation of Frank Meriwhether, this did them in.  Frisbee of all things.  Clearly a sport for long-hairs and druggies.

But as well as laughing at Frisbee, my father would feel its sting.  During my senior year he drove to Cambridge to tailgate at a football game.  The Ultimate team was playing in a tournament on a nearby field and so he decided to drop by to take a look at his son’s eccentric preoccupation.  I can see him chortling with the friends he dragged along, amused that such a foolish game existed (as he waited to get into a stadium where he could watch a sport played with an oblong ball made from a pig), while concerned that the wayward son sounded a wee bit too passionate about his strange new obsession.  It was nice of my father to come watch, but he was standing too close to the field, sipping drinks with his friends, and not really paying attention.

He should have been paying attention, if for no other reason than Nathan Salwen was roaming the field.  With Nathan around, there was always potential for danger.  Nate was a physics genius who dropped in and out of Harvard, taking a half-dozen years to get his degree.  But while Nate’s mind could soar and play subtly among quasars and string theory, he played Ultimate like the classic wild man.  He had thick veined plowman’s legs, a squat powerful torso, and wore his wild red hair long, with a frayed red beard and moustache.  When he tore around the field you could squint and imagine, without much of a stretch, that this was how Neanderthals looked chasing after deer.  Nathan was an “impact player”; he played passionate defense and dove at the slightest provocation and could run all day, but he also could make an impact in a less positive way.  His throws weren’t quite as developed or accurate as he imagined they were.  And his first instinct was to make the most difficult and, if possible, longest throw.  This instinct to punt the disc deep, an instinct that apparently could not be controlled, would cause his teammates to sometimes cringe and mutter when Nathan got the disc.  “No, Nate, no…” they would plead.  But the answer was always yes.  Nathan saw things that were sometimes there, sometimes not, and then he wound up and let ‘er rip.  As Simon liked to say, Nathan “had a notion.”

Nathan’s forehand flew like a dying quail.  Sometimes when he launched it Simon would look at me and say “duck full of buckshot” and then, after mimicking the motion of pumping a shotgun, would pretend to point his imaginary gun and shoot the wavering disc out of the air.  But Nate’s backhand was raw power.  He would curl around the disc and then uncoil, launching it with a fury, sometimes heaving it right out of the endzone.

When he caught the disc around half-field, on the sideline where my father stood, his defender left Nate’s ferocious backhand open.  Someone was streaking deep and Nate’s eyes lit up and we all knew what would happen next.  Nate had a notion and if my father had been paying closer attention, and had noted Nathan’s tendencies, he would have had a notion, too.  Something, some atavistic, primal instinct would have tingled and warned him that this was a dangerous man nearby, a hunter from another clan, a clan not like his own.  But at that moment my father, inebriated, oblivious, imagining himself safe watching a mere “Frisbee” game, foolishly ignored whatever subtle signals his brain or body was sending.  He stood there smiling, barely an arm’s length away from this wild red-headed troglodyte, as Nathan wound up, virtually coiling around his backhand, and then, his eyes glinting with notions, unwound himself in a violent, powerful jerk.

The disc traveled barely two feet.  It caught my father on the side of the head and knocked him to the ground.  The game stopped.  My father instantly went from one of the spectators to the main attraction.  A crowd gathered round him.  “Are you all right, man?” Nathan asked.  There was a cut and some blood, but my father was just dazed.  An old athlete himself, he tried to make light of what had happened and, after gathering himself for a minute, gamely climbed to his feet.

My father and I would joke about it later.  As would my teammates.  And it was funny, a comic moment.  But there was something else there, too.  Looking back, my symbol-making imagination can’t help but mold the incident into personal myth.  If I had more Robert Bly in me, I might be inclined to explore the idea of my father, authority figure and businessman, knocked to the ground by the team’s wildman, Id flooring Superego.  Which, as it would play out over the next decade, was pretty much what Ultimate would do to any traditional career plans or hopes of financial success.  It would be easy to say and not entirely untrue, that the wildman in me, in coming years, would beat the stuffings out of the businessman within.

As graduation approached my Harvard roommates worried about which companies to go to work for.  Meanwhile I’d secretly begun to wonder which of the great Boston Ultimate teams, the Hostages or the Rude Boys, to try out with after college.  By then I’d become completely wrapped up in the lore and the lure of the game, and it wasn’t so much a decision as an inevitability that I would continue to play after school.  Why?  It was simple really.  I wanted that feeling I experienced when I dove through the air and a disc stuck to my hand or when I jumped high and snatched one out of the air over someone else.  The simple fact was that nothing else made me feel so alive; nothing else gave me that sensation that Tom Wolfe, speaking of Chuck Yeager and the other young fliers at Edwards Air Force Base, called “rude animal health.”  Playing Ultimate was one of the few times in my young life when I felt potent, and I was quickly becoming an addict of that feeling.  Trying to describe the feeling now I keep coming up with words like “primal” or “tribal” and I’m afraid this might reek of the once-fashionable neo-primitivism of the men’s movement, but there was nothing contrived or literary about the feeling I was after, and I knew it to be real.  I had been inside of it, and if anything in my world was true and to be trusted, it was that feeling.  I was ready to follow it anywhere.

While I loved playing, from the very beginning I relished the stories about the sport almost as much as the sport itself.  In college, up in Simon’s room after practice, we would ride the buzz of endorphins, beer, and pot, acting giddy as we talked about Ultimate, barely able to contain our excitement.  Simon and I would analyze the Hostages and Rude Boys, blatantly hero worshiping great players and their best plays.  We’d also try to decide such weighty issues as who was the game’s greatest player–the 6’7″ Steve “Moons” Mooney of the Rude Boys was in contention, along with David Barkan and Steve Gustafson of the Hostages–and who would win at regionals and nationals.

Actually there was plenty to be excited about.  Within the city limits of Boston in 1982, we had, arguably, the two best Ultimate Frisbee teams in the world.  That season the Rude Boys would roll through the rest of the field on their way to taking the National Championships, their only serious challenge coming in the semifinal game, when they beat the crosstown Hostages.  The previous year had been even more exciting.  You couldn’t have invented more perfectly contrasting rivals than the Hostages and Rude Boys.  With Moons at the fore, the Rude Boys were the game’s uberteam, capable of sporting a starting seven with an average height of 6’4″ and overwhelming other squads with size, talent, speed, and depth.  And, if the Rude Boys blasted teams into oblivion like some sort of Frisbee version of Vader’s death star, then the Hostages were a scraggly band of rebels, fighting against all odds.  They’d taken their name during the Iran crisis and, since there were 52 hostages, everyone painted that number on their shirts.  While the Rude Boys wore more standard black uniforms with the team name emblazoned across their left breasts, someone on the Hostages had gotten the idea to put T-shirts up against a chain link fence and spray-paint them, leaving the shirts stained with strands of barbed wire.  To complete the uniform, players tied yellow ribbons around their wrists.  While the Rude Boys looked tall and handsome, like pre-med or pre-law students out for one more fling before getting this “Frisbee” thing out of their blood, the Hostages had a decidedly grubby look, with a minor punk rock theme running through the team’s general anti-establishment motif.

But it wasn’t merely sartorial differences that separated the two rivals.  There was a distinct Dudley Doo-rite element to the Rude Boys, and they trained as no Ultimate team had trained before.  Pushed by Moons, they attacked their infamous track workouts at MIT and ran double sessions in summer.  To some more groovy-minded Ultimate players this was unheard of, almost against the rules.  The Rude Boys didn’t care for grooviness: they wanted to win.  They were not only a large team physically, but their numbers were huge so that opponents had the sense of a swarm of players coming at them in waves.  By contrast the Hostages were a smaller team that intentionally kept their numbers low to insure camaraderie and tightness, with everybody getting a lot of playing time.  During warm ups, while the Rude Boys stretched as a team, the Hostages were in disarray, some players smoking joints or sipping beers.  One Hostage, Jimmy Levine, wore baggy sweats and unlaced workboots right until the game started, and indulged in his own particular psych-up ritual, the pre-game cigarette.  When the Rude Boys circled up before the pull there was the we-mean-business air of a football huddle with Moons outlining the team’s strategy.

Meanwhile the Hostages told dirty jokes and razzed each other, completely disorganized except for their one concession to ritual.  That was when, right before they took the field, they would stand in a circle and hook arms and repeat, in unison, “May our passes be linked as our arms are now.”  Many of the Hostages worked together as stock boys at the Ski Market Warehouse in downtown Boston, and lived together in warren-like apartments, and they seemed to have an almost telepathic communication.  Despite the fact that the Hostages didn’t stretch or prepare, their passes often were linked.  The Hostages were led by David Barkan, a manic whirlwind of a man who popped around the field on pogo stick legs and who, only 5’7″, provided every possible contrast to the more staid leadership of Moons.  Barkan would sprint wildy around the field, eyes full of fire, always ready to huck his backhand long or pump his fist or argue a call.  He was also a great thrower, and in this he was not alone.  Tommy Conlon, who played the game with the shambling nonchalance of a scarecrow, could, in his own casual unimitable style, do things with a Frisbee that no one before had ever tried.  Jimmy Levine, meanwhile, in cleats not workboots but still looking grubby and irritated, was developing into a virtual artiste with the disc, throwing overheads that would tail off backward into the hands of cutting receivers, so that one often wondered if he wasn’t growing concerned less with the throw’s effectiveness and more with its marks for creative difficulty.  At the opposite, more pragmatic end of the scale was Mark Honerkamp, who would hone his throws with the care of a craftsmen whittling wood, and was consistently effective (and jolly) when not sidelined by his occasional dark moods. The Hostages weren’t only great throwers, they were daring ones.  They took more risks with their throws, in part because they were a sure-handed team, and it the onus was on the receiver to make great catches.  The other reason they took more risks was because, against a team as powerful and consistent as the Rude Boys, they simply had no choice.

As might be expected, the Rude Boys and Hostages played entirely different defenses.  The Rude Boys relied on their long legs and numbers to wear teams down with an aggressive man-to-man d.  While the Hostages might be just as fast, their small numbers made them tire sooner, and if they tried to cover the Rude Boys man-to man they would open themselves to severe height mismatches.  Instead they played a zone defense, that they tightened like a vise around increasingly nervous throwers.  The zone was grounded by the rock solid middle position of Neil Lischner, and aided by the hyperactivity of fronts like Jeff Sandler and the more stolidly active Roger Gallagher.  At the center of this communication network, playing deep in the zone, was Steve Gustafason.  While Barkan was the team’s catalyst and Conlon, if the spirit moved him, could take a game over, Gustafson was the Hostage’s best player.  Barely six feet he would, as a deep, be required to cover huge distances and engage in sky battles with the much taller Rude Boys.  He played the game with a cat’s quickness and his throws were absurdly creative and ballsy.  Later, at a reunion tournament, one of his teammates would nickname him “Elvis,” because he’d become bloated by weight gain and had the has-been look of the King during his suede suit Vegas years.  But during those early years he was Elvis in his prime, handsome sleek with a cocky curl to his lip, possessing a predatory charisma.

1981 was the first year of both team’s existence, and Simon and I watched each battle between the two with a connoisseur’s delight.  It was, we told each other, like having free front row seats at Celtics-Lakers games.  Though our natural instinct to root for the underdog made us favor the Hostages, the Rude Boys were dazzling in their skills, throwing the disc upside down and at sharp angles with great accuracy, and as a whole were better sportsmen than the prickly Hostages.  They traded games through the season but at the Sectional finals the Rude Boys won handily and, going into Regionals, they seemed so strong and well-prepared that they were almost prohibitive favorites.  Only one team would emerge from Regionals to go on to Nationals that year, and Simon and I were pretty certain that would be the Rude Boys, a feeling the Rude Boys themselves obviously shared as they had already bought their plane tickets.  Harvard had been eliminated before Regionals, and so, for the first time that year, we wouldn’t get to see the two teams clash.  We considered driving out to Amherst to watch the game, but figured, with the Rude Boys peaking, it might be lopsided and not worth it.  Later we’d wish we’d made the trip.

When the reports came back, we could barely believe it.  It had been a windy day and the Hostages, making confident throws in the gusting wind, had somehow pulled it off.  The game’s most talked about moment had been when David Barkan, at 5’6″ over a full foot shorter than Moons, had supposedly sprung into the air and skyed over the taller man.  It was a dramatic victory that Simon and I, back in Cambridge, hooted over, listening to friends who had seen the game and then re-creating it with our own words.  Even better for the legend, the Hostages characteristically blew off practices in the weeks after their win, drank too much beer, and fell on their face at Nationals.  The next year two teams from our region were invited to Nationals, and the Hostages made it to the semifinals.  But it was the Rude Boys, methodical and dominating, that went undefeated in winning the National and then the first World championship in Sweden.

 

* * *

 

Sometimes I think we choose the things we spend our time doing just because of the difficulty and pain they cause us.  A positive way of looking at this might be to say we like to “test ourselves,” while a more cynical view might hold that we are all, to some extent, magnificent self-torturers.

I’m pretty sure that I chose to become a writer at least in part because I hated to be criticized and rejected.  This hatred was due to living with my father, who, for all his good qualities, was a ferocious critic, both in the form of teasing and outright reproach.  It was from living with him that I learned to be self-deprecating, a habit that I used as a kind of pre-emptive strike, beating him to the punch by mocking myself before he could mock me.  Anyway, given this, you might think I wouldn’t choose a profession that would lead to years–decades really–of outright rejection.  You would, of course, be wrong.  In this light, my choice to try to become a writer seems equal parts inspiration and masochism.

If possible Ultimate Frisbee might have been an even more perfect instrument of self-torture.  What better way to inspire loathing in my father (and self) than to choose as my other passionate pursuit a game that was considered by most, if they considered it at all, to be on par with tiddly winks and hula hoops.  “Is that the thing you do with the dogs?” was a question we got constantly when we tried to explain to people in the normal world what it was we spent all our time doing.  That it was a running sport that required real athleticism didn’t fly.  To go to my father after leaving school to tell him that I was committed to Ultimate was akin to telling him that, having graduated from Harvard, I’d decided to forego traditional careers like banking and medicine and, instead, planned on focusing all my time, passion, and energy on competing in hopscotch tournaments.

In fact, my choice to stay in Boston after graduation to play Ultimate must have seemed almost completely insane to my family.  It did to me.  But I did it anyway.  My literary and athletic priorities set, I left school in June of 1983 for the world my father liked to call “real.”  In that world one of my college roommates, Dan Stern, a good Harvard boy, immediately made $300,000 a year working for some rich Texans called the Bass brothers.  Meanwhile I, instead of heading off for Texas or L.A. or New York, moved into a cramped apartment in Somerville.  I played Ultimate fanatically while also making elaborate vows (and a few outlines) about the novel I would soon start.

There was of course the immediate problem of money.  I found a job as a bike messenger, but that job lasted less than a day, when, on the way to report to work, I was buffeted by the wind of a truck and slammed into a curb.  The next week I took a job as a security guard in a telephone store in Kenmore Square, which, despite the position’s name, was decidedly less dangerous.  I sat by the door for eight hours in my guard uniform and watched people shop for phones.

But if my working hours were dull and my writing hours still nonexistent, my Frisbee hours were vital enough to lift my life.  I was getting better and stronger, my throws sharper, and later that summer I was asked to play on a pick-up team made up of players from both the Hostages and Rude Boys in a tournament in Santa Cruz, California.  Usually the two teams treated each other with the type of distrust and suspicion reserved for feuding hillbilly clans, but for some reason they had decided to get together for this one tourney.  When they asked me to come along I was thrilled.

The drive to California was great, my very first glimpse of the West, but the tournament itself was even more exhilarating, allowing me, for a while, to leave behind the confusion I felt about my life and my future.  Of course I considered it a great honor to play next to the men whom I’d long rooted for.  Our makeshift squad was named FRAC-49, after the license plate on a team member’s van.  I played well the first day, and, the next morning, had an even greater honor conferred on me.  David Barkan of the Hostages asked if I would join his team.  I didn’t say yes right away, and, after our meeting, as I walked around the fields to mull my decision, Steve Mooney approached me.  He asked me to play with the Rude Boys the coming fall.

I circled the field again, bursting with pride.  My roommate Dan might have turned down Shearson Lehman to go to work for the Bass Brothers for $300,000, but had any young man ever gotten two such prestigious offers in one day?  And, even as pride came over me in waves, I knew that my decision was no decision at all.  If I had previously been unclear about my feelings regarding the two different teams, in that moment everything crystallized.  My walk became a jog.  It was obvious.  I would turn my back on the sure thing, the defending National Champ superteam, the Frisbee equivalent of corporate success, and I would play with the scrubby underdogs.  Of course, a small ambitious voice nagged.  If my father had cared enough about Frisbee to give counsel, he might have reminded me that the Rude Boys represented a better chance for achievement, for fulfillment of my goals.  But a louder voice drowned out any nagging, and I didn’t hesitate for a second.  I would thumb my nose at Moons.  I would be part of a gritty band of rebels taking on the powers-that-be.  I would become a Hostage.

 

* * *

 

Fall was–and is–the most important season for Ultimate club teams.  That fall, my first as a Hostage, I moved out of my dingy Somerville apartment, and down to Cape Cod.  That meant I would have to commute for Ultimate practice and tournaments, but it also meant I could work as a carpenter on the Cape and train for Ultimate on the beach.  The beach would later become my classroom, observatory, and muse, but that fall it more plainly served as gymnasium.  I vowed that I would get in the best shape of my life.  Before the trip to California with Frac-49 I’d read an article about Herschel Walker, the Georgia running back, and the sprint workouts he did.  Walker figured if he worked harder than any of the other players, he would be better, and that made sense to me.  I copied his workout exactly, and then did sit-up after sit-up and jumped rope.  Better yet I ran the beach, sprinting repeatedly up a high dune near Corporation Beach, sometimes with a large piece of driftwood strapped on my back for added weight, and then running intervals on the hard flat sand of low tide.  Out of an old Dunlop tennis racket cover and some rope I fashioned a quiver, in which I kept my trusty Frisbee.  On the way home I’d toss it into the wind and run it down, or float it out in front of me and dive after it.  “First be a good animal,” said Emerson, and those words became my motto.  I fancied myself a noble savage.  When my workouts were done I’d cool down by plunging into the icy fall water.

Just as my dune work-outs were environmentally inappropriate, so were the ways I occasionally honed my throws, using shorebirds and rabbits as targets.  I have no idea what I would have done if I’d ever actually hit a rabbit.  Run over and plunged my teeth into its fur?  More likely I’d have burst into a sobbing fit of apology.  Fortunately, my subconscious screwed with my aim and I never found out.  As it was, there were plenty of times my deepening love of nature combined happily with my work-outs.  Sometimes, to vary things, I’d fly around East Dennis on my old ram-horned tenspeed bike, chasing the mobs of starlings that I didn’t know the names of yet, a hundred bird-shadows pulsing across the road below my tires.  I realized that just by chasing the birds, I could push the shadow mob around over the street and beach and bog, controlling them, painting the land with their shadows.

If it sounds like I’m romanticizing that time, the truth is I romanticized it even as it was happening.  I was twenty-three and my moods fluctuated between supreme confidence and deep insecurity, the insecurity perhaps due to the fact I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life.  To purge my insecurity I’d work out even harder.  “Exorcise through exercise,” read a note I’d scribbled on a scrap and tacked to my wall.  When I felt afraid, I simply turned around and did hundreds of push-ups and then flexed alone in the shower, admiring myself, cranking the Talking Heads on the boom box while the water burned my scalp.  I showered at least twice a day, listening to “Burning Down the House” or “Girlfriend is Better.”  My hands had never felt more sure and I would toss the soap up in the shower and try to catch it between my thumb and forefinger, like pincers.  I wrote myself a note that I still don’t understand.  “Bodily fluids are crucial,” it said.  During that fall I had my first “fling” with a girl who came up to me after a tournament.  “The world doesn’t revolve around you,” my father had always said, but now I wasn’t so sure.  It certainly seemed to: the wind, the salt, the sand, the sex, the leaves, all of it rustling and churning and gyrating and pressing in.  Maybe I brag too much, I wrote in my journal, but why shouldn’t I brag?  I began to hear messages in the crow’s cawing at the beach.  “The crows of hope,” I called them.  Perfect that I could understand the animals now.  I was the Tarzan of East Dennis.

 

* * *

 

The Hostages would rise up to have a spectacular fall, suddenly casting ourselves in the favorite’s role.  Though Steve Gustafson had quit, we had added several other players, and many thought this the strongest Hostage team yet.  After a slow start, we began clicking and soundly thrashed the Rude Boys in the two tournaments building up to the all-important Regionals.  I loved having fourteen new friends, loved being part of a tribe and pouring my entire self into becoming a great player.  The Hostages prided themselves on the number of college drop-outs on the squad and they teased me about Harvard, which, in this Looking Glass world, was a badge of shame.  But the teasing itself was just part of the fun of my new life, part of belonging to my new instant family.

I added notes about Frisbee to the rough journal notes I’d begun keeping about birds and plants.  Pompous vows about how I would learn to play a “churning, sprawling, wild, unkempt, pounding, relentless game,” a game of “raw brag,” a game fit for a Hostage.  I was still reading Thomas Wolfe at the time and his exaggerated characters had always walked with “earth-devouring strides” and that was how I wanted to run.  During the last few weeks before Regionals my world sped up.  It had taken me a while to break into the offense, but now that I had I was playing better than ever.  On defense I replaced the retired Steve Gustafson as deep in the zone, a position that would require air battles with the tall Rude Boys.  Gus had had a predatory charisma and a cat’s quickness, and, like Barkan, had been a college hero of mine, but my own style was more direct and physical, less graceful.  Just 5’11″, I’d managed to jam a basketball earlier that year, another feat that filled me with delusional glee.  I had several flying dreams that fall and once, jumping on the beach with a strong tailwind, thought I might have gotten some lift.  It didn’t seem entirely out of whack with the way things were going that I might actually learn to fly.

Then, at a party one night, one of the Rude Boy’s best offensive players, who I’d been assigned to cover, approached me.  After joking around for a while, he turned serious.  “I shouldn’t tell you this,” he said.  “But the other night I had a nightmare about you guarding me.”  That pretty much sent me over the edge.  I was invulnerable!  My already substantial ego stretched even larger.  I glimmered with a near megalomaniacal confidence.

These delusions were no doubt aided by the mushrooms I ingested fairly regularly at the time.  The residue of those trips–during which I felt I got down to the essence of my animal self, sweating, running, drinking, pissing–spilled over into my so-called normal life.  I lived inside a fever that fall.  Now, the fever so long past, I see myself for what I was: a scared little boy playing at life.  Humans can be narcissists at any age, but there is no narcissism like that possible in one’s twenties, particularly one’s early twenties.  With time even the dullest of us gets at least some wisdom pounded into our brains, but there is pleasure as well as pain in the time before wisdom.  What I really had going for me that fall was the advantage of inexperience.  With writing, for instance, I hadn’t yet begun and so could still live fully in the fantasy that what I wrote would be brilliant.  Unlimited possibility still seems possible before we begin a thing, and before we realize that our bonds define us, that without constraints we have no shape, without limits there is nothing.  But the illusion of limitlessness is a drug beside which mushrooms pale.

But in the end all this moralizing won’t do.  It’s the feeling I remember from that glorious fall, a feeling I have never felt since and am quite sure I’ll never feel again.  I was full of sap and muscular and strong, and, of course, quite deluded.  A young Icarus with enough literary training to be pretty sure of where all this was heading.  It was hubris plain and simple, but one thing they don’t tell you about hubris is how good it feels.  In fact in some ways, though I now know what it will lead to, I still think of that fall as the high tide of my twenties.  In some ways I still think of it as the high tide of my life.  Though a happier and better man now, I still miss that time and if there were a way, if granted a wish, I can’t pretend I wouldn’t run right back and crawl inside that lunatic’s skin.

 

* * *

 

Of course, the Hostages lost at Regionals.  Lost in spectacular choking fashion.  If the world of Frisbee had become my personal mythology, here was the classic fall from grace.  On Saturday we went undefeated, the best team at the tournament.  On Sunday our usually sure hands deserted us, and the daring that had been our trademark was replaced by a frightened caution, occasionally punctuated by desperate ill-advised throws.  As things started to slip away I felt the icy fear and cowardice only the choker knows.  My limbs no longer operated with the confidence that they had all fall; the magic juice no longer flowed through me.

I lurched back to Cape Cod in late October, depressed and defeated, an animal back to its lair.  The eel grass had turned the color of wheat and the ocean was grey and frothy.  During my career I have had some painful losses but still nothing to compare to that defeat.  The megalomania of fall came crashing down into a winter where I came as close to madness as I hope I ever will.  Doubt began chewing into my early certainty about what I’d chosen to do with my life, hollowing out my commitment to Ultimate.  Why was I wasting my time playing this stupid sport?  It was just too painful, the thought of committing again only to potentially be burned, of rising that high only to be slammed that low.

The Hostages staggered on for another season, but that loss effectively finished us.  We’d always been jokers, sardonically mocking our own sport, but the next year we became pure clowns, pretending not to care.  We drank more at tournaments and though we still won some big games and even a couple more tourneys, we were never the same cocky bunch again.  A year and a half later the team broke up for good.  Most of the players retired, content to look back on the 1981-1982 seasons as the peak of their athletic lives.

But I wasn’t done.  I still had a quest to fulfill.  I wanted to win the National Championship, something no Hostage had ever done, and I pursued this goal with only a little less seriousness than I’d begun to pursue writing, training for the better part of the year.  In fact, over the next decade it was usually left to Ultimate Frisbee to provide what writing couldn’t.  Working at a series of bad jobs and writing alone at home, I felt, quite frankly, glory-starved.  Glory, as my old teacher Walter Jackson Bate has said, is the attempt to “fill the minds of others,” and so doesn’t exist without an audience.  No one cheered me on while I sat scribbling at that stupid little desk or smashing sheetrock with a sledge hammer or, later, ringing up customers as a clerk in a bookstore.  Ultimate gave me the juice I needed.

I wasn’t alone in this.  Though Ultimate players sometimes wore beads and funny hats and grew their hair long, I slowly began to understand that there was something else, something decidedly less groovy, going on on those fields that most didn’t acknowledge.  It may sound strange and oxymoronic, but there was such a thing as “Ultimate ambition” and I felt its pull.  Clearly people who played the sport wanted not only to win, but to be considered great at what they did, not just in their own eyes but in the eyes of other players.  It was the pursuit of fame, really, though a fame closer to the ancient Greeks than People magazine, existing only among the bands of players from around the country who, re-telling stories of great players and great plays, created the oral tradition through which the sport was remembered.

Part of the appeal of playing serious Ultimate was that life took on the simplicity of quest, a little like stepping inside of a good science fiction or fantasy novel.  There were heroes and villains and wizards and trolls and even a few princesses to impress.  There were arch enemies like Kenny Dobyns of the evil New York teams (who else gets to have arch enemies these days?) and beautiful exotic lands to travel to, and, to top it all off, Nationals, a great annual quest for the Grail.  My father was right when he said it wasn’t the “real world.”  Instead it was like a game of Dungeons and Dragons and you were in it–right inside it–complete with your weapon and your own special magic powers.  A secret world where you were part of a secret tribe.

To keep going as a writer I needed to pretend I would one day be great at it, but the truth was the evidence for that was slim.  Here was something I was already great at.  Something that made me feel full of power and confidence.  In the rest of my life I was impotent, a struggling apprentice, but in Ultimate I was accomplished.  I worked year round to stay in top shape and loved nothing more than ripping around a field in my cleats.  My best weapon was my forehand, which I could throw eighty yards of so, end zone to end zone, in wide parabolas.  But my favorite, if not most trusty, throw, was my overhead.  The overhead was where the disc was thrown upside down, like a spear, before, hopefully, turning back over and dropping into a receiver’s hands.  When my overhead was cocked I, like my old teammate Nathan, had a notion.

If the results were erratic then the truth was that sometimes results weren’t as important as the sheer thrill of the thing.  One year Nationals were held on the grassy common in front of the Washington Monument, and, getting psyched for a game, I wandered over to the Museum of Natural History.  Inside the museum, I was captivated by an exhibit of a Neanderthal hunting with a spear, and, with that vision still vivid in my head, I went out and threw a half-dozen overheads during the next game.  If the results were, again, erratic, the feeling inside me was consistent.  For a brief period I felt ecstatic, confident, and strong.

 

* * *

 

Our old rivals, The Rude Boys, had also broken up by 1985.  As expected, many of Steve Mooney’s teammates were finished with the sport, off to careers and law school.  Moons, meanwhile, was busy making a new team, gathering together the best remaining players in the Boston area.  I joined that team but felt uneasy lining up next to Moons.  After all, wasn’t he just a big phony, like the Hostages had always said?  Moons was clearly the authority figure on the team, and from the start we had a kind of father-son tension between us.  I wanted the team to be called “the Primadonnas,” mocking the fact that we were a kind of hand-picked all-star team, but Moons had prevailed with “Titanic.”  I hated the name, and because I knew it irked Moons, made up a cheer that I yelled out before each game:  “Titanic, Titanic, our dicks are gigantic!”  On Titanic everything was more structured and less relaxed than with the Hostages; for instance, people frowned not just at my crude cheer but if I sipped a beer before a game.  Rigidity replaced wildness, and, reacting to this, I would play my old role of rebellious son to Moon’s strict father.

It was a role I would perfect over the next few years.  When not fighting beside Moons in an effort to win Nationals, I would fight with him in my role as the team’s resident adolescent.  In keeping with Hostage tradition, I excelled at idiocy.  During my last season with Titanic, after a bitter semifinals loss to New York, I, blind drunk, decided it was necessary to get hold of the microphone that was being used to announce the finals.  I merely wanted to serenade the New Yorkers, who were winning handily on the way to their third championship, with a rendition of “We Are The Champions,” a graceful and touching concession of defeat in my mind.  But the announcers resisted, in part because they had foolishly let me get hold of the mic the year before and I had bellowed my “Titanic, Titanic…” cheer.  And so a plan was hatched.  The game was being announced, not from a booth, but on the grass beyond the endzone, clearly not a defensible position.  There were only three announcers around the mic, so I put together a small war party, made up of Bobby Harding, my old Hostage teammate who had now joined Titanic, and two other friends, and, after a drunken Patton-like speech, convinced them to storm the microphone.  Or thought I convinced them.  Half way through my charge I looked back and found myself alone.  I could have quit of course, called off my raid, but what was this if not a chance for another stupid, futile quest?  So of course I charged ahead and tried to wrestle the microphone from the announcers on my own.

Three UPA (Ultimate Player’s Association) officials and a policeman grabbed me and pulled me away.  I was not arrested however.  Things did not work like that in our Dungeons-and-Dragons world.  Instead I was henceforth banished from ever playing Frisbee again in the Washington area, an edict which holds to this day.  In the official letter that Eric Broderick, the local representative of the UPA, sent to Steve Mooney, he charged Titanic three hundred dollars for damage done to the microphone.  He also said that though he understood “that Steve personally tried to help give Ultimate a clean image,” this sort of behavior reflected poorly on the team.  “This person,” Broderick wrote, “who I know only as ‘Gessner’ was obviously drunk.  I’m sure he will greet this letter with howls of arrogant laughter, but this is a very serious offense.”

I wish I could say that I was properly chastised, that I began, then and there, to finally grow up, but I’m afraid the truth is I greeted his letter just as Mr. Broderick had predicted I would.  Over beers, I showed the letter to my Hostage friends and we howled with arrogant laughter.

 

* * *

 

If I didn’t take Broderick’s letter to heart, then the events of the next few years would prove a more serious warning shot across my bow.  Cancer invaded my family, a cancer I’ve written about elsewhere ad nauseum, and so won’t go deeply into here.  The cancer would first scar me and then take my father’s life, but, even before I got sick, I began to suspect that it was time to “get serious,” a course of action my father had been urging on me for some time.  Ultimate had been a big waste, I decided, aiding if not solely responsible for my arrested development.  As proof of this I had only to look at my college roommate, Dan Stern, who was by now making over a million dollars a year.  In contrast, my life was a shambles.  Working as a substitute teacher and part-time carpenter, I was fortunate that debtor’s prisons no longer existed.  Bills provoked panic attacks, and at one point I’d borrowed 1000$ from Dan, money I likely would never pay back.  I could only nod in agreement when my father muttered about how I’d never learned to live in “the real world.”

There was no choice but to admit he was right: to step into that real world and out of the Frisbee world.  I quit playing for Boston in 1990.  My girlfriend moved to Worcester, Massachusetts to attend medical school at U-Mass, and I tagged along.  It was time to put away childish things.  By then I had finished a novel which had been rejected by several publishers, and was almost done with a second book.  That fall, instead of playing Ultimate, I got a job as a counselor in a homeless shelter and applied to graduate schools in creative writing.

My plans were interrupted, however, by an unexpected event.  In March of 1991, a week shy of my thirtieth birthday, I was operated on for testicular cancer.  A few days later I got the good news that I had a stage 1 seminoma, my girlfriend asked me what I wanted to do for my thirtieth birthday, which was the next Saturday, exactly a week after the operation.  I said I wanted a party.  “Should it be small?” she asked, concerned.  “Big,” I said.  I wanted to celebrate.  I asked her to invite all the Hostages and my college roommates and old carpentry friends.  She did and they all came.  The house was packed.

I knew most of the people there through Ultimate Frisbee and, looking around the room that night at all the Ultimate players, I felt better about all the time and energy I’d put into the sport.  Maybe it hadn’t been, as my father once contended “a colossal waste of time.”  Many of the old Hostages had come, and so had Moons and dozens of players from other teams.  While I hadn’t achieved my purported goals in Ultimate, I’d gained something else while I wasn’t paying attention.  I had become part of a second family, part of a tribe, and now my tribe was rallying around me.

For the sake of this essay I could say that it was that night that I started to see how much the sport had given me, like learning the true meaning of Christmas.  But the truth is that in the decade since I have only gradually come to see the enormous role the sport played in my life.  Frisbee may be a silly word–like boing or poodle–and the sport may not be taken any more seriously than tiddly winks.  But that didn’t–and doesn’t–matter.  It’s not the object so much as the passion poured into it.  What’s more I had gained the strength of working long and hard at something that others considered ridiculous.  It was a little like writing in that way.  Something we tend to forget, or belittle in our corporate age: that certain muscles can only be built through nonconformity.  So what if no one knew what the hell Ultimate was?  When NBA players say they “love this game,” they also mean they love the money, the attention, and the perks.  I loved Ultimate despite the fact it had nothing like that to offer.  I loved the pure play of it, the great moments, the camaraderie, the stories we told after.  And as silly as it sounds, it is true: Frisbee helped make me.

Which I was just starting to understand on the night of my thirtieth birthday.  The party went late with Simon Long, my arrogant Harvard friend, gloating about schooling some players from a team called The Popes in Scrabble in the TV room.  Their game wouldn’t end until 4 A.M. when Simon fell asleep, drooling right on the board.  These were the same Pope players who had once stolen a stuffed deer from a Natural History exhibit while we were playing a tournament in upstate New York, tying it to the top of their car like hunters.  Now, before driving off, they took the Scrabble letters and spelled out “Simon is a Greasy Wanker” on the board where Simon slept.

Meanwhile two of my Hostage friends and I sat in a circle in the living room passing around a bottle of tequila, a beer, and a joint.  Each of us would take a hit of whatever was in front of us and pass it along.  Sometimes someone would mutter “cannonball it,” the silly Bill Murray line from Caddyshack.  It was crazy to be doing this right after being cut open and losing blood but if crazy it was also an appropriate way for my twenties to end.  Forget that I still had weeks of radiation ahead or that the prospects for both my health and career were uncertain.  For one night it didn’t matter.  Spring was only a week away and it looked like I wasn’t going to be dying any time soon.  In fact within a week I would be walking out at the reservoir, within a month running.  This was spring at its most pagan.   then: Persephone gone to Hades and returned from the underworld.

And on my 30th birthday my cause for celebration was the most elemental of all.  I was a strong animal.  I would fucking live.

 

* * *

 

Which would make a neat and happy ending except for the fact it wasn’t over.  A month after my operation, in the midst of radiation, I got into a graduate school in Boulder, Colorado.  Boulder was the scene of one of my happiest Ultimate memories.  My last highlight for Boston had come two summers before when we won the prestigious fourth of July tournament in Boulder, against a field of teams every bit as strong as Nationals.  In late June I took a trip out to Colorado to look for an apartment where I could live the next fall.  I found a funky blue cabin below the spectacular cleaved canyons of Eldorado Springs, a town outside of Boulder.  I also played in the Boulder tournament again, picking up with my old enemies from the New York team.  Since I had always played well against New York, they expected a lot of me.  But while we won the event, I was a shell of what I’d been, and didn’t contribute much.  Still, being able to run and dive at all was a victory, coming as it did only three and a half months after my operation and only a month after radiation.  I could feel myself getting stronger with each passing day.

The next fall I moved West. In my cabin in the mountains I felt like a snake that had shed its old skin.  Though I hadn’t published anything yet, for the first time I defined myself as a writer and not an Ultimate player.  I attacked a book about my cancer, writing the first draft straight through.  All my efforts before had been halting.  The novel I’d tried to write in my twenties came in fits and starts, but this thing, whatever it was, came whole.  I began to type as if taking dictation and I didn’t stop.

Ultimate had served its purpose you might think, and it had, believe me, it had.  It seemed I’d finally managed to put aside childish things for good.  There was a small problem, however.  To get to school from my home in Eldorado canyon I had to drive past the high school playing fields where the Boulder Ultimate team, called The Stains, practiced.  During those days of hard denial I had no way of knowing that I would play Ultimate “seriously” for five more years, soon numbering some of my Boulder teammates among my closest friends.  And I had no way of knowing that I would have a Frisbee afterlife, that while I no longer had the Hostages as my tribe, soon I would have the Stains.

For a week or two I didn’t give in, driving by grim-faced, thinking about my novel, trying to ignore the plastic discs describing parabolas or the people running up and down the fields.  But by the third week I had a notion, and the notion couldn’t be stifled.  On the way back from school I pulled the car over at the fields and dug my cleats out of the trunk.  I walked up to the fields casually, cynically even, sure that I wouldn’t be suckered in again.

I don’t remember which of my new teammates threw me the Frisbee, but I do remember that they overthrew me.

I chased after it like a border collie.

 



  1. Tommy writes:

    Is this the same Mark Honerkamp who photographed the cover of “A Wild Rank Place”?

    In the team photo the author appears shirtless back row, center circa 1983.

    The gentleman to his right also appears in the last photo, several years later, off to the side, still egging our hero on – to Ultimate Glory.