Paved by Pagan Plastic: The Penultimate Ultimate Path

Each game as I step onto the field, a war rages within me – the battle between what once was and what is.  The disc flies high.  Ancient demons lure me, promising unmitigated glory.  Their siren’s song beckons.  It takes all I have to resist.  The thrower’s eyes meet mine.  The disc spins.  I chase the wind….

At least, that is how I imagine the omniscient line would be delivered in some Hollywood by some star like: Keanu Reeves, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or more likely Buddy.  Fortunately, I don’t think I have to worry about my story popping up on the silver screen, even showcasing a golden retriever.  I’m just a guy who loves ultimate.  The best I can strive for is to tell my story in black and white.

I grew up in Northwest Indiana.  In my hometown, ultimate was just another adjective.  All disc sports were encapsulated under the moniker Frisbee©, and most people assumed a dog was a necessary requirement for play.  Luckily, I ran cross country on a team with connections to distant lands.  Alumni runners returned from exotic locations of higher learning such as Greencastle, West Lafayette and Bloomington spinning captivating tales of glory, chivalry, and athleticism all distilled into one word, “ultimate”.  The name alone piqued our interest.  Eventually, we acquired a secondhand disc, and I got my first taste of this mysterious foreign delicacy.  I was hooked immediately.

If you’ve been to Northern Indiana, it should not surprise you that introduction of a round plastic disc to the location was a fascinating alteration to our ecosystem.  The disc had the immediate distinction of being more interesting than corn and grass.  Watching it hover and glide through the air was even more spellbinding than the sight of a sleeping cow knocked from a standing position onto its side.  The disc was indeed so wondrous that in years to come it became a talisman of sorts for our team.

This was lucky for us.  You see, runners desperately need a talisman.  In the realm of sports, most competitors can rally behind the silhouette of a ball, a racquet, or other piece of equipment.  Runners don’t have equipment.  They just have shoes.  Everyone wears shoes.  Not surprisingly, footwear made a poor symbol for our teenage identity.

The disc on the other hand was a round hovering emblem of grace and power.  We became so attached to our totem that it began to consume and reshape us in its image.  To be sure, we were still distance runners at our core, but were warped and twisted.  Often, long scheduled runs would transform into treks to remote field locations where we could practice our dark art of disc.  Divining into the disc’s curving depth, we conjured endlessly; summoning scenes that rivaled the grand stories handed down by our forerunners.

I was an early and avid convert of Disc.  Ultimate allowed me to take advantage of my athleticism and mentality in a way distance running could not.  I was never more than a fair distance runner at the best of times.  My twitchy energy, nervous stomach, and finicky joints manifested themselves in mediocre race day performances.

Ultimate felt tranquil in comparison.  There was no gun blasting a start and no tedious tracking of splits and places.  Disc allowed me to center my attention and lose myself in the flow of the sport.  I wasn’t driven by an invisible internalized clock.  When the disc was in the air, my head wasn’t occupied counting numbers.  I could lose myself in the simple joy of chasing plastic.

Unfortunately, my teammates and I existed on our own island.  The governing body of the UPA did not have sovereignty over rural Indiana.  Our ultimate only existed in the arms, legs, hearts, and minds of a small group of young men.  Lacking an authority to consult about rules, we filled in the gaps as best we could.  In truth, the acts in which we engaged could scarcely be called ultimate.

It was wild, uncivilized, and pagan.  Our sessions were brutal and lacked nuance.  Impact in the air was common and encouraged.  There were no fouls or picks.  We also allowed the thrower to move laterally along the field (None of us had a useful forehand and, being unaware of the rules for pivoting, our apocrypha allowed the thrower to get around a mark).  Since throwers could easily move and huck downfield, this rule in particular was responsible for spectacular and bone shattering midair jousting battles.  We typically played on an enormous field, and we were completely unaware of the concept of subbing, as we did not even know how many players were supposed to be on a side.

This was my introduction to Ultimate.  Glory and violence proved more important than possession or precision.  Few Ultimate players would ever participate in this sort of game (and I wouldn’t encourage it), but I am grateful to have learned in this environment.  The simplicity of our game kept me engaged, the brutality kept me always poised, and the emphasis on the spectacular plays honed valuable skills like sure hands, aggressive defense, and powerful throws.

In the years to come, I was taught most things I learned about Ultimate before college were very wrong.  I’d discover the sacred rules and struggle to bring my existing practices in line with dogma.  I developed new throws, avoided contact, and always set my pivot foot.  I committed to the “spirit of the game”.  There was still glory to be had, but it was muted and culled.  Savagery gave way to civility.

Eventually, I made pilgrimage to my hometown bringing the sanctified texts and precepts back to a people in need of order.  A few other missionaries from the old days of distance running were preaching the word as well.  There were many converts in those years, and the new religion spread like wildfire in drought.  True Ultimate began to shine in my hometown.

Today, there is a small group there that communes regularly.  The disc shines high above their game, a beacon of glowing white that confirms they follow the true path.  It is easy to recognize that these people have been redeemed.  Yet, I know keenly what price paid in that conversion.  Our pagan rights were flawed and barbaric, but part of me can’t help but be saddened by what is lost.  I have been playing ultimate now for over 15 year, but the games I first played will always hold a special place in my heart.  Pagan plastic will always be a part of me.