The History of Ultimate
David Leiwant stood in the Columbia High School parking lot watching the younger players throw, chase, and catch the disc under the bright white lights and the cover of a summer night. "If you squint your eyes, it’s almost like 25 years ago," said the 42-year-old Leiwant, a 1973 alumnus of Columbia, located in Maplewood, N.J. "Just a rag-tag bunch of guys running around with a Frisbee."
Leiwant was a 13-year-old seventh-grader in 1968, a tumultuous year for America and the world. Martin Luther King, Jr., and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, a war raged in Vietnam and the country was coming to grips with the civil rights and women’s rights revolutions. But, in one corner of the country, in Maplewood, things were changing for the better. That year, staff members of the school’s newspaper, The Colombian, and its Student Council developed an entirely new sport as a gag and an activity for their high school nights. Led by Joel Silver — the willful, if somewhat arrogant, member of the Council and the newspaper — the students adapted the rules of Frisbee Football and ultimately invented the fast-moving team sport we know today. The sport of Ultimate.
"Joel Silver said it was the ‘ultimate sports experience,’" Leiwant said. "He said, ‘Someday people all over the world will be playing this game,’ and we all said, ‘Yeah, Joel, right.’
Thirty years after Silver’s prophetic words, Ultimate is played in 42 countries, with programs in Sweden, Norway, and Japan receiving government funding. It is estimated that at least 100,000 people play the sport worldwide, about half in the United States. Ultimate will be a medal sport in the 2001 World Games in Japan.
Silver, who is now the head of Hollywood’s Silver Pictures and was unavailable for comment because he was working on the filming of Lethal Weapon 4, had played Frisbee Football at a camp in Mount Hermon, Massachusetts in the summer of 1967. When he returned home to Maplewood, he continued to throw with his friends, including Bernard "Buzzy" Hellring, the editor of The Colombian, and Jonny Hines, the newspaper’s sports editor. Although Frisbee was not quite as big a fad as the hula hoop in the 1950s and ’60s, discs were beginning to seep into the American consciousness.
"I started throwing a Frisbee in 1961 with my two sisters," said Ed Summers, who graduated Columbia High in 1972. "It was a big fad. We threw mostly backhands. The other big throw was the overhand wrist flip."
A Brave New World
In the fall of 1967, Silver proposed that the Student Council form a Frisbee team. Suggested as a joke, the motion was seconded and then passed. Discussion of Frisbee continued in the Council throughout the year and into the spring, but it remained tongue-in-cheek.
"It was not a serious thing at all, it was a lark of Council," Silver later said. Yet by the end of the school year, Silver and other members of the Council began to organize a game during their lunch period. Members of The Colombian had already been tossing a disc -- a black 150-gram Wham-O, Master Tournament Model -- during lunch on the east lawn of the school. That spring, members of both the newspaper and the Council began to play Frisbee Football. The first games were played on a small field that was later torn up and replaced with the school’s B-wing.
"It was a chance for The Colombian core -- the intelligentsia (sic) and non-athletes of the school -- to play a sport," Silver has said. Many of the original players were in the upper ranks of the school academically, future Ivy Leaguers who weren’t exactly your Bo Jacksons and Kobe Bryants. "The core of us were largely among the better students," Summers said. "There were also some druggie types. We were about evenly split between the better students and the half who smoked dope."
The game was freeform early on, with no limits as to how many players should be on each side. As many as 20 to 30 players were allowed per team. The original game allowed running with the disc and included lines of scrimmage and a series of downs, but as they played, Silver, Hellring, and Hines began to modify the rules. Conceptualizing basketball, hockey, and soccer, they experimented, gradually eliminating running with the disc and the system of downs, and establishing rules for the defense. Unable to satisfactorily define a foul, one player came up with the phrase that a foul constituted "any action sufficient to arouse the ire of your opponent."
There was no specific provision made for what is today called "Spirit of the Game" because it was viewed by those at Columbia as a "gentleman’s sport, a collegial game,’’ said Hines, who went on to found the Princeton team and is now a New York City-based attorney. "Even my Princeton jock-ringers of the time (football recruits from Texas and Missouri) were gentlemen, relatively speaking, on the Frisbee field. Hines, the most athletic of the trio of founding fathers, said the players liked the game’s athleticism. "There was very graceful running and jumping," he said. Graceful by some, not so graceful by others. "There was a mix of athletes and some uncoordinated, overweight people playing," he said. "The former could run and jump like gazelles; the latter evoked other analogies." Some players came in sneakers and sweats, others in stiff jeans and walking shoes. "If there weren’t enough people, you’d grab somebody, some kid going by," Leiwant said. "Originally we would play as long as we felt like it -- till the sun went down, till people got tired and had to leave."
In 1968 Hellring decided to turn The Colombian from a weekly into a daily, but needed more articles to justify the change. When Frisbee play during lunch grew, he figured it would give him something to write about. When Silver was ejected from the newspaper’s staff, a mock rivalry developed between The Colombian and the Council. The newspaper had also been critical of the Council, which fed the rivalry.
In the fall of 1968, the newspaper challenged the Council to a game of Frisbee to settle their differences. In a matchup that featured two large, co-ed teams, The Colombian won the first game in front of the high school, 11-7.
My Girlfriend is a Frisbee
By the summer of 1969, the now famous Columbia parking lot had been built. Down the hill from the school, the lot is bounded on the east by a 12-foot drop that descends into the Rahway River and on the west by a railroad embankment. Because the lot was lit by mercury vapor lights, the students could play there at night, after the day’s activities. Games at the parking lot included teams of 20 or more per side, but that was eventually whittled to seven because "that was the most you could fit in the parking lot," Leiwant said. Soon, it became known that a regular game could be found on the "field" almost every weekend night and during vacations. "I used to spend so many weekend nights at the Frisbee field during my junior and senior high school years that my parents would kid and lament that my ‘only girlfriend was a Frisbee’ or that I would ‘marry a Frisbee,’" Hines said.
The sport was first publicized in a June 1969 Newark Evening News article, written by Silver, entitled "Frisbee Flippers Form Teams" and appearing above a story called "John and Yoko Croon Again." On the first day of school that fall, the Frisbee squad played its first game on the school’s new parking lot.
As the weeks and months passed, everything was not rosy in the lot, however. Local toughs and troublemakers would sometimes drive through the lot at high speeds — hassling the players and forcing them to scatter. Summers recalled one night when a "real big bruiser" — about 6-foot-2, 240-pounds — and a smaller guy got out of their car and attacked the No. 2 student in the class. "He was a very gentle, unassuming guy who wouldn’t have hurt a fly," Summers said. "I went over to them and the smaller guy took a swing at me. I knew I could’ve decked him, but the big guy was standing right there." (It is believed by some that the attackers went on to found Ultimate in North Carolina.)
Despite receiving abuse for their anti-establishment, countercultural game, the Frisbee players carried on. In February, 1970, the players adopted the name The Columbia High School Varsity Frisbee Squad, a tongue-in-cheek reference because the team had no official connection with the school. One player designed "CHS Varsity Frisbee" sweatshirts, Silver’s mother paid to have them made up and the players proudly wore them in the first team photo. In the picture of the "Original Ultimate squad," a school custodian appeared as "Head Coach," the school security director was the "General Manager" and a fictitious player, Arnold Tzoltic, was listed as a member.
According to Hellring’s sister, Heidi, Hellring got Wham-O to send the team a box of Frisbees because the discs kept cracking in the 15-25 degree Fahrenheit air; one green 120-gram "moonlighter" was lost in the brook by the lot, The Colombian reported. Silver and Hellring also took the International Frisbee Association’s test, passing it as masters. The IFA was then the sport’s governing body.
Hellring continued to write tongue-in-cheek Frisbee stories and place ads for the team in the paper. In one, the paper reported that "the rise of Frisbee in Columbia high school is merely indicative of a world-wide trend, according to major national periodicals." The story went on to cite a Time magazine article which recommended that the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. take their cue and henceforth "settle all disputes between the two with Frisbees instead of missiles."
Ultimate Grows Up
Before going off to college in 1970, Silver, Hellring, and Hines decided to print the rules and bring them up to date. Though many of the original rules are still in place today, some have changed dramatically. The only limit to the size of the field was that "The two goal lines must be parallel and should be somewhere between 40 and 60 yards apart, depending on the number of players." Games continued to be played with as many as 20 or 30 players per side. And the end zones were unlimited. A player standing a foot from the goal line could score with a fifty yard bomb. The booklet was entitled "Official Rules of Ultimate Frisbee" and cost 10 cents.
In the summer of 1970, a group of younger Columbia students – including Summers, Larry Schindel, Irv Kalb, and others known as the Richmond Avenue Gang or RAG – challenged the CHS team to a game. RAG lost 47-28 but played with the varsity for the rest of the summer, and Kalb was selected as new varsity captain when the original players went on to college. An annual Thanksgiving match between the Columbia team and the alumnus was established – a tradition that still exists today.
The RAG members sent the rules to many other high schools in northern New Jersey, asking them to form Ultimate Frisbee teams. Millburn High School responded and on Nov. 7, 1970, the first interscholastic game pitted Millburn against the more experienced Columbia varsity. CHS won 43-10 in the Columbia parking lot. The game was covered by the Newark Evening News, and copies of the rules were subsequently requested by other schools. When the New Jersey Frisbee Conference was formed in the spring of 1971, it had five teams: Columbia, Dumont, Millburn, Mountain (now West Orange), and Nutley. "We wanted to spread it throughout the world," said Summers, who recalled a 24-hour road trip to the International Frisbee Tournament in Upper Peninsula, Mich. "We were really spreading the gospel." Summers and his cohorts were the forerunners to generations of high school and college kids who load up for road trips – poor, smelly, and hungover – every weekend.
Meanwhile, Columbia graduates were organizing teams at their colleges and universities. In addition to Hines’ efforts at Princeton, Leiwant co-founded the Yale squad, and Summers the Tufts team. Hellring died in a tragic car accident during his freshman year, 1971, at Princeton.
Twenty-five people showed up for the first practice at Rutgers University, seven of them former New Jersey high school players. The first intercollegiate competition was held between Rutgers and Princeton on Nov. 6, 1972, the 103rd anniversary of the first intercollegiate football game, and at the same site on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus. That game and the rematch a year later were the only two intercollegiate games Hines played his entire career.
Hines arranged for the game to be videotaped by a national network and for former Yankees pitcher and sports commentator Jim Bouton to cover it. "It was a thrill and a half," Hines said. "I felt nervous and dead serious about winning. It was an incredibly close game, from beginning to end, and Bouton was very surprised at what a good game Ultimate was."