Andrew Zill’s teeth chatter, he shivers, his fingers struggle to maintain dexterity. He seems not to notice or care about the cold as he looks out over the Foothill College turf at the 50-plus men flinging plastic pancakes through the air and sandwiching them – smack – between their palms. The 10.5-inch diameter discs will hover, almost motionless, until they are plucked from time by the nimble fingers of lanky men. Cleats pound the green turf – long strides followed by a quick succession of staccato thumps. For ten minutes, the sky clears and a rainbow arcs over the trees beyond the fence. It rains intermittently for the next three hours of tryouts.
The San Jose Spiders, host of the tryouts, are the reigning American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) champions. To Zill, a biochemist by day and the team’s owner and manager by every spare minute, Ultimate Frisbee (purists call it Ultimate Disc, or simply Ultimate) is not just for long-haired, free-loving hippies and their dogs, or an activity for lazy hillside picnics; it is a serious game, played by serious athletes, with the potential to be the next big sport.
Ultimate is played on a football field by two teams of seven who pass a disc into the end zone to score. Players cannot run with the disc; they can only pivot and pass. There are two main positions: handler (who throws) and cutter (who receives). It is a non-contact sport, though collisions happen when athletes vie for airborne discs like basketball players jockeying for a rebound. A key principle of Ultimate is “spirit of the game,” which embodies sportsmanship and the ability to self-referee. The ideal Ultimate player resolves disagreements with opponents as he would with a friend, honest and amicable in both victory and defeat.
This year marks the first in the history of Ultimate that a few elite individuals can make a viable occupation of the sport. It comes at a time when players are shifting their focus to professional rather than club play, paving the way for more lucrative contracts.
The San Francisco Bay Area is a hub for Ultimate and includes about 90,000 players, according to Bay Area Disc Association executive director Mike McGuirk. Of this 90,000, only about 500 are elite, McGuirk says. Historically these elite players have focused their energy on club teams, says Matthew Sewell, co-founder of Major League Ultimate (MLU), the other professional league competing for prominence with the AUDL. But with the rise of professional Ultimate, that is changing. McGuirk, who runs hundreds of clinics for schools in the Bay Area, says the youngest generation of Ultimate players no longer want to simply play club; they want to be paid to travel and play for fans. They look to players who are already living this dream – players like Beau Kittredge, Jimmy Mickle and Cassidy Rasmussen.
Running with the pros
On a cold September night in San Francisco, Kittredge, Mickle, Rasmussen and roommate Zibi Braniecki line up on the Kezar Stadium track. This is one piece of a two-a-day, six-days-a-week training regimen that includes lifting, field agility and plyometric drills, punctuated with countless hours of throwing. Their workout consists of eight 200-meter sprints, all completed within 30 seconds. Mickle endures the pain with intermittent dopey smiles over his shoulder as if to say, “Can you believe they’re putting me through this?” Rasmussen with a quiet diligence that seems to be his natural state of being; Kittredge with a silent, furious focus.
Kittredge, who recently quit his job in the city to pursue Ultimate full time, is the unquestioned leader of the group. He is the Peyton Manning of Ultimate. He was the first of the three to sign with the Dallas Roughnecks after two years playing for the Spiders. Kittredge says he now “makes enough to live off of,” an annual salary Roughnecks owner Jim Gerencser says is “in the ballpark of” $50,000. This is unprecedented; most professional Ultimate players make about $25 per game.
Gerencser says Mickle and Rasmussen, who have also signed with the Roughnecks, make similarly high salaries, though less than Kittredge. Their contract includes work for Gerencser that is outside gameplay; all three coach children during clinics with Early Recognition Is Critical (E.R.I.C.), an organization founded by Gerenscer that encourages children to recognize cancer symptoms and gain an awareness of their bodies by playing Ultimate.
Braniecki looks at his watch and counts down from five as the four men lean forward in their respective lanes. The former mixed martial arts fighter and current Mozilla employee wrote the software for the timer on his wrist because nothing else better suited their track workouts. Though he recently made the Polish national team, his Ultimate skills are not on par with Kittredge, Rasmussen or Mickle. But his drive to improve is just as intense.
The four of them have the same training schedule and vastly different personalities. Braniecki has a piercing, intent gaze that bespeaks the serious way he approaches Ultimate. On the Frisbee field his movements are hardly ever like Mickle’s lackadaisical saunter or Kittredge’s sometimes-casual flick; each play is a commitment given all-out effort. Braniecki is friendly, eager, a problem-solver.
Kittredge carries himself like a champion and is accustomed to star-struck admirers. A natural athletic ability complemented by dedication to training has led many Ultimate fans to call him the best in the world. The 6-foot-2, blue-eyed Alaskan is perpetually cold and often wears pajama pants to games. He has bestowed all his roommates with animal nicknames (meerkat for Rasmussen, beaver for Braniecki, baby hippo for Mickle) and christened himself a sloth. An author of children’s books who wants to extend his fame beyond Ultimate, he alternates between boisterous childishness and brooding ambition.
Rasmussen is a near-perfect foil to Kittredge – shortest of the group at 5-foot-11, with dark features, he is quiet, humble, an introvert. Five years ago he was far from being a top competitor, says former teammate Ashlin Joye, but Rasmussen worked relentlessly until he could play at the same level with his idol, Kittredge. “Who knows where he’ll stop,” says McGuirk, “if he continues to improve the same way he has in the past five years, I could see him being the best player in the league.” Rasmussen makes a point of having a life outside the close-knit Ultimate community. He is the only one of the group who cooks regularly and consequently has found himself cooking for his roommates, who might otherwise survive on diets of Soylent and cereal.
Mickle hails from Colorado and has a twin sister who plays Ultimate. Youngest of the group at 24, with floppy dark hair, a stud in his left ear, and paw-like hands that seem too big for the disc, he is quick to smile and easy to know. He has a talent for long throws that pairs well with Kittredge’s propensity for leaping catches. Kittredge, Mickle’s senior by nine years, has become a mentor, though they more often act like rambunctious siblings.
When the workout is done, Mickle crumples into the fetal position on the track. Rasmussen crouches on the turf (as if praying to Mecca, Mickle jokes), willing himself not to vomit. Kittredge chides Mickle until he is on his feet again (“Jimmy, get up, time to throw; we’ve got a reporter here!”) and they pass the disc between them. Mickle throws too wide and both men drop to the ground for pushups. “How are you going to play in a game when you’re tired if you can’t do this?” Kittredge says in response to Mickle’s repeated complaints.
After twenty minutes of exhausted, endorphined chatter, Mickle, Kittredge and Braniecki pack into Kittredge’s hatchback. Rasmussen follows on his motorcycle, an orange Kawasaki Ninja. Braniecki orders Thai food on his phone. They pull into a garage near Twin Peaks and are greeted by fifth roommate Matt Boston, who works in advertising in the city. He beat out the roommate competition last year when he responded in kind to a colorful Craigslist ad written by Kittredge. The fact that three of the top Ultimate players in the world are his roommates does not overwhelm Boston. (“I don’t understand half the stuff they talk about.”)
Their apartment is dominated by Frisbee paraphernalia. A couch, futon and armchair arranged in a C formation around a small coffee table fill most of the living room. They face a large television, above which is mounted a wall-length mural of Marvel comic characters. A black Revolver flag (the dominant club team in the Bay Area) adorns the wall facing the door. A $20 bill is pinned to the right of the TV, a reminder of a lost bet. In the red-walled kitchen, a bobblehead doll of Kittredge stands above a thick line of cereal boxes.
Braniecki prepares Soylent and protein shakes. Rasmussen massages his quads with a foam roller, one of many piled in a corner. Mickle and Kittredge collapse on the couch, scanning their cell phones. Baxter, a doppelganger of the Zoolander mutt, curls up in Mickle’s lap. Conversation is dominated by Ultimate, flowing from the recent world tryouts in Arizona and Florida, to dream lineups, to the prospects for the 2016 season.
The Dallas Roughnecks and the ultimate innovator
One of the group’s most prized possessions hangs lopsided on the wall next to the Revolver flag: a black-and-white photo of a man in short shorts “laying out” – diving for a disc – while spectators cheer from the sideline. That photo is from the 1980 Ultimate world championship in Manila. The man laying out is Gerencser. The roommates acquired it on a recent visit to Dallas. Gerenscer has also added Brodie Smith to the roster. The only Ultimate player perhaps more famous than Kittredge, Smith has made his living by crafting a trick-throwing YouTube personality that got him a spot on this year’s season of “The Amazing Race.” By any Ultimate standards, Gerencser is building a formidable line-up with his Roughnecks team.
At a waterfront restaurant in Berkeley near his home, Gerencser dunks iced jumbo shrimp into cocktail sauce and says he wants the Roughnecks to be the showcase for what Ultimate can be. He has the air of an entrepreneur so familiar to Silicon Valley, the kind of confidence you need to convince the world that a game of flying discs can someday be on par with the NFL or NBA. He calls himself an innovator, one of many who want to see Ultimate get to the next level. He has big plans for “sexy highlight reels” that will entice spectators, for fostering a fan base in Dallas, and for maintaining hype around the team that he hopes will push the caliber and notoriety of the entire sport forward. “To be taken seriously you need a team with serious talent,” Gerencser says, “and I get that from people like Beau, Jimmy and Cassidy.”
Back in the Twin Peaks apartment, the Thai takeout is digested and Gerencser’s star players retire to the garage gym. Kittredge and Mickle’s heads almost touch the ceiling. There is a squat rack, bench press, multi-purpose machine, kettlebells and other lifting equipment. Propped up on the cement wall is a cardboard cutout of a cartoon rabbit named Jack Nimble, the main character in Kittredge’s first video game creation (the venture has thus far been a failure). Kittredge wears a gray beanie with long red rabbit ears sewn onto it – a tribute to Jack Nimble – throughout the lifting session. Rasmussen controls the music and sings along as he performs back squats with consistently flawless form. Kittredge pats Rasmussen’s head between sets. They joke about breaking the bar when Kittredge stacks on weight plates until there is no room for more. His back arches under the load. They do front squats, bench press and good mornings. After about half an hour, Mickle’s requests for an end to the session grow louder. “No, we keep going,” Kittredge tells him, “you have to be ready for the season.”
A new season: Shaping the future of Ultimate
The professional season begins in April and ends 17 games later in August with the AUDL Championship. Throughout the Bay Area, teams like the Spiders, the San Francisco FlameThrowers (the Spiders’ fiercest rival) and the Dogfish of the MLU, are also preparing for the upcoming season.
At a sunny January FlameThrowers practice on the Treasure Island rugby fields, Simon Higgins and Greg Cohen – both former Spiders players – agree more people are seeing Ultimate as a “real sport.” The two are up-and-coming young stars that FlameThrowers co-owner Peter Lincroft says may help drive the propensity for professional play forward.
“There’s a lot of migration in the sport of Ultimate,” said Dogfish player Nick Fiske from the Berkeley high school football field during a January scrimmage. Fiske likewise predicts elite players will be increasingly more likely to migrate from club to professional teams as the benefits and notoriety of the latter increase.
At the Spiders tryouts at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, among the players jostling for position in a three-on-three scrimmage, one stands out – Mel McClough, 21 and 6-foot-7, who has spent the past three years playing basketball in Italy. Zill is enthusiastic about people like McClough who have backgrounds in different sports as potential sources of new talent. But McClough is noticeable now for his inability to catch and throw. “I’ve played on a high level of almost every sport. I’ve been all-state in track, football, water polo, soccer,” he says, gasping for air on the sideline between plays, “but this is an entirely different caliber of sport.”
This kind of appreciation is something Zill thinks an audience can share. He still remembers the time he first felt excited about Ultimate as a viable sport franchise. It was the first Ultimate game he attended: the Indianapolis AlleyCats home opener in Roncalli Stadium. Nearly 1,000 spectators stood in the bleachers, cheering and holding up jerseys under the stadium lights. He loved the excitement the crowd expressed as the disc hung in the air, players sprinting after it. Afterwards, children lined up for autographed discs from their favorite athletes (Brodie Smith among them).
“I remember I couldn’t find a parking spot because so many people had come to watch,” Zill says, “later it made me think that if we could just get the audience, this has a future in the big time.”
The Spiders will have their first game on April 8 against the Seattle Cascades. The newly formed Roughnecks will have their first game on April 2 against the Austin Sol. The all-star team will be closely watched by the Ultimate community as a possible harbinger for increased enthusiasm for the sport and the viability of increased salaries for professional players. If owners like Zill and Gerencser are right, and players like Kittredge, Mickle and Rasmussen generate the hoped-for publicity, this season could mark the beginning of the future of Ultimate.