No Hippies Here: The Competitive Early Days of Ultimate Frisbee

Credit: Courtesy David Gessner

In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, David Gessner was one of the top athletes in his field — a member of notable teams like Boston's Titanic and Hostages. So why haven't you heard of him? Probably because he played Ultimate Frisbee, at a time when it wasn’t even well-known enough to be the butt of a joke. In his new memoir, Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Own Wild Youth, Gessner details his own story, as well as those of other players who played key roles in the development and evolution of a sport that is now played by millions. We recently caught up with Gessner to talk about Ultimate and the origins of its West Coast–East Coast rivalry, the “screw you” spirit of its athletes in the ‘70s, and how it's become, well, hardcore.

What were the formative years of Ultimate like?

I say in the book that we were the men in the leather helmets. The thing about this is, it started so recently: 1968, 1969 at Columbia High School with Joel Silver. It is crazy that Joel Silver is the James Naismith of the sport. He’s admittedly quite un-athletic himself; I think he was doing it as a stunt, in a way. The myth I tried to correct in the book was that it was all hippy-dippy. Every single piece written on Ultimate usually leads with “the spirit of the game” and that we don’t have referees and that we all love each other. That was not my experience.

So it was competitive?

My experience was a very competitive, “screw you” spirit. My team was called the Hostages, and we were named that because of the Iran crisis and Khomeini. We wore chain-link spray-painted shirts and yellow ribbons and the number 52, because that’s how many hostages there were. A lot of people had dropped out of college to play. It was more of a punk rock motif than it was a hippy motif. We made a big show of hating other teams, which we didn’t really do.

Do you still follow the sport?

I went easily 15 years without following it. Then I started working on the book again, and now that I’m back into it, I’m really interested. When we played, there was no organization. We were a club team at the college. They gave us a little slice of the field off to the side of the soccer field. And now it’s an official thing; it’s a club team, but it’s got coaches and trainers. It’s really cool to see what it’s evolved into.

Have you found any substantial changes in terms of how it’s played now?

Originally, the game was played with no referees. They didn’t have the money. In the late '70s, early '80s, it was put upon players to make their own calls. If you’ve ever played in a pickup basketball game, it’s the same thing — people making their own calls. The difference was, we would train for nine months and get to the national semifinals or finals, and people were still making their own calls. I always found it absurd. The pro leagues now have referees called “observers." I like the fact that when I watched the Nationals last year, the observers were fairly active.

The other thing is, even if it was the national semifinals, you’d have Ultimate players standing on the side of the field drinking beer — a grubby feel to the whole thing. It’s much cleaner now. It’s televised. Everything’s just a lot slicker than it used to be.

You write about how Ultimate’s origins in the Northeast clashed with the cultural associations of Frisbee with the West Coast. What did that look like?

I don’t know if it used to be that grit and toughness, at least in their own minds, were the defining qualities of the Northeastern players, and they scoffed at the California players. I remember watching a final where a Boston team played a California team, and it was in Lexington, Kentucky. It was cold and windy, and the Boston people were out there in their T-shirts, and the California people were all layered in their Lycra. I knew that Boston would win. But I don’t know if that continues to be the case. The current dominant team has been Revolver, the San Francisco team. And Boston beat them last year; they’re the reigning champion. They’re back on top after all these years, which is great.

Did writing this book change how you view the game?

I think the combination of writing the book and the passing of time — I’m 56 now, I was 18 when I started to play —has really made me appreciate what I had then. Half of me would be really into it, and half would say, “Why am I doing this stupid thing? I’m trying to become a writer; I want to be successful at that. It’s getting in the way of my writing.” Well, it wasn’t. I’m the chair of the Creative Writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I deal with apprentice writers all the time. I was, even though I didn’t know it back then, an apprentice. Those first couple of books I wrote weren’t going to shock the world. They were apprentice books. What it gave me was another place to be an artist/entertainer, and a community. One of the great enemies of being a writer is isolation. I wasn’t isolated. I didn’t have writer friends, but I had Ultimate friends.

In a very nice handoff, like Tarzan swinging from vine to vine, the last year I played was the year my first book was published. That became my community afterwards. I don’t want to get misty-eyed, like some fat-cat alumni being nostalgic for college, but I feel really good in retrospect about what I did, even though it seemed kind of crazy when I was doing it.