Ultimate is at a cross-roads. The sport that started as counter-culture has started to swim against the currents and into the mainstream. As exciting as the explosive growth has been, there will also be some growing pains.
To this end, I decided to interview a rising star in the game: James Highsmith, a star player at Eastern Michigan University. The 20-year old junior has helped EMU grow from an underdog to a legitimate regional contender. That growth always comes with some struggles, but the team has faced some unusual obstacles: dealing with racial issues in a homogenous sport.
Eastern Michigan is one of the few, if only, teams in the country that plays a universe line where six of the seven players are black.
On His First Competitive Environment
Ultiworld: When did you first start playing club ultimate?
James Highsmith: I first started playing when I was sixteen for Overhaul. I realized in elite Ultimate there are serious aspects I didn’t know before. Everything I am as a player today is due to Overhaul.
UW: So you started playing competitive Ultimate when you were really young, was there anything strange about doing that?
JH: A couple of memories really stand out for me, yeah…I was playing on a mixed team, Hybrid, we weren’t very good. And during a tournament we played One-Trick Pony who at the time was a perennial Nationals contender. Very very good team. And they beat us really bad. After they won, they went back to their huddle and I heard a teammate of theirs say, “I was really worried about the black matchup.” I really didn’t know what to think about that.
Then my first year at Overhaul, I was 16 years old. I was a terrible cutter, terrible. But on defense I’d always draw the best cutter defender. And I would think to myself, ‘dude, I’m 16. Why are you guarding me?’
On Transitioning Into The College Environment
JH: EMU has a core group of guys who have really developed this program, and that core group stayed. We returned all our players from last year’s team. We also have our alumni this year coming out to practices and helping us get better. We also are lucky to have an incredible coach in Dave Wozniak, who is willing to come to all the practices, come to all our tournaments, and really help us grow.
UW: And itʼs safe to say that Nationals is a goal for you this year?
JH: We have a lot of goals this year. In the past weʼve had a reputation for less than spirited play, so we want to work on that. We want to develop some of our younger players to take the core of our team from about twelve to twenty. We want to earn our region a bid to Nationals, and, yes, our final goal is to make Nationals.
On The “Black Line”
UW: Before I had even heard that EMU was a legitimate Nationals threat this year, I heard that you often times will play a line of all African-American players. Other Ultimate players have referred me to this line, one they call the “Black Line.” Can you talk to me a bit about that?
JH: [Laughs] It’s not like we actively recruited black players. It just so happened that we had a core of four black players from Overhaul, and then we had a recruiting class where a total of seven to eight black players are now part of a total core.
UW: So your universe line is all black players?
JH: It’s not a set universe line, but yes, on our universe line we do have six Black players who would play. I think it’s the first time that’s happened in the country. I know about Downtown Brown.
UW: But Downtown Brown also had players from an Asian background.
UW: So how have other teams reacted when you play that line?
JH: On that line, you’ll hear “not a thrower,” which is funny because we have great throwers. Johnny [Bansfield] might have the best forehand in Michigan college ultimate. I don’t know where ‘not a thrower’ comes from, but I’ve heard it several times…We’ll get a lot of zone for the first two to three points of the game. When there are six to seven Black players on the field, who in your eyes is “not a thrower?” Then they’ll realize we can throw and stop.
UW: Where do you think that comes from? This reaction of “not a thrower” when a team sees a line of five to six black players?
JH: That’s a tough question…I don’t think people mean to be racist….I think that guy assumed, people assume that I’m only a huge athlete because I’m black.
UW: The parallel for me would be the NFL. When black quarterbacks were first coming out, at first it was a big story. There was this underlying idea of: “Can they handle being a quarterback?” Now they’re just part of the game.
JH: That’s true, and with guys like Jason Simpson from Chain [Lightning] who can put it anywhere on the field, John Korber from Connecticut…
UW: And Johnny.
JH: Yeah and Johnny. I think the NFL is a good comparison. First you had [Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback] Donovan McNabb, which was a story. And then it became part of the game. Right now we have these black players, and it’s a story.
UW: Well, now that other teams know not to play zone what do you want other teams to know about you [EMU]. What is your playing style?
JH: It’s smart athletic ultimate. We’re going to come down and match up with anyone. We’re going to come down with most 50/50 discs and we’re going to layout and beat you on in-cuts.
On Ultimate’s Future
UW: Iʼve heard a lot of rumors about the Michigan Ultimate scene this summer, but what are your current plans?
JH: I plan on playing at the highest possible level — elite open — and if thatʼs by trying out with an elite team like Machine, or if itʼs with a Michigan Open team, thatʼs what I plan on doing.
UW: Ultiworld has been covering the various incarnations of new elite leagues that may happen this summer. What are your thoughts on which league you want to see come out on top?
JH: I like NexGen. I love the coverage and itʼs established.
UW: And in terms of race in Ultimate, where do you think the sport is heading and what message would you want to deliver for young players of all demographics as they come into the sport?
JH: Well right now if the team has a couple of other Black players, they’ll acknowledge us, so we can relate to other black players in the sport. But, typically in Ultimate it’s an educated community. No one’s making comments, you know? Skin color is not a thing on the field. I already think with growth you’ll see more African American players.
UW: And more players from all demographics?
JH: Yeah, and [ultimate] will remain talented because of that growth.