The Spirit Spike: A Story From Masters Nationals

Nat Taylor went from hero to outcast...and right back to hero.

This article was submitted to Ultiworld by David Stiles, who played alongside Nat Taylor at Masters Nationals with Ra out of North Carolina.

SARASOTA — For three days the temperature and humidity have both been hovering around 90. This is my first trip to Sarasota and all I keep hearing from the returning players is “Man, in October…this, in October that.” All sorts of things: “The beach is never this crowded, the hotels aren’t overbooked, I never burned my lips on my steel water bottle.” Whoever at USA Ultimate said, “Florida could work for Masters in July,” should be sentenced to mow the polo fields with my grandfather’s push mower for the rest of the summer. This was the first of a long list of details that seemed to have been overlooked by USA Ultimate for the 2014 Masters Championships.

Now, I was simply happy to take part in my first “Nats” and overlooked the ridiculous, brain cell frying heat and some things that could have been organized better until my teammate was awarded a spirit prize and shamed into the corner, all within ten seconds of each other. His name doesn’t really matter, and it shouldn’t anyway, so let’s just make up a name and call him Nat Taylor.

It is 2:30 PM on Sunday afternoon, about 150 players gather around the pavilion nursing various degrees of bruises and burns. Some hold umbrellas, others carry over their tents, it’s only 90 degrees but we may as well be on the surface of the sun. Every athlete dreams of hearing their name echo from a stadium PA system and this fantasy is close to our mind but far from our ears as the announcer talks over the nearly inaudible PA system. It provides great sound to the entire polo complex except the area right in front of the pavilion, so we all stand there in the burning sun our ears strain to pick up a word here and there. I am standing off to the right and away from the team when his name is called. Torn between watching the presentation and trying to lower my core temperature under the misting tent which is 200 feet away; I had a suspicion Nat would be called so I stayed. I thought this for no other reason than he is the most spirited person I have ever met, in Ultimate or in life.

Nat Taylor (right) with Ra teammate Sam Boyarsky.
Nat Taylor (right) with Ra teammate Sam Boyarsky.

I say this, partially, because I have had the pleasure of playing with him for almost three months but mostly because Saturday morning, while I was complaining about a bad travel call over bagels and coffee, he was reading pages 30 and 31 of the event guide and telling me, in his light, but noticeable southern accent, “Man, this is a good read. I could do better with number 2.” He was talking about the section of the guide titled “10 things you should know about Spirit of The Game.” I quickly skimmed the number 2 headline that read “Control: SOTG takes real effort” before I flipped to our team’s section to see if they spelled my name correctly. They had, so I tossed the guide on the table to use as a coaster.

Another prime example of this brilliant individual was evident to 58 people that were in the middle of a steamy battle for 9th place on Saturday afternoon. After a long out cut, Nat turned to cut under and was met by an outstretched defender, in a completely legal position, standing in his path. Nat was caught up in his defender’s body as he turned and started to run with Nat. Now, it’s important to note that Nat played for ECU and has won college Nationals, so it’s safe to say he has meet his fare share of full contact defensive players.

“FOUL!” Nat yelled as play stopped and we all bent over to gasp a few gulps of humid air. We turned to see what infraction was about to be disputed. “You can’t do that man! You can’t just hold your arms out like that!” Nat says.

“Want do you mean I never moved. I was standing there and you ran into me!” the defender says.

Nat paused for a second and took a step back. His teammates and I know by the look on his face that he realized he was wrong, and more importantly his defensive counterpart was right, but what Nat did next is what makes Nat special. He put a big shit-eating grin on his face, tossed both arms in the air and shouted, “I thought we were friends, man!” Every person within earshot was immediately overcome with laughter and the joy of a great moment in this silly game we play. The foul was taken back and we continued on our quest to be the Chumps while Nat was all smiles as usual.

From beside the pavilion, I am watching when he realizes he has been awarded our team’s spirit prize. His face lights up even brighter than normal as the guys slap him on the back or on his floppy straw hat before pushing him out of the crowd and towards the awards table about thirty feet away. He emerges with his fists in the air, stomping at the ground as he walks. Halfway to the table he starts doing the Ray Lewis pre-game dance, then takes four big steps and jumps into the air. Fully stretched out, he lands chest first on the grass before popping up and raising his fists to the sky again.

The crowd goes crazy; everyone is cheering, clapping, and bathing in the amazing intensity and spirit that is Nat. He turns and walks up to the table to receive his prize, an ugly and almost useless spirit disc, which he promptly spikes onto the ground with his entire body as if he had just scored the winning point in the finals. The crowd erupts again with cheers and whistles. Nat picks up his slightly bent spirit disc and heads back toward his teammates with a smile so big it would make Steven Tyler jealous. But the crowd all started pointing, telling Nat to go back to the podium for his picture with all the other spirit prize winners. He turns, spots the other recipients, and starts marching towards them. He looks at them like brothers bonded for a moment and a lifetime. However, the USA Ultimate official conducting the ceremony was not impressed with Nat’s boisterous show of, for lack of a better word, spirit. He stops Nat before he can reach the group.

The 2014 Masters Spirit Prize Recipients (Nat Taylor, far right, digitally inserted).
The 2014 Masters Spirit Prize Recipients (Nat Taylor, far right, digitally inserted).

We all watch as Nat’s smile washes away almost immediately, the official was clearly upset with his antics and motions for him to go stand next to the pavilion, away from his counterparts. Apparently, according to this guy, Nat should not be allowed to have his picture taken with all the other players awarded the very prize that defines this sport and Nat so well. The crowd is bewildered at what was happening and our entire team is irate as a photo is taken of the most spirited players at “Nats” while the most spirited person in the world, our Nat, is cast aside for being what, too spirited?

Alone he stands, with his hands clasp together in front of him, seemingly void of all joy. Like a puppy, smacked with a newspaper for being too excited, Nat waits off to the side, defeated and alone in a sea of his peers and friends.

Helpless we watch as the show goes on. The next award is the Marty Bakko Spirit Award, an award given to one player in the Open Division who “stands out for their commitment and love of the game.” A player who “…displays a commitment to fair play, integrity and respect for their opponent;…shows an intense, competitive spirit; and [is a] leader who inspire others to act.” This award recipient is chosen not by USA Ultimate, but by the captains of the other teams at the tournament.

Our entire team is focused on the pavilion, not because we care what the guy on the useless microphone has to say but because Nat is still standing in the spot he was sent to after his amazing display. We want him to come back to the crowd and be with the team, we want to know what had been said to him, and we want to tell him everything he had done was the exact reason we had chosen him for the spirit award. But, before he can sulk away the USA Ultimate official starts to speak over the faint PA system: “This year the finalist for the Marty Bakko Award is…”

The official stops and stares at his cue sheet with a surprised and puzzled look before clearing his throat and saying, “Nat Taylor.”

The crowd goes wild once again as Nat, instantaneously, transforms into his old self. He rips off his shirt and flexes his muscles like Hulk Hogan and it seems, at least to me, that Nat Taylor will forever be remembered as the most spirited person of 2014 Masters Nationals.

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