12 Things You Didn’t Know About Bill Nye, The Ultimate Guy

Tiina Booth sat down with Bill Nye The Science Guy to talk about his storied history playing ultimate frisbee.

Bill Nye The Science Guy catching a disc in an ultimate game.
Bill Nye The Science Guy catching a disc in an ultimate game.

I just returned from the 40thCornell Ultimate Reunion and was lucky to meet and interview Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Bill was a member of the first Cornell Buds, a team that was started by Jon Cohn of Maplewood, New Jersey in 1973.  Jon graduated from Columbia High School and brought the sport he learned in the NJ parking lot to the Dust Bowl of Cornell’s University Halls. Bill learned all he could from Jon and eventually brought his talents west to Seattle.

1. He played Frisbee Football before Ultimate.

Bill grew up throwing a Pluto Platter (a really old disc with planets in a ring around the center) with his older brother and played “Frisbee Football” when he was growing up in D.C. “I was comfortable throwing a disc around,” and when he saw Jon teaching the game, “I just wanted to be part of it.  I understood it instantly.”

2. One of his fond memories is playing under the lights in Amherst. 

Bill recalls the Cornell team playing on a lit field at UMass. “It was Halloween. The grass was damp and it was under the lights. It was just exciting to play at night.  We are playing a professional sport, man, under the lights!”

3. He founded the Olympic Windjammers, the first men’s team in Seattle.

After graduation from Cornell, he took a job with Boeing in Everett, Washington.  He joined an already thriving disc scene, headed by Mary Lowry and Jeff Jorgenson, and was a founder and captain of the Windjammers. “I was captain because I had a phone. I had a phone at home. A landline, as we call it now. And an answering machine. And a pencil and a pen and paper.  I had all that technology.”

Bill Nye signing a disc for some Cornell Roses players.
Bill Nye signing a disc for some Cornell Roses players.

4. He was a part of the early Seattle vs. Portland rivalry.

The Windjammers’ main competition was the Dark Star of Portland, a team that ruled the Northwest in the late seventies. They also traveled to Santa Barbara and Vancouver and once flew in two private planes piloted by friends from Boeing.  “We played a lot in the rain and the mud in Seattle.” They also played halftime shows in the King Dome for the Seattle Sounders.

5. He had some serious ultimate injuries.

Bill suffered a dislocated shoulder, which “has never really been the same” and a broken nose while playing, one that he believed to be retaliatory for an earlier play.

6. He remembers the old rules.

When Bill started playing, the stall count was 15 and then 12 and then 10. The playing field was 60 yards long but he likes our current dimensions. He added, “The Callahan is after my time . . .it’s a good rule.”

7. Why he likes ultimate as a player.

“It’s just an elegant game. You have your disc skills with your hand and you are running like crazy, which I respect. . . The frisbee is just more interesting to watch fly than a ball, and I love baseball.”

8. Why he likes ultimate as a scientist.

Bill Nye on Ultimate Frisbee from a scientific perspective 

9. He likes the idea of professional Ultimate.

Bill now lives in New York City  and has never seen a pro game. “I will definitely go to the games. Because what I have always imagined is the game would be just that much more rigorous.  Just a little bit. Everyone has to keep his/her foot on the line ‘til the pull is pulled. I guess they have referees . . .I’m the guy that got his nose broken and I would like that to be disciplined.”

10. He’s not concerned about the commercialization of the sport.

“No. That will help the sport.  I have anti-concern.”

Some members of the founding Cornell ultimate team. From left to right: Bill Nye, Joe Reina, Chip O'Lari, Jon Cohn, Karl Barth, Toby Lou, Don Eibsen.
Some members of the founding Cornell ultimate team. From left to right: Bill Nye, Joe Reina, Chip O’Lari, Jon Cohn, Karl Barth, Toby Lou, Don Eibsen.

11. He deeply appreciates his parents and his time at Cornell.

“My parents both worked so hard to get me into Cornell and pay for it, it’s amazing. I don’t want to shock anybody who might have a long memory at the university. I am sure it was a clerical error that got me into Cornell. It changed my life. Cornell made me who I am.”

Why was your admission to Cornell an error? “Because the people were so freakin’ smart! What am I doing here?”

12. He played some serious ultimate at the reunion game.

For the record, Bill played more points than any of his contemporaries this weekend. He came to the sideline after his first few points and said, “This is still the best game. It’s just the best game.”

He further elaborates below. You will also hear his original take on Spirit and his suggestion for replacing the word, “assist.”

Bill Nye on his love of ultimate.

Bill Nye throwing a forehand.
Bill Nye throwing a forehand.

Bill spent the weekend reminiscing with old friends, meeting the new iterations of Cornell ultimate players, and taking lots of selfies. He usually writes “Bill Nye the Science Guy” when he gives an autograph. I asked him what he wrote on all of the discs he signed. This weekend he wrote either “Flying discs ARE SCIENCE!!” or “Bill Nye 1973.”

He was exuberant and curious and delighted in the connections he found between the past and current generations, and could not have been more accommodating or gracious.

He was — in every respect — Bill Nye the Ultimate Guy.

Photo credit: Jim Gaarder
Film credit: Louie Cohn
Special thanks: Jon Cohn

  1. Tiina Booth

    Tiina is an Ultiworld columnist. She retired from teaching English at Amherst Regional High School 4 years ago and retired from coaching their varsity boys team this past September. She still runs the National Ultimate Training Camp and offers clinics on coaching, training and sports psychology to teams of all levels. She is a co-author of Essential Ultimate and one of the founders of the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference. She will be coaching the UMass men's team for the 2014-15 season.

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