A Very Serious Evaluation Of The 2017 Callahan Videos

More words than you ever thought possible breaking down this year's crop.

I surrender.

After two straight seasons of watching every single Callahan video put out that year in order to write this column, you monsters finally broke me. There were just too many videos this year, and sometime around early May I fell off the pace. Disgraceful, I know. Although to be fair, I don’t think I’m the only one who succumbed to Callahan fatigue.

There was just too much raw content to consume it all. So before you read on, let me make the caveat that I have not seen ALL of the Callahan videos this year. If you go to South Missouri Tech and feel slighted because your nominee’s video wasn’t given its proper respect, then it might be because I just haven’t seen it. But probably not.

The Callahan video frenzy that really started in earnest in 2015 has had more consequences than impairing our ability to watch each reel. We may be reaching a critical mass of ultimate footage. We’ve seen pretty much everything that people are currently capable of doing on an ultimate field. The value of high caliber content is not as affecting as it used to be. What separates good videos from the also-rans now has much more to do with the presentation and editing of the reels than just the quality of the plays themselves.

Let’s look to the historical record. 2012 was the year the modern Callahan video was born with Nick Lance’s masterpiece. But Lance’s main competition that season for the award was Alex Thorne, who had at the time a pretty impressive video of his own. It wasn’t as good as Lance’s, but it held its own because back then we just didn’t have much good footage of people playing ultimate. Seeing Thorne ping the disc around was a revelation for many people in the ultimate community who didn’t regularly get to see elite level players in person.

Now though? It’s tough to make it through Thorne’s seven minute monstrosity. There are a lot of redundant plays, some spotty editing, and it is a staggering three songs long. Lance’s video, on the other hand, still holds up five years on. Editing wizard Jay Clark put together a tight reel with tangible momentum that keeps the viewer engaged through all four and half glorious minutes.

In 2017, with everyone putting out a video and the novelty of seeing good ultimate on screen completely gone, craftsmanship matters more now than ever. Concise, purposeful videos are a welcome oasis in the endless yellow dunes of six minute clip shows. Looking at the crowded field this year, I wanted to touch on the videos that stood out for good reasons, as well as those that are examples of how Callahan videos can go wrong.

As far the specific criteria for a good video goes, you can look back at previous editions of this column for all the messy details. Here is the cliff notes version:

  1. Quality highlights
  2. Not too long, must have a really good reason for using more than one song
  3. Music that compliments the video’s narrative or message
  4. Primarily college highlights

A quick, annual reminder: This is not necessarily a list of the best videos, although many of the best ones are on here. It is definitely not a ranking of who deserves to win the actual Callahan award. It’s an assessment of the most notable Callahan videos, the ones that give us the best sense of what the state of Callahan videos was like in 2017.

Got it? Cool. Let’s get to the videos.

The Videos

Ben Sadok (UMass)

We’re going to start with Sadok’s video, because this is the template. This has everything you want from a highlight reel, from meaningful visual imagery to small technical details that make it eminently watchable. It also has dope highlights. Some years the best-made video isn’t necessarily the best overall video, but this year Sadok’s video is both. It provides an example of exactly how you can paint a compelling picture of a player with just some game footage and a soundtrack.

Like an opening scene in a movie, the first play we see Sadok make uses visual storytelling to tell us who this character is and sets the tone for the rest of what we’re going to watch. A disc goes up and we see Sadok out-run and out-will everyone else to claim a deep ball that was not intended for him. He takes a preposterously circuitous line to get around Norman Archer, who is no slouch himself in the deep space, and launches himself horizontally to corral a disc that the defender thought was unplayable. The image of Sadok wildly splayed on the ground next to the vertical, imposing, but disc-less figure of Archer gives us the video’s thesis statement: Ben Sadok uses every inch of his body, every drop of his talent, and every ounce of self-belief he has to makes plays that no one other than him (and maybe his dad) thinks he can make.

This self-belief that borders on irrational confidence is his most dangerous weapon, and it fuels everything we see in the video. When we see him throw players open with giant hucks and preposterous scoobers, we know who this guy is and we know what fuels him. The plays become the physical manifestation of someone who believes that they can do anything.

The music choice nails this perfectly. It’s not just that a song called “Confident” applies to a video about someone’s confidence, the actual sound profile fits Sadok’s game and the video’s tone perfectly.

The Max Martin produced track is grand in all the best ways, luxuriating in its own excess. With drums that sound like “Black Skinhead” by way of Agrabah driving the action forward and a triumphant horn line that makes every scoober feel like Sadok just threw open the gates of Olympus, you can hear the song playing in his head as he is pulling off these preposterously ambitious plays.

The whole video culminates thematically and musically at the 3:03 mark when Sadok literally uses ever inch of his frame to haul in a disc that no sane person would have thought they had a shot at. The song crescendos into a closing sequence of plays in which Sadok continually gets clobbered by defenders and puts his body on the line to get blocks, but never stops finding that extra inch of advantage and never stops making plays. (Editor’s note: His penchant for doing this also resulted in a gruesome scene from 2015 D-I College Championships, when then-teammate Jeff Babbitt attempting to put Sadok’s shoulder back in during a heated quarterfinal matchup with Chris Larocque’s Florida State. I watched this. It was brutal, but the intensity level was spot on with the way Sadok plays.)

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This is the play that only someone with the self-confidence of a cult leader could make. In a random string of other plays it would still be cool, but it has real meaning because of the sequencing and character development the video crafts.

In addition to the broader thematic material and the sheer spectacle of the highlights themselves, the video does so many of the little technical things right. Particularly, it is light years ahead of most of its competition in terms of framing the character and maintain a visual coherency from clip to clip, which is something that many videos get wrong. When going from Sadok cutting to clips of him throwing, the video takes an extra beat to establish where the action is and what he’s doing.

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That pump fake doesn’t need to be there for any particular aesthetic reason. But after seeing Sadok reel in deep throws for the past several plays it serves to reset out eye line without taking us out of the flow of the video, despite the change from a wide sideline shot to a tight endzone camera. It stops us from having to scramble around the frame, trying to figure out what we need to be looking at, and provides a smooth transition into the next series of throws. Little things like that make a huge difference in maintaining continuity.

Now, this isn’t a perfect reel. The voice-over segment in the beginning isn’t synced well to the action and probably calls for a cut to still images instead of merely dropping the music track. The split screen effect at the end is somewhat disorienting and it’s still hard to appreciate that catch even with the multiple angles. From just an on-field content standpoint, the plays are not in the same tier as Freechild, Lance, or Babbitt.

But in a year with so many videos that did so much wrong, Sadok’s video told a compelling story about a person by using smart editing, a banging soundtrack, and visual storytelling that takes a handful of plays and shapes them into something greater than the sum of their parts.

Michael Fairley (Central Florida)

For a little cool down after Sadok’s video, let’s look at Michael Fairley’s reel. It’s not one that is going to blow you away, but it does a lot of little things right that made what could have been a blah submission something I have returned to multiple times.

To begin, it has a great introduction. The smoldering Dogs of War logo slowly rises out of the smoke and the opening plays cut to black just before Fairley swoops in for the kill, creating anticipation and almost a mythical aesthetic. Who is this beast rising out of the swamps of Florida? “Does it give you nightmares, I know I’ve had a few” KAMAU bleats out just before the beat drops and we get out answer. It’s a 6’4” goliath named Michael Fairley, and he’s coming for you.

I love the music choice here. It’s distinctive without taking attention away from what is happening on the field. It has a bustling chorus that creates excitement and more muted sections of hand drums punctuated by primal bass hits, set to the rhythm of Fairley destroying people in the air.

The music also helps overcome something of a liability with the subject matter. The truth is, it’s just less interesting to see a really big guy sky people than watching a smaller person elevate. That’s an advantage of the Sadok video, and something that Fairley’s editor smartly works around by saving the song’s big moments for Fairley’s throws. The plays he makes in the air bookend the action when the percussive bass hits can do most of the heavy lifting. On the other end of the spectrum, the throwing sections look pretty cool because it is impressive to see all the moving parts on a giant person coil and release a 65 yard flick bomb.

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The plays here aren’t spectacular, but this video is a testament to what a good song choice, an intentional aesthetic, and brevity can do for a video. There is some filler needed to pad out the full length of the song, in particular a couple blocks that wouldn’t elicit much of a reaction at summer league, let alone Nationals. All that is forgivable though because the overall tightness of the video and the short run time make it easily digestible.

Also, the running head spike at 3:11 timed out to a hit of the bass drum is my favorite spike in any of these videos.

Hayley Wahlroos (Oregon)

For years, men’s Callahan videos had a built in advantage because of the greater quantity and definitional quality of footage available to editors. This has been changing, and in 2017 the women’s videos are featuring more high quality footage than ever before.

Thanks in large part to Fulcrum Media and the All Star Tour, Hayley Wahlroos’s video is a technical tour de force, with the sort of high quality slow-mo, engaging B-roll, and multi-angle approaches that just weren’t found in women’s videos as recently as a few years ago. We shouldn’t take for granted how increased coverage of the women’s game leads to benefits like this, with the best female players now starting to get the chance to showcase their skills with the tools that men’s players have had for years.

We also shouldn’t take for granted how lucky we are to get to see Wahlroos play at all, because she is a fucking superhero.

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Any criticism you have of this video is rebutted by that throw. Sorry, that’s just how this works. It’s a hurl of faith that requires the vision of an infrared drone camera, the precision of whatever it is that can shoot down drones, and delusional confidence to even try it. Oh yeah, and there are like seven or eight other throws in the video that are just as good.

I usually am a pretty big stickler for the one song per video rule, but I physically cannot contain myself from breaking out into a wide smile every time “Redbone” drops in and the throwing clinic begins. I mean, there is throwing someone open, and then there is breaking the spirit of every defender on the field. Wahlroos falls in the latter category.

The length issue does crop up though, as there is far too much filler for how good of a player Wahlroos is. I understand wanting to showcase all her skills, but a five minute length isn’t necessary when you are including open force side throws to in cuts, virtually uncontested run through blocks, and redundant upline cuts. Oh, and remember all that awesome high definition footage we talked about earlier? That gets a lot less useful when you use it for something totally disorienting like this:

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What are we supposed to take from that? We don’t see the flight of the disc, the positioning of the defense, the lane the thrower is looking at — basically anything that gives context to the play. It’s two tight close-ups of a throw and a catch tied together by a confusing pan. There are a few examples of this sort of thing in this video, and while it certainly doesn’t wipe away all the amazing footage that does have a chance to shine, choices like that can hold back a very good video from being truly great.

Alison Griffith (UC Berkeley)

Hell yeah. Clocking in at exactly two minutes, Griffith’s video is exactly as long as it needs to be to get the point across. And that point is: Alison Griffith is nominated for the Callahan Award and also she might snatch the life out of you at some point. And give zero fucks about it. Tread carefully.

This video is all about efficiency and covers a lot of ground in its short runtime. An example: You know what’s better than a talking head droning for 20 seconds to say essentially, “she gets us pumped up?” The clip of Griffith smacking a disc into next week for the block, and then a shot that holds on the sideline going ape-shit. Her teammates react to the play like a 13 year-old that accidentally got dosed at a Pentecostal church service. It’s so much more engaging than someone just telling you something.

One more note. “Humble.” is a great choice for the video and it totally works, but it did make me regret that no one used “D.N.A.”. Imagine if instead of the Fox News drops from the original version of the song, you cut audio of Charlie and Keith criticizing someone on Deep Look.

Charlie: “Alison Griffith lays out a lot, but I feel like she sacrifices some of her mark integrity to make showy plays.”

Keith: “Oh please. Ugh. I don’t like it when she does that.”

Cue Kendrick Lamar and a bass drum that sounds like if Dr. Dre did the Inception soundtrack: “I GOT I GOT I GOT LOYALTY GOT ROYALTY…”

Angela Zhu (Dartmouth)

Angela Zhu is probably going to win the Callahan. Angela Zhu probably deserves to win the Callahan, and her video shows that. It diligently demonstrates exactly how many ways she can beat you on the field. It checks all the boxes, doubles checks them, and notarizes them. Flick breaks, flick hucks, flick edge control. Done. Backhand break, backhand hucks, backhand edge throws. Complete.

But is checking boxes really what we want from a great video? Is it what we want from a player? There is something robotic about the way the video presents her skills, like showcasing a warehouse full of weapons rather than telling you a story about how they get used.

Maybe the larger point is that Zhu is a machine built for the singular purpose of dominating at ultimate. A compassionless automaton that will break you down brick-by-brick until there is nothing left. The grinding dubstep remix that soundtracks the production would fit that narrative.

That could be a compelling read of Zhu’s video, but it is inapposite given the testimonials that use up the last minute. Soulless killing machine and “booty popping” is a hard combo to reconcile.

This reel does everything it needs to deliver Zhu the Callahan. She exhibits just about every skill imaginable, in triplicate. But the video itself lacks liveliness and direction. I don’t know what it’s trying to tell me other than, “Angela Zhu can make these plays and people like her.” Cool. A lot of the time that’s the science of winning the Callahan. But as fan of well-made highlight reels, that science can leave me cold.

Dillon Larberg (Texas)

Five assorted thoughts on Dillon Larberg’s video:

  1. It’s a real shame that Larberg got hurt. There is limited footage from this season in the video, which hurts it from the perspective of actually helping him win the Callahan award. But as a standalone product, it’s pretty spectacular. More than any other video this year, I left thinking, “Man, this guy is WAY better at ultimate than I thought beforehand.”
  2. I didn’t know I needed the song from this video in my life and now I can’t imagine living without it.
  3. I love how many times this video shows defenders fruitlessly bidding for discs, while Larberg just streaks past them for an easy goal.
  4. The clarinet intro is actually really important here. It is impossible to dislike anyone who has enough humility to allow images of them playing a clarinet to get released to the public.
  5. Wait, what is this spike? Life is full of mysteries.

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John Stubbs (Harvard)

That sound you’re hearing isn’t actually the soundtrack to John Stubbs’s Callahan video, it’s the door clattering shut on the Callahan race for 2017. But really, it’s just an echo. The door was slammed last May when Stubbs tore the roof off the entire state of North Carolina in the semifinals of 2016 Nationals.

This video was created for one purpose: to win John Stubbs the Callahan. They even end it with a song repeating the refrain “I choose you…” Which is fine! John Stubbs should want to win the Callahan. That’s why the message of the video is, “Hey, we know that Harvard was a bad team this year, but don’t forget, John Stubbs is the best player in college.” And that’s going to be enough to get him across the finish line. But here’s the thing, that was going to happen anyways. All you had to do was say the last name Stubbs and the Callahan was locked up.

I guess the point here is that Stubbs had nowhere to go but down with a straightforward video like this because we already knew that he was the best player in the division. Because almost none of the footage is from this season, we have already seen pretty much all of it before in one form or another. Nothing about the video grabs me and tell me something about who this guy is, what his journey was to get here, or really anything about his play style other than that it’s impressive.

Is this an unfair expectation? Maybe. The video is fine. More than that, it’s good. The sequence starting at 2:15 where he puts poor Matt Gouchoe-Hanas through every option on a washing machine dial is hilarious and painful to watch at the same time. It looks like a baby elephant trying to get into a bath tub.

But by and large, these plays aren’t anything we haven’t seen before, and a lack of ambition in what the reel is trying to accomplish left me unfulfilled. And if that’s unfair, then Stubbs will soon have a Callahan trophy to ease the pain.

Parker Bray (Georgia)

This, on the other hand, left me very, very satisfied.

Apparently, using the same song as Stubbs was a complete accident of fate and Georgia were about 30 minutes away from releasing the video when the Stubbs video dropped. Either way, two videos using the same song allows for an illustration of what one video failed to do that the other nailed. It also is way more fun to imagine that Bray and Co. picked the song out of pettiness, so I’m going to do that.

The video shows Bray’s transition from a rookie in 2014 to the world conquering assist monster he is in 2017. ((It also includes a quote from Virginia Tech’s twitter “The man with the dislocated shoulder it (sic) back in the game and tossing dimes” which sounds like the opening passage of a Steven King novel.)) This is then mirrored in the first sequence of throws, as Bray’s break throws get more and more ambitious, his vision gets wider, and the world of possibilities opens up to him and us until we get that first backhand huck that defies pretty much everything we know about how the material world is supposed to work.

It is an intricate and subtle way to walk us through how Bray developed as a thrower to get to god-status, all while using engaging content and footage that is relevant. It’s the kind of narrative touch that is totally absent from Stubbs’s video.

The idea of progression and growth are evident throughout Bray’s reel. During the montage of hucks in the middle of the video we get throws that look perfect, until the next one is a slightly more perfect version of it. The dimes keep getting shinier until the sequence ends with a flick huck that is possibly the best throw of 2017.

Bray didn’t make the shortlist for Callahan finalists, but he can take some satisfaction in knowing that he has a better, more compelling video that the guy who is likely going to win. Comparing Bray and Stubbs so closely is just a function of circumstance. Again, the Georgia crew claims that they definitely did not intentionally steal the song from Stubbs video, and certainly didn’t use the same song because they wanted to take the lunch money of the soon-to-be Callahan winner. Of course, they definitely did include a clip of Bray dunking on Stubbs and two other Harvard players. Just sayin’.

Taylor Hartman (Georgia Tech)

Okay, let’s get the usual griping out of the way. Too long, no need for two songs, no need for one to use an okay dubstep remix of what is already a fire song, too much grainy footage etc., etc., etc. It’s not a great video. We get it.

Whatever. Those bids.

Taylor Hartman bids like a coke dealer at a police auction who knows there is a Ziplock back full of Colombian Thunder hidden in the seat cushions of a seized sofa. Taylor Hartman bids like a crooked Russian FIFA official. Taylor Hartman bids like a second semester college freshman with no real friends and an Adderall habit that only Greek life can sustain.

That said, of all the plays in the first 90 seconds of the video that stand out, the one that really has me shook isn’t exactly a bid at all, but whatever Krav Maga move it is that she pulls off to make this catch:

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Could you cut the two-thirds of the video and have a laser tight two minutes of all killer, no filler? Yes. Should they have done that? Yes. Am I going to complain about it even though I can just watch the first two minutes and then go about my life? Yes, yes I am.

Adam Rees (Oregon)

Much like Adam Rees the player has in interviews, I have few words for Adam Rees the Callahan video, other than conveying a general, smiling sense of approval. He’s really good. He should be a Callahan finalist. He’s a threat all over the field. The video is really good. It’s a top five video on the year. It covers exactly what you want.

One thing that stands out and is worth talking about though is the pacing.

I like that this video showcases some really tricky throws that aren’t often highlighted and gives them proper weight. An around backhand that he sits perfectly on the break cone is a throw that I can’t remember seeing in a Callahan video before. It stands out because the editor gave that play time to develop, and let us see how Rees saw the pieces moving before he gets off the throw.

You can only get away with that by pacing the video very deliberately, so it’s not jarring to let a play like that develop. You see this problem with other videos, where it’s a lot of quick cuts and then all of a sudden one long play in which the subject gets a block, runs around for a bit, and then gets the bookends. Those plays tend to drag because they haven’t been properly set up by the rest of the reel.

There isn’t a huge sense of urgency to Rees’s video, which is a good thing in this context because it lets the editor show off different parts of Rees’s game and isn’t just a series of blink and you’ll miss it blocks and grabs.

Cameron Wariner (Cal Poly SLO)

Finally, someone figured out how to make testimonials in Callahan videos not terrible.

The music shouldn’t work, because usually lyric-less hipster nonsense evokes more of a “bespectacled dude with an undercut conspicuously acknowledging his privilege” vibe and less “credible athleticism,” but in this case it does. The music pairs with the plays to paint an image of who Wariner is: a focused guy who internalizes his energy, sporadically releasing it on the field, but without feeling the need for grand statements and big explosions of emotion. He lets his play do the talking, and so does the wordless track that accompanies the video.

Some less than stellar footage quality and framing issues (there is something to be said for having a defender come out of nowhere to make a big play in your video, but not when it causes you to constantly scan the frame for what you’re supposed to be looking at) hold this one back from hitting the top tier, but it’s “less is more” approach helps it stand out in a year when everything was dialed up to 11.

A Few Quick Hits To Round Things Off

Khalif El-Salaam (Washington)

This a series of moving images set to music. That’s the nicest thing I can say about this mess.

Han Chen (UCLA)

The thought of Han Chen trying to single-handedly hammer Stanford, Dartmouth, or some other top seed to the wall like she’s Martin Luther and they are the 95 Theses fills me with intense joy.

Kirstin Johnson (Colorado)

One day Callahan videos will be a Vine length reel of the best play you’ve ever seen and all will be well. This is a positive step in that direction.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a reporter for Ultiworld and also a lawyer who lives in Washington DC. He hopes that his BA in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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