Kai Marcus: A Treatise on Self Belief and the Majesty of Identity

A case for why Marcus might be the most interesting player in college ultimate this season.

Kai Marcus in the 2018 College Championships semifinal. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

To make sense of why athletes stir our emotions and imaginations, we often compare them to artists. Roger Federer’s tennis racket becomes a paintbrush, whimsically swishing into being a watercolor portrait of the ball nicking the backline. Lionel Messi plays soccer like a heroin-addled jazz prodigy, moving to a rhythm only he can feel. Sometimes it’s about the goals you don’t score, man.

What’s appealing about this way of thinking is that it allows us to cast athletes as more than just vessels for putting a ball in a hoop or a puck in a net. The four corners of the sport are a structure, a canvas for humans to make some greater point about existence. You call it an around backhand, I call it a window into the human condition.

Maybe this is a contrived point. Maybe how an athlete plays a game doesn’t tell us anything more about them than how good they are at putting points on a scoreboard. Maybe. But maybe you should watch Kai Marcus play frisbee.

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I know almost nothing about Kai Marcus other than what I’ve seen on the ultimate field. But based purely on that, I would believe anything you told me about his personal history. He seems like that kid you went to high school with who looked 35, smoking cigs and stealing meaningless things from figures of authority, just to prove he could. There was a rumor he was dating someone’s mom. He’s not a bully, he’s just sort of… over it. You were a little afraid of him, but you also would, like, die for him? He’s like if Tim Riggins was Bill Brasky.

Is all of that nonsense? Maybe. Again, I’ve never spoke to the man once. But watch him entirely disregard the notion of a dump to make this throw and tell me it doesn’t at least seem plausible.

Kai Marcus 1

That came from UNC’s semifinal against Oregon last year, which for my money, was the game of the season in the college division. Not because of UNC’s three-goal comeback to win on universe. Not because of Oregon’s doomed tragic figures. Not because Ian Toner had to awkwardly explain, in detail, how “Odds” works to Evan Lepler. It’s because we got to watch the destruction of man — and man’s stoic indifference in the face of his own destruction. It was like a twisted take on the parable of Job, but where you switch out the god of the Old Testament for Kai Marcus’s faith in his own ability to throw a disc past seven defenders.

For those who don’t remember, Marcus nearly threw UNC out of the game, but never stopped calling his own number. With every turnover or questionable decision, it was like watching someone fall off a tightrope onto another tightrope below. It was unclear how many more tightropes there were between him and the abyss. Watching the game on replay doesn’t capture the energy at the field while this was happening. You could feel real tension running through the air every time he touched the disc, because you knew he might fall off that tightrope and because you knew he was going to keep walking.

We all accepted that Marcus generally didn’t give a damn after seeing him swagger through his freshman season in 2017, stomping teams out with an endearingly impassive disdain. Don’t forget that when the rest of Darkside was melting down and choking away a semifinal against Wilmington, it was Marcus who finally stopped the run of breaks with a nonchalant touch flick through traffic.

But even having seen him play for two years, it was still shocking to watch that Oregon game where he kept missing — missing badly — and yet never stopping. They say that great throwers have a short memory, but this went beyond that. It wasn’t that he was forgetting his turnovers, it was like Marcus was trying to make up for every turnover with the next one.

The closest comparison is when a gambler goes on tilt. Your vision narrows, you can’t hear anything over the blood pumping in your ears, and you are completely convinced by the voice in your head telling you to play just one more hand. That voice is right and the world is just turning up the wrong results. The world just has its shit less together than you do is all.

That’s the thing about Marcus going on tilt like he did against Oregon. It’s not that he didn’t stop, it’s that he viscerally, tangibly, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt could not stop. But unlike most tilts, on the other side of this one was absolution. He kept shooting and hit some big throws. UNC pulled off the comeback. What could have been a career-defining meltdown instead became an insane footnote on UNC’s title story.

In my mind, he is the most interesting player in college ultimate, both on a moment-to-moment and season-long basis. In any given game, you have zero idea what he could do. He could throw 12 assists and 10 turnovers. He could throw only hammers and lefties for a whole second half. He could put up six points in a row, steal the TD’s golf cart at halftime, and fight Evan Lepler after the game. It’s all in play.

This Magic 8 ball quality could transform the whole college season. As good as Matt Gouchoe-Hanas and Elijah Long are, Marcus is the guy who pushes UNC’s ceiling up a level. When he’s on form, you can’t stop him. We throw around terms like “unstoppable” a lot, but Marcus plays a style that quite literally takes the game out of the hands of his opponents. His big edged throws are just not things that any reasonable defense would even try to take away. I mean, what do you do with this?

Kai Marcus 2

The only thing that makes him “stoppable” is Marcus himself. And it seems abundantly clear that he is never going to do that. He won’t (can’t?) stop. He’s going to keep on keeping on until he either pushes UNC into the stratosphere or engulfs them in a fiery vortex of his own making. North Carolina is the undefeated defending champ, bringing back virtually every relevant piece of their offense, and they are still fascinating because riding shotgun with their polished small ball is a thermonuclear device.

Marcus was on at Queen City, landing body blows against UMass in an impressive final. He continued to walk the tightrope at Stanford, helping/hurting/but-mostly-helping UNC as they defended their title. Maybe he has channeled some of his wilder impulses this year. Maybe those impulses never really existed to begin with. After all, “there was a rumor he was dating someone’s mom” is A LOT to extrapolate from a player’s throwing selection. But again, maybe you should watch Kai Marcus play frisbee.

You can watch Kai Marcus and #1 North Carolina take on #15 Carleton at Easterns through our livestream on Saturday at 5 PM Eastern.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer 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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