The evolution of one of the sport's most honored traditions.
August 3, 2020 by Patrick Stegemoeller and Lindsay Soo in Analysis, Opinion with 0 comments
If you’re like us, each year, there’s a special time in the college calendar: Callahan award season. Although this year is more than a little different, given the once in a century pandemic and economic disaster, we still had the comfort of Callahan videos keeping us going. As part of Ultiworld’s look back on last decade, we will go deep on the entries, trends, and styles that shaped the landscape of the modern Callahan video. From a rarely utilized electioneering tool for an annual award to the most widely consumed form of ultimate content, the story of Callahan videos in the 2010s is inseparable from the story of the sport over the past decade.
Before we dive in, one point that should be emphasized is the disparity that exists between the volume of men’s and women’s division videos. Although it has improved over the last 10 years, this gap persists today. Like the arbitrary gender division of awards at the Oscars, there is no reason a men’s or women’s division video is inherently better or worse than the other based on gender. Given the same amount of HD footage, killer song, and editing ambition, equally compelling videos are very attainable.
But those resources do not seem evenly distributed. The factors that directly and indirectly contribute to this disparity of quality and quantity of videos are important to understand, but could fill another article entirely. However, as the decade bore on, the gap got smaller, and we are optimistic that with intentional effort this imbalance will continue to wane. Competition breeds innovation, but so does visibility! And this will only continue to grow with time. Think of all the teams who will generally have more access to footage thanks to the continuing coverage by USAU and Ultiworld. Think of all of the women’s division candidates who will get to add PUL and WUL footage to their visual resumes over the coming seasons. There’s hope the next decade will bring us a bolder and better balance.
2010 & 2011
Soo: As someone who started playing ultimate competitively in 2013, these two years might as well be ancient history to me. These videos came about when I didn’t have the slightest concept of what a huck or a force was, let alone a Callahan video. And you know what? It’s not even just my brevity in the sport that caused my ignorance. I scoured the internet and it turns out it’s very, very difficult to find pre-2014 Callahan videos.
A brief history: I first searched through Ultimate Central to get all of the nominees back to 2014, but after that, the full nomination lists stop. Through more searching, I then found some old Skyd Magazine articles highlighting videos that were made 2011-2013, but it was sporadic, there were no links, and some of those videos that were listed were impossible to find. I then found an invaluable resource on the Pitt ultimate site. They mined through rec.sport.disc — more commonly known as “RSD” — a Google forum that was abandoned around 2017 and is now overrun with spam soliciting black market narcotics. Thanks to Pitt’s website, which allows you to search by various categories, we have a comprehensive list of nominees since the award’s inception. And through a little extra digging, I created a thorough list of the videos from 2005 to present day. However, some videos may be missing or lost forever to the incomprehensible Vimeo search algorithm and/or copyright infringement.
The earliest video I could find was Beau Kittredge’s in 2005; it, along with Colorado’s nominee the following year, was posted to YouTube in 2011. In 2006, there were two men’s videos, then a few more in 2007. The first women’s division Callahan video I could find: Courtney Kiesow from Wisconsin in 2008.
Back in 2010 and 2011 there were still relatively few videos, but they did exist, with about 3-5 in each gender division. I know logically these people went to college — that’s how most players start — but seeing the names of folks who are now world-class players like Robyn Fennig, Nicky Spiva, and Carolyn Finney as nominees who didn’t even win the award is bananas. As talented as they are now, it seems like they sprang into existence as elite-level players. But to see them in grainy footage playing catch with college freshmen is really something else.
The videos from these two years are not particularly outstanding. And there are so few in total that we decided to lump both classes together. They fell into two categories: 1) the videos with cheesy songs that try to focus on the player as a leader and teammate, and why that makes them great — a trend that will carry through for many years — and 2) a stream of clips with varying levels of graininess and shakiness, to a score of one or more bizarre song choices that fade in and out without much thought to the composition of pairing the action and audio. At this point, any footage is novel. Putting a face (and a throw and a bid) to the name of the player was the easiest way to get them votes, with almost every nominee who had a video during this time ending up among the 10 finalists. Some of the best videos include Cody Bjorkland, starting off Oregon’s impressive track record of putting out quality videos, as well as Finney and Jasmine Draper on the women’s side.
Pat: My favorite of the pre-2012 crop is Eli Friedman’s video from 2010. The footage is crisp, it’s short, soundtracked by a jaw-rattling earworm, and features some dunks.
Pat: Promethean creation myths describe mankind — before the gift of fire — as a sort of shapeless, directionless mud-folk; homunculi shivering in a dark wilderness. But once the power of fire is stolen from Olympus and given to humans, the arts and sciences of civilization spring into existence. This is why, from a cosmological standpoint, it’s entirely accurate to say that the Nick Lance Callahan video is fire. From the opening shot, composed on an epic scale, the message is clear: we are as the gods now.
Callahan videos weren’t created by editor Jay Clark with the Nick Lance video, but they were fundamentally and eternally changed. It’s not just that there was a new standard of quality to reach or a template to fill in; the notions of what these videos were capable of and the role they would play in ultimate culture was reshaped. If you’re reading this, you’ve seen the video, and quite frankly the only reason you’re reading this at all is because of that video. Without it, the fervor that generates this kind of analysis would not exist.
There were other videos from 2012 that in another year may have moved the needle. Alex Thorne’s video is seven minutes long, but has the kernels of several popular modern techniques buried amidst the bloat, and also features some really exceptional throws (and some really exceptional ‘guy talking shit while filming’ energy from Dave Hogan). The Erica Baken reel has a couple nice sequences where it merges the energy of the plays with the energy of the music. But by and large, you’ve still got generational talents like Claire Desmond with hokey videos that are just unwatchable now. After 2012 and after the Nick Lance video, that all started to change. The impact was immediately felt, as the following year would be one of the most fertile ever for Callahan videos.
Soo: I could watch Erica Baken’s 50-yard hammer huck from a standstill over and over, even with the weird blaring dubstep in the background.
Soo: As Pat more eloquently stated, shit ramped up this year. There may not have been a huge increase in the quantity of videos, but there were more videos and they started to change shape and style. The Nick Lance video showed the people what these videos could be and what they could mean for players’ odds of winning the award, as well as their legacy. There was less camp and more intensity. The trend of using three+ songs in your video disappeared completely.1 While there was still some silliness included — such as Claudia Tajima racing to chug a frosty at the beginning of her reel — these videos became more serious and their editing more intentional.
No longer were Callahan videos just focused on big throws and catches in sequence. They started to tell the story of the nominee. For example, look at San Diego State’s Katy Stoltz. Her video starts by listing her stats for the season: points played, touches, goals, assists, blocks, and even pulls. While it isn’t one of my favorites, it is an interesting marker of novel techniques to make a more compelling product, and you can see how it paved the way for videos to use similar techniques years later, by counting contributions in sequence (Ryan Landry in 2015, Mark Vandenberg in 2016, and Amanda Murphy in 2018).
On the men’s side, Jacob Janin and Bryce Dixon’s videos both showed a specialized skill set unique to them as players, focused on a few strengths and their personal passion. They were simply playing differently than other people at that time and their videos show it. Oregon Fugue similarly demonstrated this personalized style for Bailey Zahniser, using an electric backing track, experimental color editing, and frenzied cuts to emphasize her manner of play. It is a milestone as arguably the first great women’s division entry.
For teams who put in the effort to submit a video,2 they wanted to help their nominee win the award — the effect of these videos was clear. And no video stood out more in terms of intensity and skill demonstrated than Dylan Freechild’s classic, set to John Legend’s “Who Did That To You?” It captured his skill, personality, and immortalizes the iconic sound byte “DYLAN FREECHILD saves the game!”
Two notable exceptions to the trend from this year are Hartford’s Adam Velk, who does a farcical non-game footage demonstration in the snow of why he should win the award, and the women’s Callahan winner herself, Claire Chastain. While the video is serious and focuses on her on-field prowess, it also contains no game footage, but rather interviews and pictures of Chastain playing in her then-classic double braids.
Pat: There was a bit of a step back after the pastoral bloom of 2013. Some of the edge and personality of the previous year’s crop faded, and while the amount of footage being captured increased and more videos were made than ever before, overall quality suffered.
The most notable video from that year was Lisa Pitcaithley’s, which was one of the early memorable women’s Callahan videos. She does some outrageous stuff, and emerged with a signature move: the step around breakside backhand huck that sits into space. At the time it was a revelation. Now? It’s a little jarring to watch all of the grainy footage, shaky camera work, and framing choices that make it hard to follow. Overall, this video is just kind of hard to look at, but it speaks to how good the plays are that it can still resonate years later.
The rest of the women’s videos from that year suffer from problems of the past: Callahan winner Cassie Swafford was still putting talking heads into her video, Shira Stern’s video is seven+ minutes long and has maybe 45 seconds of sweet plays, and Liza Minor used a song from Frozen that isn’t the one song from Frozen that all highlight videos should be set to.
On the men’s side, the problem stemmed from most of the best players in the division that season not being nominated. After winning in 2013, Freechild was done as a nominee, and Will Driscoll ceded his nomination to Mitchell Bennett at Texas. Jimmy Mickle was back for round two with a great song, but a smaller pool of highlights to pull from and too many shots from pulled back sideline angles.
That last bit was representative of a larger issue: that most full game footage available was single cam and high on the sideline, which is good for a tactical breakdown but really bland for highlights. It would still be a couple years before we would get high quality endzone cam, Nathan Kolakovic-style footage. Sophie Darch’s video does a nice job of blending sideline-angle footage with endzone camera work and features a great song choice. It’s definitely one of the more slept on videos from the decade. Marcus Ranii-Dropcho’s might be the best men’s video of the bunch, featuring a few bonkers reaction catches, as well as some really cool give-and-go sequences. But there is also a fair amount of “what am I looking at here?” in there as well.
Soo: Welcome to the year of high highs and low lows. You might say, “Soo, that’s absurd. Look at 2012, there’s Nick Lance and then everything else.” But 2015 was the year that expectations for videos started to peak. We had Hannah Leathers (who was voted as a Callahan finalist without going to Nationals), Elliott Erickson, and Stanley Peterson — all of whose videos not only smashed those expectations, but also continued to define what highlight reels could and should look like. All three have vastly different tones, but show mind-boggling plays, clear dominance on the field, and sound mixing that elevates the footage to the next level. They demonstrate skill and personality that blow you away and excite you about the player and not just the plays.
We also got Jon Nethercutt’s video. Again, it’s not that this video is worse than some of the things that came before it, or worse than other videos from this year, but we knew what these videos could look like, and expected an incredibly talented, high-volume player like Nutt to have an excellent video. But it is over five minutes of the absolute worst dubstep remix of the Game of Thrones theme song in existence3 and is not particularly rewatchable. It didn’t stop him from winning the award, of course. He had the big throws and impressive resume that it takes, but from a technical and enjoyment standpoint, his video is mediocre at best. Alika Johnston also won this year, again deservedly so, despite having a talking head testimonial video.
Aside from the contrasting ends of the quality spectrum, there were also some other hidden gems. A middle class began to develop, even if nothing quite rose to the top. Ryan Landry, Tyler Chan, and Megan Cousins stepped up the technical editing along with a high volume of footage and above-average plays that showcase who the players are without trying to do too much.
Pat: One of the toughest cuts from my top 10 overall list was Xavier Maxstadt’s video from this year. The swashbuckling tone imparted by the Ennio Morricone soundtrack is perfect, and no one has ever looked cooler throwing a frisbee than Maxstadt. A little too much filler and some pacing issues, but this video is voracious.
Soo: That is a wild take that I did not see coming.
Pat: The golden age. 2016 is the year where technique, artistry, superstar players, and mountains of footage all came together to give us the best year of Callahan videos we’ve ever seen.
Headlining the crop were Jesse Shofner and Jeff Babbitt’s videos. These are two of the most different players you could imagine in terms of play style and their videos have corresponding stylistic differences, as well. Shofner’s video highlights her relentless energy and drive with frenetic pacing and edits that produce the same kind of breathlessness that comes from trying to guard her. Babbitt’s video is similarly crafted to his style: a creeping dread that gives way to overpowering visceral immensity. The whole video is structured like a shark attack.
While the two videos are very different in tone and appearance, they got the same key point right: a great Callahan video tells a story about the player, about how the way they play is a reflection of some true inner-self. You feel like you know some greater truth after watching the Shofner and Babbitt entries, and that’s what separates the goods from the greats.
Behind the top two, there was great depth this year, often because of the specific portraits of a character that the videos showed. Chris Strub’s Kill Bill scored video makes him seem like someone with the grit and desire to claw his way back from the grave. Trent Dillon’s video drips cool, which is something that no one on Pitt had ever really been able to pull off before. Much like her video, Kristen Pojunis is going to run right through you and leave you quaking. Mark Vandenberg slicing teams up, Mira Donaldson coolly dissecting defense, John Wodatch straight gooning in the air… the cup runneth over in 2016.
It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that in the greatest year of the Callahan video, the Callahan winner would be crowned in no small part due to the strength of their video. Marisa Rafter’s video was uber-popular and propelled her to national recognition, but the reel still leaves a little something to be desired in my view. The first two minutes of the Rafter video are elite, but the momentum really runs out by the time you get to minute six. There is a transcendent three-minute video in there somewhere, but unfortunately we didn’t get it.
It was baffling at the time that Rafter won the award over Shofner despite how popular Rafter’s video was, and it’s only gotten more confounding in the years since as it becomes clearer and clearer that Shofner’s video is far superior, let alone what she actually accomplished on the field. It’s sort of like how 2007 was the greatest year in the modern history of movies, yet the top-grossing film was Spider-Man 3 — the ascension of Rafter’s video pointed in a troubling direction for the future of the medium (and if you want to extend the analogy, culture as a whole!) where more is more, no matter how much of it you want.
Soo: It was a baffling outcome, looking back at how well-known Shofner was, even then. Or maybe that was to her detriment; Rafter was somewhat fresh-faced and people could’ve been excited to see something new. That, or foot blocks just really get people going.
Soo: It was a landmark year in that a new class of videos began: Donovan award videos! This award is a big deal because it finally gives D-III players, and by extension their programs, a fighting chance to get recognition. It was also interesting because it circled us back to the beginning of the Callahan times. Since there were so few teams that made videos, having a half-decent one gave teams a platform for their nominee, who could actually win by impressing an audience of their divisional peers. There was still a huge discrepancy in the number of videos in each gender division, with 18 men’s videos compared to only four on the women’s side, partly due to the scarce video coverage of D-III overall up to that point. However, the number and quality of videos grew over the next few years, just as it did with Callahan videos.
Speaking of Callahan videos, while there were no transcendent genre-breaking videos in 2017, there were many solid entries. It is particularly notable that there are significantly more and higher-quality women’s division videos. This is likely tied to the increase in coverage and availability of game footage for women’s teams. In 2013, ESPN began covering the college championships, and four years later, the top college teams have ample footage to work with for their best players. Perhaps Oregon Fugue, who put out videos every year of the decade except 2012, also inspired more women’s programs to put effort into tracking down footage and creating highlights. While previously highlight videos were largely the domain of the cream of the crop players who end up on elite club or national teams, more college programs saw value in highlighting players who were great, if not exceptional, and they had the means to do so.
In the women’s division, Angela Zhu showed off her air-bending throws and just how much commentators like to talk about her. Her video was overflowing with blocks and break throws, but the constant drum of Charlie and Keith lauding her play stopped the music from driving home the emotional investment you need from a great video. Oregon put together yet another very fun video for Hayley Wahlroos, whose IO backhand hucks paired with the silky smooth “Redbone” is a match made in heaven. Allison Griffith had a short and sweet banger to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” and Han Chen hammered her way into our hearts, showcasing some of the most powerful throws the women’s division has ever seen.
On the men’s side, Parker Bray and John Stubbs face off on who could make The Avalanches sound better when played to throws and catches, both doing admirable work. Ben Sadok stood out from the crowd of nominees who used Demi Lovato’s “Confident” (in addition to his dad making history with the first and only “Dad-ahan” video). UNCW released an impressive submission for Jack Williams, who matches if not exceeds the athleticism and playmaking ability of the iconic Stanley Peterson video, but the music’s low key vibe and drawn-out runtime stops it from packing the punch it could. And notably, one of my favorites of the year was Cal Poly SLO’s Cameron Wariner, who was the first nominee to ever make talking-head testimonials work.
Pat: 2018 was first year that consuming Callahan videos felt like scrolling through Netflix. There was a nice sheen and easily digestible vibe to everything that belied what may be a vacancy of new ideas. It was Callahan via algorithm. And it was… pretty okay!
This phenomenon is probably best exemplified in the most purely enjoyable video of the year, in which Chance Cochran hopped on “Nice For What”’s parade float and made a video that felt like summer. Great song, great plays, some moments of synchronicity that make it seem like Cochran’s internal speedometer was tuned to Drake’s patois bounce. It’s not going to change your life nor will it stick to your ribs, but it will definitely get you through a weeknight.
That was the vibe with a lot of the videos from 2018. Jenny Wei throwing down on people over Demi Lovato for four minutes is fun. Adam Rees running past people doesn’t get old. You could watch Ella Hansen jack forehands into the wind all day. David Yu plastering footblocks, Nathan Kwon double-jumping for blocks, Billy O’Bryan slinging high-release flicks; there had never been more ‘good’ Callahan videos to watch, even if none of them were transcendent. The formula was in place — length, selection of songs, type of footage, and interstitials — and people were getting what they wanted.
For such a populist year of videos it’s notable that the two players to win the award won with the help of videos, and for the most part the voters had good taste. While it doesn’t need to be said that Jackelyne “Kobe” Nyugen winning the award in 2018 was comically preposterous based on actual on-field accomplishments, her video is spectacular in all the ways we hope Callahan videos to be. The hellacious bids, pretty throws, and slick movements are all packaged up with brisk pacing and confident editing. If you had to make a template for how we want to be entertained by a Callahan video, you should probably pick Kobe’s (although the song choice could probably be upgraded a few ticks).
Gabe Hernandez’s victory was propelled by three videos, each better than the last and each formally more interesting, which stood out in a year that was otherwise fairly formulaic. His official Callahan video, the second offering, struck a darker tone than the rest of his peers, before letting the sunshine break in with a credits sequence set to “Recuérdame.” It was a strong example of character building in a video with good but not exceptional highlights, and set the table for his bonkers game-to-go video. None of the videos in the Hernandez trilogy contain the craziest plays or the best editing you’ve ever seen, but by offering so much sheer personality they stood out from the infinite scroll and pushed Hernandez into the history books.
Soo: Kobe’s video is undeniably impressive and one of the best technically edited videos ever. For me, it just misses a bit of personality. There isn’t much to connect with her on a more personal level, which makes it marginally less memorable.
Soo: I know this year all too well. In case you didn’t know, last year I watched every single Callahan and Donovan video, which, to be honest, was difficult. We’ve come a long way in 10 years. In 2010, there were eight videos total, from both divisions. This year, there were 84. That’s almost a 1000% increase over the decade.
In 2019, there were scores of videos in the middle tier, solid entries that hit the basics of what an ultimate highlight reel should have. There were also pleasantly few videos employing the talking head technique. That is partially due to the norm trending away from this style of persuasion and also the ubiquity of access to footage of ultimate games. Most players this year started their college careers in 2015 or 2016. By that point not only were all major championship events at the college, club, and youth levels streamed via Ultiworld, USAU, or ESPN, but it was also commonplace to see any given college team with a rookie standing alone at the back of an end zone panning a camcorder on Saturday morning of a fall tournament.
On the women’s side there was also the swag-dripping Anna Thompson video, which sent the Penn senior to the top five podium despite Venus not making it to Nationals. You also can’t complain about watching Lindsay McKenna sky people, Naomi Morcilla be faster than everyone else on the field, and Dominica Sutherland gunsling her way into your heart with a “Yee-haw!”
One of the highlights of the year was also the return of Jay Clark, who edited Mac Hecht’s five-minute compilation of pinpoint hucks and jubilant celebrations (although one of the songs was “Happy” by Pharrell, which docks major points). Other quality men’s submissions included Eric Sjostrom with a song and skillset to rival Hecht’s, and Sam Kaminsky, whose video brought truly original editing with animated lightning bolts and dust clouds to accent his impressive plays. And to top it off, Jack Verzuh and Matt Gouchoe-Hanas took the crowns of their respective divisions to the surprise of no one. Gouchoe-Hanas’ video was excellent, showcasing immense talent and versatility, but Verzuh’s left something to be desired.
Although innovative editing and style hadn’t popped up in a few years, a fun trend emerged in 2019: video teasers. While people had executed some limited self-promotion in the past — Ben Jagt’s Florida Warm Up snapchat filter is a memorable example — four of the 2019 nominees had explicit Callahan video teasers to generate excitement. North Carolina’s Rebecca Fagan even responded to Reddit and YouTube comments from her previous highlights and videos to announce her Callahan candidacy. This was a new level. No longer is it enough to even have a good video; this began the era of Callahan campaigns. Perhaps in the future nominees will be shaking hands and kissing babies at half times and between games.
Pat: I’m still upset about how disappointing Verzuh’s video was. Should have been an all-time, Godzilla-laying-waste-to-a-city video, but it was closer to a tepid mug of tea you forgot about while it was steeping. Sigh. They’re the greatest college player of all time though, so that’s nice.
We’ve come a long way and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s impossible to hit all of the great content over the course of the decade, but we had a blast thinking about the strides that were made and the evolution of this genre of highlight video over the years. We celebrated the highest highs, lamented the disappointments, and explored the trends that shaped the landscape of Callahan videos over the past decade. If we see the same energy for innovation and craft that shaped Callahan videos in the 2010s applied across the sport, then the 2020s will deliver even more visibility for the amazing things people can do with a hunk of plastic.
After all of that, what do we have to show for it? Why, we have top 10 lists of, course.
Subscribers, be sure to check out Soo and Pat’s respective favorite 10 videos of the decade, coming later today.
Mostly because everyone and their mother used some variation of “Sail” by Awolnation. ↩
There were still fewer than 20 for each division. ↩
which has aged even worse now since the final season of GOT disappointed viewers everywhere ↩