Ultimate’s longest-running tradition has been interrupted by COVID-19.
December 2, 2020 by Charlie Eisenhood and Jesse Weisz in Coverage, News with 0 comments
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many Thanksgiving traditions this past weekend, from parades to family reunions. In Maplewood, New Jersey, just west of Newark Airport, one such tradition was also interrupted. For the past 50 years, every Thanksgiving evening, high schoolers have battled grown adults in a dimly lit parking lot to take part in the longest-running tradition in ultimate.
Since 1970, the Columbia High School (CHS) alumni game has been as much a part of Thanksgiving for its attendees as turkey and pumpkin pie. Dozens of players and alumni come out for the game, joined by spectators and parents packing onto the narrow sidelines so much so that they push onto the asphalt field. One side of the parking lot abuts an embankment that supports the New Jersey Transit train tracks; the other side drops off nearly straight down into the East Branch Rahway River 20 feet below. Wind, rain, or snow: the game must go on.
Despite the potholes, poor lighting, and occasional car obstacles to play around, there’s no way the annual event could be held anywhere else. It is hallowed ground. In 1968, CHS students Joel Silver (better known today as the producer of Die Hard, The Matrix, Lethal Weapon, and other Hollywood blockbusters), Buzzy Hellring, and Jonny Hines codified the rules of what had been a frisbee football-like sport and established the foundations of ultimate frisbee. With field access limited, they chose the student parking lot as the place to gather and play. CHS high school students would go on to spread the sport to other high schools and their colleges, resulting in the worldwide sport we know today.
“As old and poorly-paved as the lot is, it’s a great home for our game,” said Skylar Yarter, a current captain of the CHS girls’ team. “Our game feels very connected to the origins of ultimate, especially because we have people who were on the team in the 70s and have come to every game.”
Joe Barbanel, CHS class of 1972, has indeed attended every game. His classmate Ed Summers has played in all but two.
“I love the people, and being with people who love ultimate,” said Barbanel. “I love seeing the growth of the game; it’s terrific how the varsity playing level keeps advancing. I love playing. I love seeing CHS continue the tradition. I love seeing people from throughout the decades and catching up, both literally and figuratively. Makes me feel connected to live at 16 in my 60s. It’s being a part of history.”
“My favorite part is being on the starting lineup for the first goal of the game as usually the oldest class (1972) represented in the game,” said Summers. “In the last few decades we’ve only rarely had members of the original team from the classes of 1970 or 1971 play in the game. Over the last 20 to 30 years, I’ve experienced the generational shift of going from older player, to being mistaken as the parent of a current team’s player, to being mistaken as the grandfather of a current player.”
All of the people interviewed about attending the alumni game talked about the connection to the storied past that CHS has in the sport, both as the breeding ground for the birth of the sport but also as a competitive team.
“Playing on the lot is pretty special knowing it’s where the first games of ultimate were played all those years ago,” said Tristan Yarter, class of 2019. “It definitely isn’t ideal playing conditions for the competition level ultimate has developed today, and it definitely comes with a few scrapes and bruises each year, but it’s a great atmosphere for everyone coming together each year.”
“It’s become a family tradition for us to bundle up and head over to the lot after dinner each year, something even my late grandma loved to participate in (she loved to talk to all of the frisbee parents),” said Skylar. “My mom always jokes that this is the only thing that will keep my brother and I coming home for Thanksgiving as we move out and go to college.”
Spencer Rosengarten, class of 1988, has been organizing the game for the last 25 years. He’s worked to make the game more inclusive, first in the ’90s by ensuring more balanced playing time for all participants and recently by more actively involving the growing women’s alumni group and girls team; in 2019, the game went 5/2 mixed.
This year, though, there was no game.
“It’s a bummer, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Marques Brownlee, class of 2011, and one of ultimate’s most famous players. “This year has been unprecedented in many ways, and the safety of everyone’s families this holiday season is paramount, and the tradition can live on when it hopefully returns in 2021.”
Brownlee has good reason to want to get back out there next year: he’s never lost an alumni game. Overall, the alumni hold the significant edge in the match, sporting a 31-17-1 record. The tie? In 1996, it was a back-and-forth battle with the intensity ratcheting up: neighbors called the police with a noise complaint. In the end, the players whispered stall counts. The police eventually ended the game, though, at a score of 20-20.
As high school ultimate has improved in quality and depth in recent years, the varsity team1 has begun to hold its own. In the last 18 games, each side has won nine times. The high schoolers have the advantage of being a well-coached team, with cohesive strategy and chemistry. The alumni lines are a mish-mash of generations, many of whom have never played together before. Most of the alum team is made up of recent graduates, as older players get more likely to sit out due to injury risk, having retired from the sport, or simply not being in the area on Thanksgiving.
In lieu of a game this season, the CHS community held a virtual reunion via the chat app Discord “so we can at least catch up and feel a little bit like we are standing on the freezing sidelines of the parking lot,” per Emilio Panasci, class of 2000 and the current CHS boys varsity coach. “We all have a lot of other things to worry about this year taking up our ‘disappointment bandwidth,'” added Panasci. “That said, I will miss the competition itself, and internally cheering for all the active players while we give ’em a taste of whatever gimmicky zone D we invent at 8:37pm on Thanksgiving night!”
Rosengarten hopes to hold a postponed game right before the current high school class graduates in the spring (pandemic-permitting).
“As for this year, there really was only one responsible course of action,” said Sean Lorre, class of 1994 and JV boys coach, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. “There was no way we could pull off an alumni game safely. I may drive by the lot Thanksgiving night to fully experience the strange emptiness and quiet. I might just get out of my car and shank a pull into the brook so at least some small part of the tradition will remain unbroken.”
For subscribers, hear more stories from CHS alumni (and one current player) below.
The active team of high schoolers are referred to as “Actives” or “CHS Varsity,” as that is what the first teams in the 60s and 70s jokingly called themselves. However, CHS has never given ultimate official varsity status, which in some ways works to the team’s advantage so they can easily travel outside of the state for tournaments. ↩
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