One Must Imagine the Detroit Mechanix Happy

A tale of the Mechanix's will to keep pushing their boulder up a hill, one loss at a time, and the man who started them on this journey

A bid from the Detroit Mechanix comes up just short. Photo: UFA

In writing this article, I kept going back to the infamous Herm Edwards quote from his time at the New York Jets: “You play to win the game…Hello? You play. To win. The game! You don’t just play to play it. That’s the great thing about sports, you play to win.” It’s a moment much derided as a “no duh” moment, but go back and watch. He’s incredulous that he even has to say it. “I don’t care if you don’t have any wins, you go play to win,” he continues.

Edwards gets to the heart of what sports can be, and, in my humble opinion, gets to the heart of how sports reflect life. Sport, like life, demonstrates that no matter how badly things are going, no matter how much you may lose, you have to get up and try again. Not because you feel you have to, but because you believe you’ll succeed. The tale of Sisyphus paints a similar story, with the driving force being Sisyphus’ will to keep pushing the rock up the mountain despite watching it fall down once more, not because he must, but because he believes one day he will succeed. In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus writes, “At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

Enter Sisyphus. Enter the Detroit Mechanix.

This Madman is a Great Wise Man

Detroit Mechanix owner Brent Steepe.

The key to understanding the Detroit Mechanix is understanding the owner and head coach of the team, Brent Steepe, a Sisyphean figure defined by his determination and resilience. He’s a true lover of sport and competition, and his nature is easily understood by how he came to know ultimate and own the Detroit Mechanix.

In 2010, Steepe was working as an athletic trainer for a professional sports team he cannot disclose when a colleague mentioned this other sport called ultimate frisbee was starting up a professional league and looking to put a team in Detroit.

All Steepe had to say was, “What? What are you talking about?”

Despite not knowing much at all about ultimate, he wasn’t going to back down from a challenge. He called the commissioner of what was known then as the Eastern Ultimate Disc League, Josh Moore. After a fruitful call, Steepe did his due diligence, learned about ultimate, liked what he saw, and was in.

“It was exciting and confusing and like driving a jet ski,” he said of getting into the league. “Just wondering who was going to be able to make the turn and who was going to fall off and wipe out.”

Some quick stats before we continue:

  • Detroit Mechanix best season: 2012, 7-9 record (their opening season)
  • Total record: 16-124 (11.43% win rate)
  • Last win: April 29th, 2017 (2,547 days as of 4/19/2024)
  • 73 game losing streak (longest losing streak in professional American sports)

Despite all this Steepe doesn’t feel like he’s fallen off the proverbial jet ski. “One of the things that Michigan, and specifically the Detroit name, has spoken for is resiliency and refusal to give up, refusal to roll over,” he said. “I have two boys. I love them dearly, and the last thing I want to teach them is to give up on their dreams.”

That attitude is what drives the Mechanix.

Steepe, like the Detroit people he identifies with, hasn’t rolled over. He likes to think the Mechanix are a bit like Rocky: “Rocky’s getting his butt beat all over the place. He’s a southpaw, but he trains hard and eventually he overcomes and he wins … not just the respect of everybody else, but he wins their heart. And if you connect with people on a heart level, on a relationship level, that is so much greater a currency than any money they could ever throw in your direction or anything else. It’s a purpose, it’s a feeling, it’s a statement.

“So for me, this type of a project of working to make professional ultimate accessible in an area where ultimate has not necessarily been a strong existence, it’s just so fascinating and it really keeps me charged up and rolling because I know it demonstrates that love and passion and resiliency can still win,” he said. “But man, you gotta take your lumps, you gotta bide your time, you gotta work at it every single day. If you’re willing to do that, you’re not only gonna stick around, eventually you will get there. And I’ve tried to do that in everything that I’ve touched over the years.”

It isn’t spite motivating Steepe; he isn’t still pushing so when he finds success he can shove it in the face of haters or doubters. In fact, he’s “not an extrinsically motivated person” at all. He’s been dragged through the mud, flamed, you name it, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. “I don’t even care anymore what people think about me,” he said. “I just know my motivation. I am a competitor, I do hate to lose. I redefine winning each and every year to make sure that I can find the fuel that allows me to continue in a positive and purposeful manner, in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same.”

Never Has the Absurd Been so Well Illustrated or at Such Length as the Streak

Owner Brent Steepe in a Detroit Mechanix Huddle.

The other big external factor bearing down on the Mechanix is their loss column. “The streak,” as it’s been called, is the first thing that comes to most peoples’ minds when the Mechanix are mentioned at all. Steepe is similarly unperturbed by “the streak”: “We’re over breaking the streak. We are and have committed to being about the system that allows for the growth. When that system reaches critical mass, that’s when our win happens. And then from there, if the system is right and well tested, the games are either close or a victory moving forward.” Of course, he doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win, just that the amount of losses before the win doesn’t matter. The number of trips back down the mountain doesn’t matter.

In fact, Steepe and the other coaches have tried everything they could over the last few years to secure a win for the Mechanix, reach that critical mass, and improve the team’s standing. They’ve made signings, tried different schemes and systems, made coaching changes; you name it, nothing has worked.

This isn’t usually how these stories go. The scrappy underdog is supposed to win the big game at the end of the movie. Andrew “Shrew” Sjogren, who played for the Mechanix from 2018-2022 (during which they never won a game), said it’s not just one thing preventing them from snapping the streak: “I would say the number one reason is a lack of high-end ultimate talent. There were times where we had maybe a good top seven or a good 14, but we were always getting beat pretty bad in the lower part of the roster…a lot of the best players in the state of Michigan don’t play for the Mechanix.”

Sjogren also said another contributing factor may be the coaching. The Chicago Union, who Sjogren began playing for in 2023, have a dedicated coach, whereas Steepe handles the coaching for the Mechanix on top of being the owner. “That’s not to say that [Steepe] was a bad coach, because I don’t think he was,” Sjogren is quick to say. “Just that the amount of focus Steepe has to put on other things to keep the operation going distracts from the coaching.”

Steepe knows that win is coming though, and that success isn’t linear. He sees his team trending in the right direction. “We are trending very positively,” he said. “We’re no longer in last place in a lot of the metrics that we used to be dead last in all the way through. We’re no longer being blown out by, you know, 10, 15, 20 point differentials. We’re hanging in games, they’re very winnable games. They’re games that are going to the wire with good teams. And we’re never giving up anything.”

Steepe isn’t blind to the team’s faults though, and in his mind the reason they’ve not found on-field success is the lack of simultaneous good personnel and good plans that fit those personnel. “We’ve really never married those two very well, and a lot of that falls on me, whether it’s as a coach or a program director or a personal trainer or an athletic component,” he said. “To get everybody ready, we need to have much greater communication of ‘these are the starting points of the people that we have. This is the realistic timeline that we have to make an influence. What is the best strategy that we’re going to do to get them to their athletic best, and how are we then going to use them in strategies, and which strategies shall we pick to use them to manifest their greatest talents?’”

There is But One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem: Recruiting Players

As for getting players on the team to wed a strategy to, Steepe searches near and far. Despite the losing record, the Mechanix have found a way to recruit some great new players; just this year Carson Chamberlain came up from Tennessee each week to play his rookie season in Detroit. He put up huge numbers, too: nine assists, seven blocks, and a team-leading 34 goals over Detroit’s 12 games in the 2023 season.

This is a feature of the Mechanix and one of the ways Steepe keeps attracting players to his organization. “Players play for different reasons,” he said. “Some players play for the exposure. Some players play because they know on the Mechanix they have more of an opportunity. We’re performance-based, we’re less clique-y than some of the other teams. If you come to the Mechanix and you play hard and you play well, you’re where you might play a few points on another team or you could very well be a starter for us. There’s a lot of attraction there because people want to improve their skills, get their name out.” And that attraction ripples far outside of Michigan. In 2023, they had players from Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota traveling in to play. In the past they’ve had both overseas players and Canadian players.

Ideally, the Mechanix would pull from local talent rather than reaching outside of Michigan. The player pool isn’t as large as in other parts of the nation, especially when compared to most other UFA teams, but that’s only half of it. For players like Dan Donovan, who played for the Mechanix in 2016-2017, the equation is simple and two-fold.

First, “[the UFA] just isn’t that important to me and a number of other people who play Michigan ultimate,” Donovan said. “Playing Mechanix was prep for club season for a lot of us. That was the deal when I signed those years. If High Five1 had a tournament or practice weekend, I was going to be there over a [UFA] game.”

The second reason the UFA may not be as important – and certainly a reason it’s much less appealing – is the league, and the Mechanix specifically, is seen as simply too much effort for not enough reward. In Donovan’s words, “You’re going to drive about nine or ten hours to get stomped. That’s not very fun.”

A lot of the players in Michigan feel similarly, according to Dan, and when some players began to boycott the league in 2018 due to a lack of equal gender representation, he saw it as a clean break from the program and found other, more personally rewarding ways to participate in ultimate, such as coaching.

Sjogren echoed this sentiment, saying “There are two reasons for the lack of participation from the top talent in Michigan: number one is some of the club teams aren’t willing to work with the UFA schedule. And so it’s basically like the captains of those said club teams saying, like, you have to prioritize coming to our practices and tryouts and stuff like that in the club preseason instead of playing the [UFA] games.” And the second: “the fact that the Mechanix haven’t been good historically…it’s hard to recruit to a team that hasn’t proven to already be some degree of successful.”

The Mechanix could turn to local college programs to create a youth talent pipeline, as the Oakland Spiders have, but there’s the problem of travel. Michigan Magnum, the most successful men’s college team not only in Michigan, but in the Great Lakes region, is two hours away from Grand Rapids by car on a good day with no traffic. Aaron Bartlett, junior at University of Michigan and captain for Magnum, said commute is one main factor in his decision not to play for the Mechanix. Traveling week in and week out for games and practices isn’t something he’s able to afford, both in terms of time and money. “Having pro ultimate [and] having open club ultimate in the state of Michigan is extremely difficult, as it’s been shown. High Five folded, [and] we’ve had pretty much one open team per year. Beacon has done well this year, but I mean, I don’t know if they’ll keep it up,” he said.

Bartlett’s also not certain if there’s an easy fix to the issue. “The problem is that the pockets of talent are so spread out…I don’t know if a lot of people would be willing to commute three hours to go to any practices at all,” he said. “That’s a pretty big ask.”

As for himself, Bartlett hasn’t ruled out playing for the Mechanix. While he’d consider suiting up, it’s not something he would commit to just yet, and not just because of the commute. He said it’d probably be easier to make the commitment if “the team was a great deal more successful, like fringe playoff team. Then yes.”

There is Scarcely Any Passion Without Growth

In spite of having to deal with the long travel both instate and afar, Steepe has made sure to focus on his growth mindset. “We try to make sure that [our players] are better players than how they came to us. As a matter of fact, we go out of our way to make sure that that’s the case,” said Steepe. This growth mindset that seems to exude from Steepe like an aura has been key to attracting, and more importantly retaining, players.

For example, team captain Joe Cubbitt has been with the Mechanix since 2019 and fellow captain Bryan Walsh since 2020. Both Cubbitt and Walsh see the vision Steepe has for the team and believe in the program he’s building. “I’m not gonna speak for anyone else beside myself, ” Cubbitt said, “But I’d like to say a lot of people would also come back because of [Steepe]. Brent is just a great guy, he’s a human, one of the best humans I’ve ever met, honestly. And I kept coming back since I wanted to get a win.”

Cubbitt continued, “One of the reasons that I kept playing for as long as I did and a lot of other people keep coming back is some of the people that are involved are just like really great people…for people that really want to get to know Brent, they will realize that he’ll do anything for the people that he cares about. I think that’s something that’s really admirable.”

Bryan echoed Cubbitt, saying, “I struggled to walk away from someone like Brent. Not that I felt like I was handcuffed or anything. In fact, he’s always the first person to say, ‘hey, if you guys want to play somewhere, I will write a great recommendation letter and I’ll be honest and I will back you.’ He’ll take your back because he’s just a great person. But for me, I was like, you know what? I want to be part of this team because this owner cared about me.”

Detroit Mechanix’s Joe Cubitt. Photo: UFA

Is an Absurd Work of Art – a Mechanix Win – Possible?

Steepe, Cubbitt, and Walsh all emphasized that everyone in Michigan who is interested in ultimate should reach out to the Mechanix, regardless of whether they’re a player looking to try out for a roster spot or someone who’s only just learned of the sport and is looking to bring it to their community. The Mechanix aren’t only interested in growing themselves, they’re dedicated to growing the sport as a whole, especially in Michigan. This too is part of the Mechanix ethos: the win isn’t just coming for the Detroit Mechanix; it’s coming for Detroit, and it’s coming for Michigan, and it’s coming for ultimate as a whole.

And the Mechanix have been working to build Michigan’s ultimate community, reaching out to under-privileged middle schoolers in the past and collaborating with the YCC program, Michigan Stubble. Shelley Mead –  a local player in the Michigan scene, the “Team Mom” of Stubble, and the very real mom of Stubble player Collin Mead – said the Mechanix have helped the team by providing fundraising opportunities. In exchange for Stubble running concessions, operating the scoreboard, and being disc runners during some games, the Mechanix put money towards the team’s trip to Colorado. A couple of the Mechanix players, specifically Joe Cubbitt and Caleb Stanish, also helped to run clinics for the Stubble players. “I have nothing but respect for those two gentlemen [Cubbitt and Stanish],” said Mead. “They want to build up the younger players.” She emphasized these players helped of their own volition, and not at the direction of Steepe or the Mechanix organization.

She also in a very real way represents the fans of the Mechanix. She wants what any other fan would want for their team: success, both on the field and off. “I mean look at the Wind Chill, right?” she said. “They have gobs of people in their stands. We don’t have that. We’re not packed like that. Not yet.” It’s the simple “not yet” that gets me, the deep belief that one day it will be like that for the Mechanix.

It’s more than just a process for Steepe and the Mechanix. He isn’t going through the motions because he feels like he has to. “I hate the words ‘trust the process,’” he said. It’s more of a belief system, a growth mentality. “The answer is simple, we’re going to break the streak when we prove to be the better team on that day.” Despite the simplicity of the answer, Brent emphasizes, “There’s a lot of tough work that goes into it, into the preparation, but that’s the simple answer you’re looking for. And that seems to frustrate people.”

In this, Steepe is most like Sisyphus. Going back to his boulder, year after year, game after game, point after point, much to the chagrin and often confusion of those who watch the UFA and follow the Mechanix. Albert Camus concludes his essay: “One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks … the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Unlike Sisyphus though, whose fate is sealed, Steepe strikes me as a man who will one day reach the top of the mountain, look around, stop and smell the roses for a moment and, once he’s satisfied with what he’s seen, continue pushing the boulder. Only now he’s transcended the mountain and found a way to push his boulder beyond the limitations of the possible and onward towards the clouds.

The Detroit Mechanix on the line in 2018. Photo: UFA

  1. A now-defunct USAU men’s club team out of Michigan 

  1. Zack Davis
    Zack Davis

    Former D-III player for Spring Hill College, poached on the breakside.

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