This essay is an extension of Kevin Cramer’s 2017 book Universe Point, published by Skyd Press. Both the book and this update are personal narratives sharing stories from his more than two decades in the sport.
Warning, this page contains NSFW language.
I knew it wasn’t far away — the final time I’d take off my cleats. With every ache, every grunt, and every empty layout came the slow realization that I just wasn’t the player I used to be. As I entered 2018, I knew I had one good year left in me and that was probably about it. And damn it, if this was the end, I didn’t want to limp off into ultimate’s graveyard. I wanted to go out on top — or at least what would constitute on top for me.
So with all that said, let me tell you about what a massive idiot I am.
When you’re used to being able to do things at a certain physical level, it’s very hard to watch your skills decline. Guys were jumping over me even when I was in great position. Turning my hips was like trying to start the lawnmower you’re not certain why your father still has in the garage. The slow deterioration of my physical abilities devoured me every time I stepped on the field. I needed to find something where I could watch my skills grow and evolve that would also feed my need for the competition and camaraderie that ultimate had provided for almost three decades. In other words, I couldn’t just give up ultimate without finding something else.
My wife, my parents, and my friends had all sorts of suggestions. Disc golf was an obvious choice. Or if that didn’t launch my rockets, maybe fishing or mountain biking or model trains — ya know, something more the speed of a dude who’d quickly and surprisingly been smacked with middle age. But in the end, the choice was obvious.
While on the surface this seems counterintuitive, let me assure you that it’s also counterintuitive on a subterranean level as well. All the way down to the core of the planet it makes no sense, especially considering how I began the chapter talking of how the collection of aches and pains I’d amassed over thousands of sprints and collisions was a main factor in giving up the sport I loved. So instead of gradually ramping down my physical activity, I decided to go to an unventilated basement four times a week and fight guys with professional MMA bouts in their past. It’s literally all pain and suffering to acquire tiny gains until miraculously you get to a point where you don’t get killed all the time. Essentially, I quit coal mining because it was too dangerous and then started a career in bomb diffusion.
Oddly the roots of my shift to BJJ — how us cool kids refer to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — came from one of my darker moments in ultimate. For three years I’d been on a tight crew of referees for the AUDL’s Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. Our main rotation of me, Heim, Red, and Trevor had slowly become one of the best in the league, having worked over twenty games together. It seemed as if the players found us fair and surprisingly competent, which to be honest was and still is a problem in certain pockets of the AUDL. And I planned on doing it for as long as I could still run or until the league folded, whichever came first.
It was a big game. The defending Midwest Division champion Madison Radicals were in town to face the Thunderbirds at Cupples Stadium, an old but picturesque high school football stadium on Pittsburgh’s Southside, just blocks from the Monongahela River. It was 95 degrees that day but there was a pretty big crowd despite the oppressive heat. My good friend Cherry Hill Ryan from Flagler had driven down from Cleveland to see the game with his 13-year-old son, who couldn’t wait to see a pro version of the sport his father had played in college.
The smells of grilled burgers and dogs wafted over from the concession area, the teams were introduced, a local middle schooler sang the national anthem, and we were ready to go. As we took the field, I figured it’d be a typical game just like all the others I’d overseen in the past few years — maybe a bit more intense because the competition was so strong, but a regular contest nonetheless.
I was wrong.
From the start, it was an odd game for the crew. We were breaking in a new referee because Red’s father was having health issues and, let’s face it, family is way more important than spending three hours calling travels and strips. And super weird things kept happening. There were an inordinate number of close up/down and in/out calls in the first half. But the weirdest thing by far was when someone randomly blew a whistle out on Carson Street behind the stadium. On defense, most of the Thunderbirds stopped. Madison didn’t. The Radicals used a 7-on-2 break to score an easy goal. Pittsburgh’s coaches were irate until we all came together at midfield and realized what happened was simply a result of the tightly packed urban environment we were playing in. Oddly, there’s no section of the AUDL rulebook covering what happens when a bike cop blows a whistle at a jaywalker just outside the playing field. After some discussion, we let the goal stand. The fans uh….weren’t happy.
Now the thing about being an AUDL ref is that even when the fans aren’t thrilled with your calls, truth be told, you know most of them — at least tangentially. More or less all the boos are tongue in cheek. Honestly, it’s such a small community that most of the heckles include your name.
“Cramer, it might be time to get your prescription checked!”
But this time, there were two dudes in the stands I’d never seen in my life. And they were obviously not ultimate players. They were just two local dipshits there to cause trouble. They were sitting in the stands about ten yards from where I lined up before every point. And sometime in the second quarter, they started in on me.
“Hey ref, you suck! You’re awful. You suck!”
The heckles never got more clever. They never once approached crafty. But every point as I lined up on the goal line for the pull…
“Hey ref, you suck!”
We’d go nine straight points without a single call and still….
“Hey ref, you suck! You heard me! You suck!”
In the referee handbook, they definitely tell you not to have rabbit ears. Let it slide. Let it go. And I’d done that relatively well for three whole seasons — including two and a half full quarters of listening to the jokers behind me. But it was still almost ninety degrees even after the sun went down. By that point, my Fitbit said I’d run six and a half miles during the game. I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I had been earlier. Also, I’m a flawed human being. I fully realize that I’m a little bit…off. My dad raised me not to take any shit from anyone and he has a mouth full of shiny new teeth because of a fight he got into with a mob hitman while my mom was seven months pregnant with yours truly so there’s a bit of a family tradition to uphold.
It gets me in trouble on occasion.
During a timeout, one of the guys was yelling at me so I finally turned to the stands to address him. “You want to get down here and do this? We need refs. You want to come down here and grab a whistle?”
His response was Shakespearean. “You suck!”
And this is where I should’ve just turned around and realized the moron wasn’t worth engaging further. But like I said, flawed human being. I smirked at the 5’6” 350-pound sack of Jello and yelled back, “You want to be a ref, you’d have to run. You think you could make it ten yards without having a heart attack?”
The dude stammered back, “Yeah. Yeah. I can…run ten yards.”
I’d shut his dumb ass down. All was well in the….
I was about to turn around when his jagoff brother stood up, all 6’0” 400 pounds of him, pointed at me and yelled, “Fuck you! Don’t call my brother fat! I’ll fucking kill you! We’re gonna fucking kill you, motherfucker! Fuck you!”
There were grandmothers and elementary school kids sitting right behind him. Family fun for everyone. I just shook my head and turned around to reengage in the game as the next pull went up. I figured surely someone from security would escort the pricks out after an outburst like that. That was…not the case. When I returned to the goal line all I hear is…
“We’re gonna beat your ass motherfucker!”
“Yeah, yeah. You suck! You suck!”
Such was the abuse heaped upon me during every point throughout the fourth quarter of what turned into a 22-21 Thunderbirds loss, a fact which didn’t help matters. As the game wound down, I ignored it, amazed that nothing was being done — especially with all the kids in the stands who could clearly hear them. I wasn’t totally certain what to do. Should I blow the whistle and stop the game until they escorted the guys out? That didn’t seem fair to the players. There were only forty-five seconds allotted between points and I just didn’t have time to go find the one fucking security guard the Thunderbirds had on hand for the game. It just wasn’t the type of incident any of us had remotely planned on encountering, so I figured I’d just power through the rest of the game, shake hands with the players when the clock ran out, and then head to the locker room.
But the dipshits had other plans. As the crowd filtered out of the stands, I headed back toward the end zone to grab my water bottle. As I’m getting it, I notice some commotion in the concrete corridor between the stands and the seven-foot-high chain-link fence that separated the fans from the sideline. It was then that I noticed the two dorks who’d been yelling at me all game had our general manager Andrew hemmed in against the fence, shouting and pointing fingers in his face.
Seeing that nobody exiting the stands (or security for that matter) seemed to be doing anything about it, I strode over to the fence.
“Hey guys, what’s the problem, huh? Get away from him.”
The big, hyper-aggressive guy grabbed Andrew and pointed at me. “That’s him! He’s the piece of shit that called my brother fat!”
And the little guy yells through the fence, “Fuck you, we’re gonna kick your ass!”
I took one more stride toward the fence. “You’re on me the whole game about how much I suck and I give it back to you one time and you can’t take it?”
And I swear to you on my best pair of socks this was his reply. “I’m a paying customer. I’m allowed to say whatever I want to you and you’re not allowed to say anything back!”
My laughter traveled down the river. “That’s not how it works, dude! Quit being a fucking baby and get of here.”
To which the little guy responds, “You’re lucky you’re on the other side of the fence or I’d be beating your ass.”
And this is where once again, I should’ve deescalated the situation. I should’ve walked away, gotten security, shrugged my shoulders, chugged some water, taken a nap… really anything but what my mind convinced me was a good idea in the moment.
I grabbed the top of the seven-foot fence and in a leap that could’ve gotten me a Spiderman audition, swung my legs over the bar and landed directly in front of him. He took a surprised and somewhat frightened step back as beside me, Andrew melted.
I stared down at him. “Well, I’m on this side of the fence now.”
The scared little goblin scuttled backward and hid behind his much larger brother as he regathered himself and remembered he was supposed to be acting tough. “I’ll kick your ass! I’ll beat your ass!”
“You aren’t going to do shit. Get out of here. Go!”
At this point, his brother’s face got as red as his chapped ass. “I’m gonna fucking kill you! I’m gonna fucking kill you!”
The guy charged at me through the exiting crowd. Andrew’s puddle tried to get between us but…well, you can imagine how that went.
As the guy bull-rushed me, I realized the various miscalculations I’d made. First of all, while I’m a big, muscular guy who knows how to fight, this dude did in fact outweigh me by a full other me. Realistically, if he managed to connect squarely or get on top of me, I was probably fucked. But that didn’t concern me as much as the fact that I was still wearing my AUDL referee gear. And well, that was a problem.
The guy grabbed me by the collar and walked me back against the stands yelling about how he was going to kick my ass. I barely heard him. I was preparing my counter. Little tip for anyone thinking about getting into a fight someday: outside of closing your eyes and putting your hands in your pockets, grabbing someone by the collar is about the dumbest thing you can possibly do. You’ve occupied your own hands and opened yourself up to about fifty different attacks. I had a second to think. Should I break his wrist? Shatter his nose? Poke him in the eye? Hit him in the throat? Despite the overwhelming weight disadvantage, I was going to hurt this dude.
But then a thought crept into my mind. If I did in fact kick his patella around the back of his leg, that might be it for the Thunderbirds franchise — and maybe the AUDL as a whole. They most assuredly didn’t have the insurance for that kind of thing. Though he’d attacked me, I definitely made the situation much worse by hopping the fence. As the spittle from his chubby mouth was flying into my face all I could think was, “Shit. You are stuck now, you dumbass.”
With most other options off the table, all I could think to do was laugh at him. Pinned up against the stands I chuckled, “You aren’t going to do shit. The exit’s over there.”
It seemed as if he realized he was stuck too. He could assault a guy in front of three hundred witnesses, or follow my advice and head for the exit. Trying to gain some semblance of satisfaction, he shoved me into the wall, swore at me again, and started to back up.
“Have a nice night,” I snapped at him as he gathered up his troll brother and headed out.
Someone I probably knew put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Cramer, it’s not worth it.”
I nodded. “You’re right,” and turned back for the locker room.
The best part of the whole thing was that as soon as I hopped the fence, Cherry Hill Ryan handed his moderately expensive camera to his son, said, “Damn it. Hold this,” and took off down the bleachers. I’m almost mad that Ryan Jr. didn’t get a chance to see his thirty-eight-year-old dad get into a stupid fight at a semipro ultimate game.
Welcome to manhood, kid. If you do it right, it’s full of testosterone-filled dumbassery that leads to great stories and completely needless medical bills.
As the days passed and the adrenaline wore off, the management team on the Thunderbirds decided that if they suspended me a game (which I was going to miss for Regionals anyway) and I apologized to the asshat twins for my behavior, I could be back on the field again before the end of the season. Apparently, the dudes were season ticket holders, which was a big deal for a league and a franchise struggling to gain any sort of foothold in the local sports scene. They needed all the cashflow they could manage and consequently to keep the money coming in, it was on me to fall on my sword. And I planned on doing just that. I really liked refereeing. We had a great crew and, truthfully, it was amazing to be on the field with hundreds of people cheering for ultimate. Plus, it was a sick workout. I loved it.
But the more I contemplated, the more I thought, “I’m not apologizing to those clowns.” The way I saw it, if I apologized, it would justify behavior that has no place in our sport. As my best buddy from high school said to me, “All you did was stand up to bullies. Never apologize for letting assholes know they’re assholes.” And he was right. Even if it was a fake apology, I couldn’t live with myself if I looked in their eyes and saw any sort of satisfaction.
I decided I wasn’t apologizing. Consequently, the Thunderbirds decided I was no longer necessary to their operation. Which I get. It did annoy me that after three years of hard work and sacrifice to help build up the franchise by doing a job no one else particularly wanted to do, they’d cast me aside for a hundred bucks or whatever two season tickets cost. I felt slightly betrayed. But I also knew I put them in a shitty situation. They don’t have to make that choice if I don’t jump the fence. I saw their side. Realistically, the decision was best for both of us.
But something changed after that. For the first time in over two decades, I felt weird inside my own community. I realized I didn’t fit anymore. One of the things that drew me to ultimate in the first place was that it was full of goons, nuts, and freaks like me. We came together and formed our own little weird enclave — a place where people said, “Holy shit, Cramer’s out of his goddamned mind. But that’s why we love him.”
I wasn’t sure what had happened. Maybe it was the “normalization” and acceptance of the game in regular society. Maybe it was just a disconnect between my old Generation X ass and the Millennials I was playing with. But their attitude seemed to be, “Holy shit, Cramer’s out of his goddamned mind. Let’s keep him at arm’s length and maybe he’ll go away.”
Again, it was just a feeling I had at the time. Lord knows if it had any merit. Most people probably gave me absolutely no thought whatsoever. But sometimes it’s hard to get out of your own head, so 2018 was the first year since 1996 that I didn’t sign up for summer league. Instead, I went off to convention centers and ice rinks to try and choke out other guys before they choked me, even earning a big shiny silver medal at the Pittsburgh Jiu-Jitsu Classic. (At white belt, so I was essentially king of the idiots. Or more accurately…runner up to the king of the idiots.) But even so, I got to stand on a podium. I never got to do that in ultimate. And more than anything, I had a new sports family — men and women who’d come within a millimeter of snapping your arm or cutting off blood flow to your brain and then let you up with a smile and a fist bump. Each day of training, your life is quite literally in the hands of your partner and vice versa, so you develop trust very quickly. For me, it rapidly became what ultimate used to be. And I was a little sad about it.
Until ultimate did what it always does and brought me back.
Luckily there was still a group of players in the city old enough to accept the fact that I was more or less a lovable time bomb. Pittsburgh had been struggling to field a Grandmasters team since Iron City Ultimate last went to the national championships in 2012. Luckily for us, in the interim USAU had instituted a national beach championship. The smaller field and fewer players meant we didn’t need quite as many bodies, thus making a mini Pittsburgh team quite feasible.
In 2017, a bunch of Pittsburgh guys joined a New York City Grandmasters team named Coney Island Fun House. They had such a good time that they hatched a plan to bring Pittsburgh old guy ultimate back from the dead. Knowing that for six years we’d been trying and failing at that process, I told them that if a Pittsburgh team ever actually started, I’d be on board. It was like telling your kid that if he ever finds a stray dragon, he can keep it. You seem supportive, but you’re pretty damn sure you’re not actually committing to anything. What I found is that occasionally you come home to find the driveway on fire and your kid yelling, “Look what followed me home!” So in late May, I ended up driving through a tropical depression to Virginia Beach.
Unlike most of the tournaments I’d played in over the years, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one. The forecast called for a 90% chance of rain all weekend. It was supposed to be freaking miserable. When you’re 21, you don’t care about the weather — you’d just do anything to play. Back in college, I once played a 5-on-5 game in a legitimate category one hurricane about a hundred yards from the water. At 41, if it looks like it might drizzle, you’d rather just skip straight to the postgame beers.
Also, to be honest, I didn’t think we’d be very good. Coney Island Fun House had gone 0-5 in pool play the year before. And we were short. I mean, middle school short. Of the thirteen guys on the team, I was the only one who was over six feet tall. At this point in American society, that’s a mind-boggling statistical improbability. This wasn’t 1903 before anyone knew anything about nutrition. It felt like it was going to be a pretty major disadvantage. Getting your pride driven into the sand in a tropical depression just didn’t seem like the best use of my time when I could’ve been back home doing more fun things like unclogging the basement sink or listening to my kid complain about his juice box.
While we realistically could’ve been named “Team Hobbit,” we ended up calling ourselves “Scrapheap” because honestly, that’s where we all resided at this point in our careers. Also, by now the city of Pittsburgh is like 25% random piles of rusting metal from the gilded age, so it fused a lot of things together quite nicely. When we went to print the jerseys, our captain, a human racecar named Worley, sent the printer a 1990’s clip-art file that showed a random heap of 8-bit junk. In an email he told the printer, “We need something like this, but obviously better. Be creative.”
They printed the clip-art file on the jerseys.
When I got my uniform at the hotel room Friday night, I laughed. “I can make out a wagon wheel and a broken washing machine and….what are these, prosthetic legs or green beans?”
Worley sighed. “They were supposed to use the clip-art as inspiration.”
So we got up in the morning as the seventh seed in the twelve-team tournament and headed out to the beach. All things considered, it was a pretty talented group of short guys. Along with long-time Pittsburgh players Stu, Nern, Greg, and Weiss, we had my buddy Brody from Endless Sunset, a fifty-three year old ageless freak named Pat, an intense tactical genius named Weasel whose lefty throws were nearly unstoppable, and a marginally out of shape Asian guy named Wooj who was the rare person you run across in life who’s actually as funny as they think they are.
Our first game of the day was against a team from Orlando who came in as the only team in our bracket seeded below us. The prevailing mindset was that we’d better win this one because it might be our only shot to get a victory on the weekend. And in that game, I found out my lone job on the team….
“Cramer, you cover the tall guy.”
So that was what I did the entire weekend. Cover the tall guys — a task which, fortunately, I’m pretty good at. Luckily, our first game wasn’t particularly close. I caught my first goal on a break backhand from Wooj to put us up 9-3 and we coasted to an easy 13-4 win, already outpacing the team’s performance from the previous year. But the tough games loomed.
Our next match was against southeast power Reckon out of Nashville/Atlanta whose grass team had qualified for the World Championships in Winnipeg during the summer. They were seeded fifth. Truthfully, at the beginning of the game, we were just happy to have gotten that one victory over Orlando.
During the game, however, something changed. We realized that while we were comically short, we were also unbelievably fast. Our guys were everywhere. Despite the crazy beach wind, Weasel took over the game depositing these insane lefty flick hucks to our streaking receivers. I’d seen Weasel throw those damn lefty flicks for nearly two decades but I’d never seen him quite so confident or accurate. Everything he put up hit our receivers in stride. We went into halftime somewhat stunningly up 7-4.
As we’re in the huddle ready to take the field for the second half, I somewhat jokingly said to Brody, “Holy shit, we can actually win this game.”
Weasel heard me as he was walking to the line. “We are going to win this game,” he said nonchalantly.
Every time they’d score to close it to one, Weasel would curve a forty yard outside in flick just over the defender’s fingertips to Worley or bomb a goal line to goal line backhand to Stu. Near the end of the game they finally broke us for a goal that made it 10-9. On the ensuing point, I bailed out Freak Pat for a dump before putting a forehand up the line to one of our New York guys. He in turn lobbed it into the end zone for Pat who went up over his trailing defender to grab the disc at the exact moment the hard cap horn sounded. When he landed we were up by two. Game over. The short guys had upended the bracket.
We were feeling pretty damn good about ourselves all things considered going into our game against the number one seed, defending champion Sandblast out of Minneapolis/Chicago, only to roll up and find that our game was being delayed. As an ultimate player, you’re used to having games not start on time. Typically, this is due to things like lightning or having to show a permit to a pickup soccer game or, more likely, the shared laziness of both teams. But this one was new. This was one that even the old grandmasters had never seen. Our game was delayed by…monster trucks.
Yeah, you read that right. Apparently, the previous weekend, the city of Virginia Beach held a monster truck rally on the sand, which now that I think about it, sounds like the coolest thing this side of Elvis. USAU wasn’t aware of this, however, and put field twelve over what amounted to an auto graveyard.
“So what happened to you, Bob? Why the bandage on your knee?”
“Eh, I cut it up playing ultimate.”
“Oh, did you collide with someone?”
“Oh no…I laid out onto the spark plug from a ’98 Cutlass Ciera.”
It would’ve been the perfect field for a team named Scrapheap. Hell, with that type of home-field advantage, we might’ve managed two or even three goals.
As we lined up across from our opponents at the beginning of the game, Wooj looked across the beach and sighed. “Ok, Cramer so I guess you get all four tall guys.”
What I’m getting at is that Sandblast played the part of Gravedigger and we were the unfortunate Buick Skylarks getting crushed into the sand beneath their wheels. Early on in the game, I got the disc at midfield and saw Nern slip behind the defense. I lobbed a high-release flick out in front of him to the end zone that on grass would’ve settled down nicely into his hands for a pretty throw that would’ve earned me hugs and handshakes as I walked off the field. On the beach however, it was like Zeus reached down from the clouds and squashed the damn thing with a bolt of lightning.
The Sandblast guy next to me laughed. “Someone’s not used to beach,” he said jokingly smarmy.
“Aren’t many beaches in Pittsburgh,” I answered as he ran off. “Hey wait, aren’t you from Minnesota? Hey…”
We played thirteen points in total. Sandblast scored on twelve of them. But even considering the steamrolling, it was a successful day. If we could manage to beat Philly Scrapple the next morning, we’d somehow make the semifinals. And more than that, the tropical rain bands ten miles inland and ten miles out to sea had somehow missed the beach entirely. We cracked open a few beers with the guys from Sandblast, laughed about the stomping they’d given us, lounged in the sand, and watched the waves roll in. It was the type of moment that you take for granted when you’re young — just chilling with your teammates with nothing to do but laugh and get in minor amounts of trouble. It’s the type of moment that middle-aged responsibilities like work, marriage, and fatherhood don’t often afford you anymore. For a few glorious hours, it was 1999 again.
Honestly, I think if we hadn’t beaten Reckon, the night would’ve been a lot wilder. But somewhere in the back of our collective minds, we realized that if we got up and beat Scrapple, our incredibly short, hastily thrown together team could make the semis in a national tournament, which for most of us would be a momentous first. When we arrived in Virginia the night before, it wasn’t anything we thought was remotely possible. Now it was right in front of us.
It made us a bit nervous when we got up. Our forks and spoons were all vibrating just a bit at breakfast. We headed out to the beach on a beautiful sunny morning ready to play a team that had stomped Coney Island Fun House 11-4 the year before. I went out on defense for the first point with much more nervous excitement than I’d planned on being stricken with at any point in the weekend. We forced two turns but came to a standstill immediately upon getting possession as we tried to catch our breath. We got stalled twice.
Finally, after forcing a third turnover and our offense moving at the speed of tree sap, Brody desperately heaved a backhand prayer toward the end zone that hung in the air long enough for me to get under. I outfought two Scrapple guys in the air for the first goal of the game. After all that, we’d somehow come out of it up 1-0. But we were clearly nervous. Clearly hesitant. Clearly…..
As we stood on the sidelines, we watched Worley track down a perfect end zone-to-end zone huck from Weasel. And so went the rest of the game. The defensive line would fight hard before eventually giving up a point. Then as we sipped our water, we’d look up to find a disc sailing through the air and Worley running past everyone to pancake it in the end zone. It was a great formula.
Also a good formula for prevailing in a time capped game — if you’re winning by three or so with not much time left…have one of your guys get hurt. We were up 10-7 when one of our New York guys made a layout block in the end zone and came down hard on his shoulder. He grunted and made the face everyone makes when they’re mentally coming to grips with the fact that their day is done.
I shuffled over toward him and knelt in the sand. “You all right, man?”
“My wife is gonna kill me. She said, don’t get hurt, Bert. Don’t get hurt. And what’d I go and do?”
“Yeah, but it was on a sweet layout,” I answered.
“I didn’t want to say it myself,” Bert replied with the half grimace, half smile of a guy who knew he’d just sacrificed his body for a win.
All things being equal, it was a legit injury. The rest of the day, Bert sat on the sidelines icing both his shoulder and his throat with beer from our cooler. But knowing the clock was ticking down for a trip to the semis, we weren’t exactly hasty in getting him off the field.
Weasel came over to check on him. “Relax for a second, Bert. We’re in no hurry. Your health is the most important thing here.”
One of the Scrapple guys chuckled. “If you were down 10-7, you’d have put him on your back and run him off the field.”
I laughed. “Straight into the ocean for the sharks. But since we’re winning, you guys mind waiting until we build a stretcher?”
Philly looked a bit hungover, tired, and aware that a comeback was unlikely so they didn’t put up much of a stink as we pissed around. When we finally got Bert off the field, there were only about three minutes left. We scored once more to put the cap on our victory. The shortest, most inland team ever assembled was headed to the semis at beach nationals. As we moved our beach chairs, backpacks, and sandals to the next field, every single one of us smiled and chuckled the whole way.
“We just made semis at beach nationals.”
“Say that again. It doesn’t sound real.”
“We just made semis at beach nationals.”
“Yeah, it didn’t sound any more believable the second time.”
There was definitely an element of imposter syndrome as we lined up against our semis opponent, the Eldors out of Santa Barbara captained by my old buddy Black Tide Matt. Their lineup was a who’s who of Condors players from the 90s and 2000s. I mean they had two guys who were already in the Hall of Fame and three or four more in waiting. The game went almost exactly how everyone anticipated. Truth be told, we played pretty well for a team that at one point was down 11-0. We still had a ringing zero goals late in the game when Brody made a D and knocked the disc into another field, allowing me a moment to shake hands with Black Tide Matt.
I laughed. “I think it might be time to admit that you guys are a notch or two better than us.”
“I might go three or four,” he replied.
He was a little too proud of his dig so I tapped one of his Eldors teammates on the shoulder. “Did you know this guy here played for Black Tide?”
The guy chuckled. “I don’t know if ‘played’ is the right word.”
“Hey, I’m Black Tide Matt,” he countered. “It’s in a book.”
I smiled. “I can tell your teammates are jealous of your fame.”
Matt grinned then turned serious. “Please don’t let them hear you say that.”
Off of that exchange, we tapped in the disc. At some point, Nern got it at about midfield. At this point, all we really cared about was not getting skunked. Making semis at a national tournament is amazing but still, you don’t want to have a big fat zero next to your team name on the USAU website forever. I faked in then cut toward the end zone, shaking whoever was on me by enough for Nern to risk putting it up. And he zipped the damn thing — eight feet high and a good two yards in front of me.
Now if this had been grass, I’d have most likely said to myself, “You’re 41 years old, man. You have an eight-hour drive ahead of you and a four-year-old that won’t respond well to, ‘Daddy’s got a rib issue right now so….’”
But it was sand, so I figured, “what the hell?”
In my sickest waist-high layout since 2007, I extended to snag the trailing edge of the disc, saving my most athletic play of the decade for a national semifinal against the old Condors. Not gonna lie, it felt pretty damn good. I got up rather pleased with myself only to realize I’d landed about three inches from the goal line. There was still a massive chance to fuck the whole thing up.
I’m pretty sure none of my Scrapheap teammates thought I had any shot at that disc when it left Nern’s hand so I didn’t have many options as my defender sprinted over to mark me. All I had was Freak Pat coming in for a dump toss that was immediately covered by twelve Hall of Famers.
As I was about to get stalled, Pat decided to bail on the dump and ran past my right shoulder. With the stall count nearly exhausted, I flipped a no-look push pass under my arm toward the cone and hoped for the best.
Watching a 53-year old front flip into the end zone is pretty impressive — especially when it helps your team avoid an embarrassing shutout. Though it was the only goal we’d get in a 13-1 semifinals drubbing, it was definitely the most spectacular of the game’s fourteen goals — which admittedly is putting ketchup on a turdburger, but at least it’s something.
It sent us to the third-place game where we played “No Country,” a team featuring Alex “The Count” de Frondeville, Jim Parinella, and other Death or Glory legends. On the sidelines during the game, those dudes were telling me about “Universe Point,” and how a bunch of the old DoG guys had bought a copy and passed it around. I answered in subdued responses like, “Yeah, well I’m super glad you enjoyed it,” and “well, that’s really all you can hope for as an author,” when what I really wanted to do was dance into the ocean and shout, “HOLY SHIT YOU HAVE SEVENTY CHAMPIONSHIPS AND YOU LIKED THE DUMB CRAP I WROTE! THIS IS EASILY LIKE THE ELEVENTH BEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE!”
Anyway, I had a goal and an assist in a 13-5 loss that put us squarely in fourth place. As longtime player Matt Weiss conceded in our spirit circle after the game, “We thought as we got older, the playing field would level out. But no. The same guys who kicked our ass in 1997 are still kicking our ass now. And will continue to do so…so on and so forth from here to eternity.”
It was the type of joke that you give a robust laugh to when you play for a team like No Country and chuckle at through a quasi-annoyed sigh when you’re on a team like Scrapheap. Because it’s true. Time doesn’t even out height. Or precision. Or desire. It didn’t make me any less of a knucklehead who constantly loses focus on the field because he had a random thought about dinosaurs. It just makes you more of who you always were with slightly grayer hair.
But it couldn’t have been a more successful weekend. No rain, lots of laughs, and more winning than any of us anticipated. It’s still the only team I’ve ever been on that’s listed on the ultimate history website. Look it up — 2018 Grandmasters Beach Nationals. Under semifinals participant, there’s Scrapheap (Pittsburgh, PA). Play for Sockeye or Fury or Revolver or Riot and there’s really nothing special about seeing your team listed on that chart. But for a journeyman who spent his career playing in places like Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Riverside, and San Diego, that’s a really big deal. The whole way home through the mountains of Virginia and Maryland, I couldn’t stop smiling and smacking the wheel.
“I was the tallest dude on a team that made semis. That’s so dumb.”
Just before my first game at master’s nationals in 2017 with Endless Sunset out of San Diego, a tall guy lumbered down the hill next to our field and sat next to me. He had on a red shirt with a boombox logo and kind of looked like how you’d picture Frankenstein’s more chill human brother.
“Are you Cramer?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, stunned that anyone knew who I was.
He extended his hand. “I read your book. Loved it.”
“Oh wow. Thanks, man. That means a lot.”
“I’m Chris,” he said. “I captain Grandmaster Flash out of Orlando. I don’t want to pirate you off of Sunset here but if you ever want to get back to your Florida roots, we could use a few more guys.”
I nodded. “I will keep that in mind.”
We chatted for another minute or two before he had to head to his game. Things were looking up. Before I’d even played a point, I was being recruited by other teams. There’s a great lesson here. And that lesson is: use fancy words to exaggerate your own talents for 400 pages, put the bullshit you wrote on Amazon, and the sky’s the limit.
As Chris headed off, he looked back and chuckled, “Although full disclosure, I played my college ultimate at…..”
“Please don’t say Miami of Ohio.”
He dropped his head. “Then I won’t say it.”
Goddammit. He seemed like such a nice guy. “That never needed to come up!”
“See you on the fields,” he laughed as he hauled his gear away.
As 2018 rolled around, Endless Sunset experienced a schism of sorts when the formation of the Eldors pried away some of their better players, including Black Tide Matt, the guy who’d recruited me in the first place. I was already an outsider on that team and without Matt there to vouch for me, I was even less of a fit. Grandmaster Flash seemed to genuinely want me on the team and as an added bonus, Orlando was still in the eastern time zone. The decision ended up being pretty easy. I’d complete the circle and play as a 41-year old in the state where I’d first started. I was headed back to Florida.
Ok, truth be told I never actually got back to Florida. Regionals was in Charlotte. And the great thing about Grandmasters is that if you’re a somewhat competent out-of-region player, most teams don’t actually need you to practice with them. They just include you in their email chain and hope you show up on game day. The morning of regionals, I found the Ramblewood Soccer Complex, got out, and sat quietly on a picnic table until other old guys with cleats started showing up.
Eventually, Captain Chris spotted me and did the “I’m 70% sure that’s who I think it is” wave in my direction, so I gathered my stuff and joined a really fun group of guys that seemed to all have ponytails and the ability to run forever without getting tired.
There were only three teams fighting for two spots at nationals so our first game against Birmingham Rust was a big one. At game time it was 92 degrees, which seems warm until you consider that it was a full ten degrees cooler than what I’d experienced the previous year in California. In comparison, it felt like one of those breath mint commercials where polar bears are snowboarding down your throat. There were five or six legitimate clouds. Hashtag blessed.
The game wasn’t close. Birmingham’s guys were good handlers but many of them were “a bit long in the tooth,” which allowed us to control the pace, go up 3-0, and never look back. I was on the field when we scored our fifteenth goal to secure our trip to Illinois. After waiting over two decades to get to nationals, I was going to my second in a row. Thank god for the old guy division.
Our second game was against Nashville/Atlanta Reckon, who I’d just faced at Beach Nationals. They’d finished seventh overall the year before and were definitely better than us athletically and structurally — i.e. they seemed like a cohesive unit and not a squad that picked up random guys from Pittsburgh who met the team on a picnic table two and a half hours ago.
But to everyone’s surprise, we came out absolutely smoking. It was tied 1-1 and I had their big 6’4” guy on me when I caught a swing and saw one of our ponytail guys get a step on his defender. I shot a fifty-yard forehand to the back corner of the end zone that he ran down to put us up 2-1. Reckon scored to tie it but on the next point from the same spot on the field, I rifled a flick under the arm of the big guy that another speedy ponytail dude slid for in the end zone to put us up 3-2.
The Flash guys in the tent leapt up and cheered. “Holy shit, we have a ringer!”
And that goddamned felt amazing. A year before on Endless Sunset, this was about the point where I’d morphed into a human scarecrow trying to chase down a huck, then stumbled to the tent feeling like I’d just pulled myself out of a volcano. In a nutshell, what I learned from the whole experience was….
Heatstroke < Not getting heatstroke
Somehow we went up 6-2 and would’ve taken the half 7-4 if our co-captain hadn’t dropped his easiest catch of the weekend. His name was Vernon and he was the type of guy who wore visors and could sell pork chops to a vegan. Unfortunately, his oratory skills didn’t help him when he broke free down the sideline and one of our handlers dropped an absolute dime on top of him. I don’t know if Vernon started celebrating too early or whether the gods just decided to re-establish the natural order of things, but our whole sideline did the jump for joy/squat of agony that all teams do when a surefire goal hits the grass.
Vernon stared at his hands as if he was worried they were covered in Coronavirus — which made him a prophet because it would be damn near two years before the rest of us had to panic about that shit. You could tell he wanted to self-quarantine when Reckon came back to tie the game 7-7.
We scored the next goal to take half, but the rest of the game can be summed up by this fictional account of the team entering a local UPS store.
“Hello, we’re Grandmaster Flash. We’re here to pick up our legs.”
“Ooooh, those are um….not showing up in our system.”
“What? We literally just had them!”
“Yeah, actually it looks like they were rerouted back home already. You’ll be able to pick them up there tomorrow morning.”
“But we need them for the second half.”
“Well uh, that’s going to be a problem.”
The beers and stories in the tent after our 15-9 loss were pretty damn good though. And most importantly, we were headed to nationals.
Little known fact about Masters Nationals — it can only be held in towns named Aurora. After being held in Aurora, Colorado in 2017, the 2018 tournament was held in Aurora, Illinois. And I’d be shocked if there wasn’t at least one team wandering the giant soccer complex east of Denver going, “Where the hell is everyone? I’m like a thousand percent sure USAU said it was in Aurora again. Dan, check the website.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s in Aurora. Everyone should be here by…..oooooohhhhh.”
Watch out Aurora, Maine. We’re all showing up eventually whether you and your 114 residents are ready or not.
Anyway, after a drive across Ohio and Indiana and a night on my old buddy Demo Jared’s couch, I drove down to meet the team on a sunny but windy day in America’s heartland. Our first game of the morning was against No Country, the number three seed that featured two former Callahan winners and a bunch of old DoG and Ironside guys. As for Grandmaster Flash, our captain missed the first few points because he had to take his wife to a Rascal Flatts concert the night before.
When Captain Chris hustled in during the fifth point and dropped his stuff in the tent, Vernon got on him. “Rascal Flatts? Seriously?”
“I bought the tickets before we knew when nationals would be,” Chris said, digging through his bag. “What’s the score?”
Vernon threw a wristband at him. “They’re winning, three to Rascal Flatts.”
“I took a 6 AM flight to get here!” Chris grumbled. “I mean, I like you guys but eventually this tournament is going to end and I still have to live with my wife.”
I walked over and ducked in the tent. “I don’t think anyone’s mad at you for missing five points of nationals for a concert. I think the problem is that it was for a Rascal Flatts concert.”
“Yeah, that’s the main issue,” Vernon said.
I shook my head. “I mean, we’re literally playing a team called No Country. The irony itself is going to cause like seven turnovers.”
Captain Chris sighed. “If I pretend like I saw Metallica, will you guys get off my back about it?”
Vernon perked up. “You saw Metallica last night?”
“Yeah, they rocked.”
Vernon patted him on the back. “Glad you made it.”
Surprisingly, we frustrated the hell out of No Country in a game that got progressively windier as it went on. They were up 2-1 when I muscled an upwind forehand to a bodybuilder type guy named Cleaver to tie it 2-2 — getting my first ever nationals assist in the process. They’d go up 7-3 before I got my next two, cutting a flick through the wind to a big, pharaoh of a dude named Haizar and a high-release hook shot over my head that our best athlete, Jarrod, ran down for the score. The previous year I’d scored one point the entire tournament. This year I had three in the first half of the first game. I felt like I could breathe out. I was actually helping.
With their lead now cut to 7-5, a short fireplug on their team started stomping around like a kid in galoshes who’d just found a puddle.
“What the fuck?” the dude yelled, spiking his hat. “You know the defense we’re running! Right? Right?” (Picks up hat to spike it again) “If you don’t know the defense, why are you on the field? Jesus Christ! How many times do I have to say the same fuckin’ (kicks hat) thing?”
As I jogged off the field, I turned to a No Country dude on the sideline. “That guy is not having fun.”
He just chuckled. “He’s been like this since 1992.”
“That’s a long time to be angry,” I said.
“We’re aware,” he chuckled. “We’re well aware.”
In the end, we fell 13-7 but felt like we’d put in a respectable showing against a really good team. During the game though, the sunny skies gradually got dark. Super ominous black clouds full of tropical rain were rumbling in from the west. Just before our next game against Seattle’s Kalakala, the world became an aquarium.
I played cutter on all of the upwind points so most of my time was spent watching otherwise good throws aimed in my direction get viciously defended by the air. I did have one awesome layout that resulted in a thirty-yard slip n’ slide ride as my defender hurdled me in the middle of a tidal wave. As he splashed over for the mark, I briefly glanced around the field.
“Please tell me there’s a photographer here. That’s Photo of the Year if they got it.”
“That hurdle I did over you? I know, right?,” the defender said. “I think they’re all in their cars.”
“We created something beautiful there, man. Dare I call it art? And sadly, it’s now gone forever, carried beyond this moment only in our minds.”
As I held the disc out for him to tap back into play, I knew we now shared a bond — an understanding about how glory fades into the mists of time for everyone but the few souls lucky enough to have their moment preserved for the masses. For what are we in our modern world without visual proof of our heroics? He opened his mouth to respond with a grand insight of his own. I waited anxiously, feeling each beat of the rain on my shoulders.
He blinked into the storm. “Stalling one, two…”
It was a grand insight. Perhaps he was right. As humans, we have no control over the past and but a mere illusion of control over the future. All we could do was move on. Well said, Seattle shaman. Well said, indeed.
Even though the picture that could’ve defined ultimate’s next fifty years was lost to history because the photographers selfishly “didn’t want to ruin thousands of dollars in equipment,” the game itself went pretty well for us. We hung around and genuinely scared them for a point or two early in the second half before eventually succumbing 13-7.
After that, we randomly ended up with a massive three-hour break, during which the rain mercifully stopped — allowing me to air a few things out. And as every ultimate player knows, there are really only three non-drug-related experiences in life that cause the outside world to temporarily melt around you from sheer pleasure. In order, those experiences are….
- Your first orgasm
- Every subsequent orgasm
- Taking off wet socks
Peeling that cotton swamp off my feet was mystical. Was I in a parking lot just outside of Chicago or at a monastery in Tibet? It was impossible to tell. I put my wet jersey and socks under my windshield wipers and let the breeze dry them off as I reclined the seat of my wife’s Toyota Corolla to take a twenty-minute power nap.
I woke up seven minutes before our game against Santa Fe Chupacabra.
The fortunate thing about that particular national championship for teams like Grandmaster Flash was that 2018 was a Worlds year. Two weeks later a giant tournament was taking place in Winnipeg featuring all the top American finishers from 2017 along with their Canadian, British, Japanese, and Korean counterparts. Because of it, a couple of the participants like Johnny Walker, Reckon, Shutdown, and Shadows decided to decline their bids to nationals — which meant we weren’t just fighting for fifteenth place. There were legitimately teams we could beat. One of those teams was Chupacabra.
In another windy game, we took control early and never looked back. I broke free to catch a five-yard backhand for my first goal of the tournament, already equaling my total from the previous year. I ended the game with a long flick down the right sideline to Vernon, whose hands were no longer covered in disease. He hopped up to catch it at the goal line, flipped a three-foot pass to Haizar and we made our way to the crossover round with a 13-8 victory.
Our crossover game at 8:00 the next morning was against Boulder Bighorn, a group of guys that pretty consistently win the spirit award in the Grandmasters Division — which, as I indicated in Universe Point, typically means you kind of suck. This was not the case with Bighorn. In another super windy contest where discs were hovering, diving, and riding the jet stream halfway to Michigan, they were much calmer and capitalized on our mistakes. They broke through with a bunch of upwind goals to take half 7-2 — albeit with smiles, jokes, and such an uplifting demeanor that none of us were too chapped about it.
Right after half, a flick from Vernon to Haizar got tipped in the air at the goal line and hung up long enough to allow seven guys to cluster under it. As it drifted to the left, I crashed in from the back of the stack and started to leap — only to abort my jump when I realized I’d have to fight my own teammate for the disc. All you really need to know about the guy who made the catch is that his name is Jason and he directed a B-Horror flick called Hellphone. If you’re currently thinking to yourself, “Hellphone — I bet that’s about a haunted cell phone that murders half the residents in a small South Carolina town,” you’d be wrong. The terrified town is in North Carolina. There are baffled cops, southern charm, and exploding heads. In other words, it’s exactly as awesome as it sounds. I love the people you meet through ultimate.
Anyway, I took a quick step back and Hellphone Jason flipped the disc about two feet. I caught an easy goal to close the deficit to 7-3. At the time, we had no idea it would be the first goal of a somewhat astonishing comeback.
Truly the most bizarre thing about the second half is how little I remember about it considering the 2018 Flash vs. Bighorn crossover is easily one of my top five favorite games ever. Honestly, we were having such a good time joking around and swapping stories with the Bighorn guys that the actual play-by-play got lost. At one point we were down 12-7 and they were within a single goal of winning rather handily.
And then somehow it was 12-10. With each score, our sideline started to muster more and more energy. It went from, “Hey, cool, the final score isn’t going to look as bad,” to “holy shit, if we get an upwind goal here…” to “Jesus Christ, we’re going downwind to tie the game!” And tie the game we did on a ridiculous backhand from a slick Miami lawyer named Doug that curved a few miles into Iowa on its way to the end zone. One of our ponytail guys toed the line to make it 12-12. We exploded in joy and disbelief. The guys on the field came strutting off, smacking hands and bashing forearms.
I’d been playing shutdown defense the whole game and because of it, got called on by Captain Chris for the universe line. Of all the things that can happen for a nomad ultimate wanderer, being tapped for universe point on a team you only met five weeks ago is about as good as it gets. I was pumped. Bighorn had the distinct advantage of going downwind, but we’d somehow managed to smash home five upwinders in the second half so it wasn’t impossible. I was hopping. I was going to make the D that would lead to the winning goal. I was sure of it.
The pull went ten yards past midfield at best. The guy I chose to cover looked like he’d probably run dozens of ultra-marathons in his life. Bighorn took it and worked it amongst their handlers for a spell before marathon guy took off deep. I was a lot bigger than he was, so I let him get a half step, knowing they probably wouldn’t put it up. I was right. About three strides into the end zone, he stopped and came back. I was waiting.
A swing toss went to one of their handlers who saw him cutting in. The only explanation for what happened next is that they’d run that play seven thousand times and seven thousand times it worked. The thrower didn’t process that I was right next to the dude, if not a half step in front of him. He let go a flick. My eyes got wide. I was about to make the D I knew was inevitable when I got called onto the universe line.
By grandmasters age, you’re thoroughly aware of how angles impact the game. You might not be able to explode to the spot like you did when you were younger, but you damn sure know where the disc is going. Geometry says that the best chance of completing a flick to a teammate that’s cutting toward you is to put it toward their outside arm so as not to slow their forward momentum. For a right-hander, your optimum throw is going to lead your cutter slightly to their left — which as a defender is what I was anticipating. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the guy on the outside. Marathon Man was Chik-Fil-A on Sunday — he was not open.
I think the handler realized I was there just as he let go of the disc. What followed was the best shitty throw in history. I mean if the dude wanted to put it where he did, then absolute hats off to that wizard. But uh, I doubt it.
I was anticipating an easy run-through D until the thrower double-clutched and threw a wobbly flick that drifted back toward Marathon Man’s inside shoulder.
Back in 2004 in the Harrisburg indoor league, I once laid out over a 6’1” guy’s left shoulder and picked a Callahan goal from in between his hands without fouling him. It was probably the greatest play I’ve ever made. Making this particular D on universe point against Bighorn would’ve taken a similar effort.
That, uh….wasn’t happening at 41.
Running full speed, I left the ground and extended my right arm as far as I could, but the disc only nicked the nail on my ring finger. Marathon Man caught it up near his right ear. Precision throw or total accident, either way, they’d beaten the best defense I could muster. I popped up from the ground as quickly as I could only to watch Marathon Man zip a backhand into the end zone to a streaking receiver.
Bighorn 13 – Grandmaster Flash 12
I dropped to a knee in exasperation and disbelief, staring blankly ahead at the cleats of the guys celebrating in the end zone. The other guys on Flash all had about the same reaction — three seconds of disappointedly hunching over and grabbing at their shorts before shrugging and extending a hand toward the nearest Bighorn player they could find. We’d almost done it. We almost snuck into the top eight at nationals. We almost had a great story.
Other than being an obvious goat, there’s nothing quite as bad as nearly being a hero. You replay milliseconds in your mind, wondering what you could’ve done differently — obsessing over the tiniest details. If I’d have just planted harder, recognized the trajectory of the throw a split second earlier… Did I really give that layout everything I had?
I couldn’t wait to get to the tent to apologize to my teammates for not quite making the play, for letting the team down. But first there was the handshake line. And the spirit circle. I was still downtrodden when the Bighorn players in their dark green uniforms locked arms with all of us in our white and reds. One of them presented us with a bottle of homemade mead. There was self-deprecating laughter about our fading athleticism and joy at how fun the game had been. And next thing we knew, we’re all sitting in the grass together passing around this mead and recalling how the contest unfolded.
“How many times in a single game can you have a pass bounce off one guy’s chest and go right to another guy on your team?” we asked.
“I don’t know. How many times did it happen for us in this game?” Bighorn answered.
“Like four thousand. Four thousand times.”
“Well, then there’s your answer. Hey, where’d the mead go?”
It was truly one of those times when the joy of competition completely outweighed the final result. Sitting there with those guys rehashing a game where we somehow scraped back from two five-goal deficits to force universe point — a discussion full of laughs, jabs, and smiles, I honestly forgot about coming up just short on that final bid. As the mead was passed to me, I raised it.
“Boys, I think this might be my favorite game I’ve ever lost,” I said, taking a swig. It tasted like really good apple juice.
Hellphone Jason nodded. “That’d be a good title for an article.”
Vernon agreed. “Oh yeah. We can’t be the only team in your life you never wrote about. I mean we’ve been going out of our way to be extra interesting all weekend. Frankly, it’s been exhausting.”
“Yeah, Cramer, I want to read about myself,” said Captain Chris. “You should get on that.”
Vernon laughed. “There was a reason we used an out of region spot on you. I mean you’re a good player and everything, but we really just want to be famous.”
I laughed. “Oh you say that until you can’t go back to your regular life. Fame is more of a nuisance than you’d think. And I know. I wrote the second most popular nonfiction book about ultimate frisbee of 2017.”
Captain Chris leaned back on his forearms. “It’s definitely not imperative that you mention the Rascal Flatts concert though. You can skip that detail.”
“I doubt I’ll even remember,” I said as I passed the mead to one of the Bighorn guys. “Hell, maybe one of these days a global pandemic will cause us all to be trapped in our homes for a few months and I’ll write all about it to kill some time.”
“We’re holding you to that,” said Hellphone Jason.
Consider it upheld.
Our next game was against New York Joystick and it went pretty well. I leapt and caught a long curving forehand over my defender for our fifth goal. Our ponytail guys popped into open spaces like whack-a-moles and we coasted by them 15-8 to land in the 9/10 game on Sunday morning against Texas’s Sick Hammers, the exact same team I’d played on Sunday the year before with Endless Sunset.
And if it ended up being my final game, it was a doozy, complete with the strangest play I can recall in my twenty-some years of lacing up the cleats.
Many Americans know that Chicago is called “The Windy City.” Somewhere along the line, I was told it was because back in the 1870s their politicians were loud, blustery fools. This is an obvious falsehood perpetrated by the Chicago Tourism Bureau because it’s easy to blame dead guys nobody remembers.
It’s because of the damn wind.
Sunday morning was one of those days where running a simple end zone drill does more to wreck your confidence than warm you up. Discs were ruining the local harvest and interrupting church services. Despite the lack of success in our end zone drill against literally no defense, however, we took the pull and marched it straight into the wind for an improbable goal to seize control of the game. We exploded out of the tent, yelling things like, “That’s huge, boys! They gotta chase us now!”
And that sentiment damn well would’ve been true had Sick Hammers not immediately worked the disc upfield into that same thirty mile per hour wind and tied it — to which we said things like, “Goddammit” and “Son of a bitch.” Anyway, the rest of the game went pretty much like this….
- Pull goes out of bounds
- Upwind team jogs the disc to the brick mark before putting up an ill-advised twenty-yard flick that gets knocked down at midfield
- Downwind team immediately tries a huck that sails out the back of the end zone
- Upwind team picks up the disc and turns it over on the second pass out of the end zone.
- Downwind team drops a wide-open goal due to the disc breakdancing in the air a half-inch from the receiver’s hands.
- Upwind team turns it over on the very first pass
- Downwind team mercifully scores
We were trading points until Sick Hammers scored what looked to be a backbreaking upwinder late in the game. It didn’t look good as they pulled to us with the wind at their backs and up by two goals. All they had to do now was coast to the finish on the breeze.
We were headed straight into the jet engine. As we crept out of the end zone, our passes were barely getting caught or going over the intended receiver’s head and landing in the lucky arms of a teammate to keep possession. Somewhere along the line I cut in, didn’t get the disc, and decided to run deep along the right sideline, knowing that there was absolutely no way I was getting the disc. I just wanted to run my guy around a little and create some space.
About twenty yards behind me, a steady handler named Coddy was making a similar cut up the center of the field also thinking he was clearing and definitely not expecting a throw. Another one of our handlers, a short Italian dude named Geluso decided that despite the odds being decidedly against him, he was going to let go a giant, heroic backhand anyway. Physics be damned.
Unfortunately, as soon as Geluso let go of the disc, Coddy stopped his cut. The throw sailed far over Coddy’s head toward the spot he would’ve been had he continued running. Eventually, after about thirty yards, the wind smashed it down and the throw began to blade to the ground.
I was by far the closest guy to the disc on Grandmaster Flash and I was a good fifteen yards away. In fact, Coddy and I were the only Flash players on our side of midfield. The likelihood at this point that we retained possession was one in the distance between here and Alpha Centauri. I can’t type out an accurate mathematical representation because you’d be reading nothing but zeroes for the next fourteen pages. In terms of sheer improbability, what I’m about to describe may in fact be the most unlikely completion out of the millions of passes that have been thrown in the sport since 1968.
Even though Coddy had stopped his cut, his Texan defender decided to follow the disc as it sliced through the air toward no one and flopped toward a nearly empty space on the field. You could’ve drawn a circle around this guy large enough to land a helicopter and he’d have been the only one in it. And the disc was less than three inches from the grass. Which makes the whole thing even more insane.
I’m not sure what the guy was thinking. Maybe he was trying to stop the eventual roll of the disc. Maybe he brain farted and forgot he wasn’t playing soccer. Maybe it was a total accident. Whatever it was, with the disc about to touch the grass, he stuck out his foot and kicked the thing back into the air. On any other day, it would’ve hung there for a half second and then hit him in the chest. He’d have gone back to the sideline after they scored and said, “Anyone see that slick little kick tip I did back there? Anyone?”
But this was a field southwest of Chicago on a day that hated hats and trash cans. Instead of just popping a couple feet into the air, the disc rose up, hovered like a spaceship over a farmhouse and rocketed backward over the dude’s head.
Trailing well behind the guy, Coddy’s eyes lit up. A disc that a second ago was a micrometer from the ground twenty yards away was now coming right at him. It hung so long that both my defender and the guy who’d kicked it rushed back to try and swat it down. But Coddy reacted just a bit quicker. He hopped up and picked it in front of both of them, leaving me wide open in the end zone — if he could just get it there. He put everything he had into that flick. All two hundred whatever pounds of him got behind that throw. And now I was chasing down a disc that was hopping like a kid on a trampoline.
All I could think was…After what just happened, you better make this goddamned catch.
I was running parallel to the goal line about a foot inside the end zone when it fell like a clay pigeon that just got split by a bullet. I laid out, pancaked the disc, and awkwardly chin-smacked the ground. But I held on. We’d scored when we had absolutely no business scoring. We’d essentially fallen off a very tall building only to land softly in a fortuitous pile of unclaimed cash. And the downwinder we’d get on the next point tied the game at 13.
The hard cap went on at 14-14. From there we traded goals to set up universe point. But just like the Bighorn game, they were going downwind and scored quickly to win it 16-15.
But despite the heartbreaking loss, we finished in the top ten at nationals, a first for me and for Grandmaster Flash. And yeah, four or five of the best teams weren’t there but that mattered very little as we relaxed on the fields, tried to hide our beers from the golf cart cops and reflected on the tournament. Two wins, two competitive games with both semifinalists, and two universe point losses to teams going downwind. I finished with five goals and three assists playing mostly on defense. Unlike the year before, I felt like a real contributor. My whole objective in playing grandmasters was to get to nationals one time before I called it quits. And I’d done that. But I’m sure as hell glad I got talked into a second go around.
Leaving a big tournament is always odd, especially if you don’t know when or if you’ll see your teammates again. There’s a lot of pissing around, saying goodbyes, and then not actually heading to your car for twenty minutes as you get sucked into a conversation just as you were walking away. But eventually guys had to drive to O’Hare and I wandered over to see the final where the Eldors beat Surly to complete the beach/grass title sweep — something which I’m certain Black Tide Matt hasn’t mentioned to anyone since it happened. Not one soul.
As an added bonus, on my way out I picked up a tournament program, which listed me as 6’3” — a generous inch and a half that I will absolutely take. Now when I exaggerate my height, I have hard statistics to fall back on.
“Cramer, there’s absolutely no way you’re 6’2.””
“Let’s refer to the media guide, shall we? Hey, turns out you’re right. I’m six foot three.”
At around one o’clock, I got in the car and drove the nine hours home only to have my four-year-old greet me at the top of the stairs with an “I missed you, Daddy,” followed by an “I don’t feel good,” and a vomit across his bedroom carpet. After playing an intense, universe point game that morning followed by a drive across four states, I got to stay up until 4 AM with a pukey kid who’d eaten way too many Swedish fish at my aunt’s house that afternoon. It’s as if the universe was like, “Hey man, after that miracle goal I let you score, I gotta even things out. Cool?”
“Yeah, all right.”
And that was it.
2019 ended up being the first year that I didn’t play a single point of ultimate since 1992. Twenty-seven years. That seems like a long time. I trained in Jiu-Jitsu four times a week and ultimate slowly faded into the rearview mirror. There just comes a point where you’ve acquired enough stories, had enough success, and met enough great people that the drive to succeed just isn’t there anymore.
But that’s just how I feel now. I still get inquiries all the time from friends all over the country. Here in Pittsburgh, down in Florida, out in Las Vegas….
“Cramer, we got a spot for you at (awesome tournament) in (super cool city) if you want it.”
I hate turning them down but I always answer, “Guys, I’m really trying to retire here.”
“Ok, cool. We get that. What about next year?”
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic seems like it’s going to make the decision on whether I play at 43 for me. But maybe after some time away, I’ll just miss it too much. Maybe one of these days Captain Chris or Vernon or one of my other buddies will propose an opportunity way too good to pass up. And I’ll end up back out there running around like an….
“What’s that, girl? Another kid? September, huh? Ok then.”
Looks like I’m actually retired this time. At least until Great Grandmasters.
Thanks for reading. May this wonderful sport full of incredible people get through this hellacious blip and continue to grow. Be cool to each other and all the best.
UltiPhotos used in this article taken by Jeff Albenberg, Paul Andris, and Rodney Chen.
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