Digging into the origins of ultimate Frisbee is a bit like trying to determine who invented baseball — Abner Doubleday, 18th-century American kids’ game, British import played in the Colonies? OK, not quite that difficult. In 1965 or 1966, Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students came up with a team Frisbee game that took a bit from baseball, a smidgen from soccer and a few flakes from football. While Kass was working at a summer camp, he taught the game to a camper from South Orange, Joel Silver.
In the fall of 1968, Silver brings the game to Columbia High School in Maplewood, developing some of the basic tenets of the game with Jonny Hines, Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring and others.
Had it been created in 1958 or 1978, ultimate Frisbee would have been a very different game. But in 1968, Nixon had been elected president; thousands of demonstrators filled the streets to protest the Vietnam War; and mistrust of authority was growing logarithmically.
How did this play out in ultimate Frisbee? There would be no referees. Players would call their own fouls. That was called Spirit of the Game, although it’s been a bit tarnished over the years: Professional clubs and tournaments (yes, there are both) use “observers.”
When ultimate Frisbee (officially known as “ultimate,” since Frisbee is a trademark of Wham-O toy company) takes the field at the Olympics, it remains to be seen if players will still call their own fouls. The sport has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee and is eligible for Paris 2024 — though no decision has been announced.
Meanwhile, let’s get back to Maplewood 1968, where the first sanctioned game was played in daylight between the student council and student newspaper staff. Starting the following year, evening games were played in the glow of mercury-vapor lights on the student parking lot, and the first interscholastic ultimate game was played 50 years ago this week between Columbia and Millburn high schools. Columbia won, 43-10. There’s a small Frisbee-sized and -shaped plaque marking the spot where those games were played.
I’ve always wanted to say this at the end of a sporting event: Let’s go to the videotape of highlights from the 2020 men’s college season.