Thursday, September 18, 2008

He was playing hard – harder than usual.

This game was important, as it was already semifinals, yet the competitor in him was forcing the issue. He wanted a D, not just any old block, but a play that would spark the team, fire up his teammates. A brief stoppage yielded an opportunity to scan the field and yell to his teammates, “We get this D!”

And the opportunity was waiting, just beyond his instincts. “Just throw it, throw that under,” he mentally thrust at the other team. He was hungry to make a play. And finally, the other team obliged to give a chance, sending a disc into a closing window. He could tell it was coming before the cutter even knew – he could sense the space, the timing, the force, and all were pointing to the same place on the field. The defender was always first to know, for he was anticipating the cutter’s every mental synapse. “He wants the under, he wants the under,” he repeated ad infinitum in his head.

As the thrower pivoted for his release, it was go time. It was time to make a play, to disregard his body and the unforgiving fields; it was time to get sick nasty. Already visualizing the tantalizing layout D, he dug in to accelerate faster, put his head down into drive phase, and planted 260 lbs. of strength into the ground on that first explosive step. If he pushed hard enough, if he wanted it bad enough, the opportunity would not skirt by. But the cutter was choosing his angle well, shielding with his body as his cut flared to the sideline. The defender was ready for this and as he planted, he chose a new angle, one that would provide a necessary shortcut to the open side, an angle to disappear behind the cutter before reappearing in a sudden blur of athletic prowess. As he turned and planted, pushing all of his soul into the play, it suddenly went terribly wrong. All of that force, all of the desire to make a play, turned against him.

His cleat tied too tight, his heel cup too unstable, the ground too hard, and the bones in his foot too weak. That horrible sound reverberated up his leg, up his spine, and then into his mind’s eye and it was the first indication that the D would have to wait. Despite the defender’s sheer willpower to succeed and tenacity to compete, his steps were taken from him. The “pop” was omnipotent and he fell to the ground immediately, as if downed by a sniper in an open meadow. The movement was so sudden that no one seemed to notice, or else thought he slipped in the lane. For two whole seconds of blinding realization, he waited and held his breath.

“It will be fine, it will be okay,” he gritted to himself, struggling to find his footing. But this white lie was not going to go unnoticed.

“Just get up, there is still time,” but his empty words missed their mark, and he couldn’t fool his mind, which was grinding to a halt, clearing engulfed in fear. It took two attempts, as the word stalled in his throat. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity of laying on the field, he bleakly announced, “Injury,” for fear the further play would disable his teammates. Moments later, the mark and thrower acknowledged a stoppage and paused to take a look. He rolled off his stomach and curled into a protective sitting position, as if patiently waiting on the playground for recess to begin. The marker flung him a skeptical look, as if to say, “Why the hell are you just sitting there?”

He could offer no answer. The pain felt varied and unnatural, like it hadn’t really happened if he just didn’t move it. But he would have to attempt to stand and despite how he masked it behind his pursed lips and furrowed brow, the pain would get him. He attempted to force weight on it again, renewed with the sense of uncertainty. This time the pain was real, relentless, and overpowering. It was done, it was over. With a flood of despair, he motioned to the sideline, which brought the nearest teammates to his side.

“Are you okay?” with a look of deepest concern all over his face. The words again caught in his throat, and unable to speak, as if his dry-mouth rendered him muffled and inaudible, he motioned again. But the question remained, and soon he was forced to shake his head ever so slightly from side-to-side while biting his lip hard. The disappointment on his face and imploring gaze towards his closest teammate was notice enough that needed teammates to come to his aid. Their looks of distress meant little to him now, and with the greatest effort he could muster, he mumbled almost faintly, “Help me up.” It wasn’t far to the sideline now, but everything was blurring. Soon there was a pair of hands upon him, grabbing his arms, pulling him to his one foot. Their support was well intentioned, but awfully inadequate. It took less than a step for his full weight to fall upon their shoulders, and he was being carried off.

A smattering of applause was also well intentioned, but likewise, fell awfully inadequate. As he was taken to the middle sideline, his vision burst back into focus. His substitute was entering the game, and the only hands to him moments later, would be the fill-in sideline mother, gravely troubled by his every need. But he wanted no help; he wanted to lie down and die; to feel nothing; to wake up from this dream and escape his current nightmare. He couldn’t tell what hit him first, the physical pain, or the emotional meltdown. His season was over. It took only minutes to reach that conclusion, but it was inevitable. The tiny “pop” seemed to reverberate through his body and head, all over again. His eyes were closed tight as he lay on his back, elevating his leg, but it appeared that his eyelids were now only semi-permeable, for the tears began slipping through. They ran past all of his defenses. He stalled the overwhelming feeling of loss as best he could, but these tears were far too inevitable. He couldn’t stop.

He balled his hands into fists and squeezed hard, willing the pain somewhere else and feeling his blood pulse. But the sounds around him suddenly thrust an imaginary environment inside his head; he could see his teammates, working on the field, trying to make a play, and overcome with the thought of a lost teammate. Without warning, as if jumping into a cold swimming pool, he forced himself back into reality. With a great effort, he opened his eyes to the blinding day, and watched as player after player zoomed by. He hadn’t told a soul yet, barely answered a question, although many had been asked. He knew what it felt like to break a bone. The first bone he ever broke was in third grade, and it took 3 days for him to admit to his parents that it hurt too much. This break was different. It wasn’t like he collided with pavement or any other solid object; instead it was random, ironic, and mocking. Finally he acknowledged the questioners, but not before screaming an uncountable number of choice swear words into the air. He looked her in the eyes and plainly stated, “It’s broken.” As if admitting those words to another person would peel away the pain. The fill-in mother’s initial look of shock vanished, replaced with trepidation, “Let’s get some ice and elevate this,” but she wouldn’t take his words for truth just yet.

He repeated, “It’s broken. My foot is broken. I felt it.” And with another great effort, he slipped off his cleat and attempted to move his toes. He might have just tried to touch the sun it was so impossible and his toes disregarded the command. With forced determination, rising from a source of anger he tried again, “Flex!” The shooting pain rendered his imperative pointless immediately. He clutched his foot and fell back to field, eyes welling again. The next few minutes passed without incident, as he was allowed to wallow and wait, but it did not matter. He needed no condolences at the moment, he knew his fate. There was nothing to do, but wait anyway, why rush to the trainer to discover a truth he already knew? As if denial would help, he pushed himself into a sitting position to watch the game. He might have been staring at a blank wall, for nothing registered. His mind was now oddly blank as he pondered the obstacles mounting his path. After seconds of contemplation, he pushed them away; he was traveling with teammates, with friends, and they would assist him. Suddenly, as revelation after revelation hit him across the face, he concluded several facts quickly.

He could not reenter this game, he couldn’t even walk. As if God himself had blasted off his foot, he was being forced to sit and wait. It took many deep breaths before he could even see the trainer, and sure as the sun, he knew what the prognosis would be. This was a setback, a test, an obstacle to overcome, but it was more than that. It was a sign that changed needed to happen, too ironic to show itself plainly. It wasn’t losing part of the season anymore; it was losing the heart of the season, the final months. He was gulping and grasping for air now, needing a lifeline as his team faded down the stretch.

His mind seemed to go into standby for several hours, days, perhaps weeks. It was like his world had evaporated right in front of him, and he was helpless to do anything. He was injured, in the worst way, and was powerless to right the situation. It would take time, infinitely frustrating seconds, minutes, and hours. The x-ray only confirmed his suspicions; it was a Jones fracture and would need to be non-weight bearing for several weeks.The groan escaped his lips before comprehension dawned. This will be brutal. It will not be fun; it will not be over quickly.

The boot and crutches were his constant companions now, evermore reminding him of his predicament. In his mind’s eye he could see the x-ray, see where his bone was almost broken clean through, and see where his foot had been broken 5 years earlier by a teammate. This time is was different. There was no 4th year captain to kindly break the news that his season was over, but that he was still allowed to come to practice and even Nationals if he wanted. It was a crushing blow then, and his grades suffered that semester as he stopped going to both class and practice. But that didn’t matter now – nothing seemed to matter. This season, which took his time, his money, his energy, his emotions, had been unwillingly snatched away from him again. It wasn’t like a broken finger, a fractured face, or a bleeding rib, all which had been played through, this, was a cracked foot, and something he would need in the future. There would be no more running workouts, no lifting before practice, no practice. Opportunities slipped through his fingers as his limited mobility thrust him into the world of surviving handicapped. His mind longingly remembered the days when he could have gone running, when he could have lifted or tossed, and then chose not to. He surely had better ways to spend his time that day. But now, when he couldn’t run, when he couldn’t as much as walk, he wanted nothing more in the world than to run, to feel the chill night air as he pounded on the track. Instead, it would be several weeks of hand bruises, armpit shoulder abrasions, and an exhausted left leg.

His time was spent in deep reflection, assessing the damage and the future options. As if ironic karma had found him hiding, it sneered in his face, “Everything happens for a reason.” So, he was supposed to break his foot? It has taken longer than a month to understand, but the answer remains simply, “Yes.” A serious injury can be one of the biggest emotional and mental setbacks around – just ask Vince Young’s mom if you don’t think it is psychologically taxing. It was incredibly frustrating, to sit and wait on an indeterminable timeline, for nothing – for his season was surely over. He wondered out loud, how to overcome this dilemma? It has taken patience, time, and acceptance. It has taken good friends and long nights. However, this broken bone has caused him to discover, devise, and develop into something new. It provided a fresh path and different outcomes – albeit not athletic alternatives, but alternatives none the less. He could still help the team, even if he wasn’t playing. He could observe, yell from the sideline, be supportive, and watch from an outside perspective. And at the next tournament, it was like someone had removed a barrier that caused closed-mindedness. He saw the game from a different point of view, an enlightening, exciting, wholly different point of view. With nothing invested personally, with no attachment to the team as a player, he could see the big picture. And without even comprehending, he knew this break had been no random occurrence. It had been a blessing in disguise, a chance to take a step back, rest his weary body, torn and worn from 5 straight years of full time college and club ultimate, and just watch.

He watched hungrily and took in bits and pieces, things he would have never noticed in the past. The answer was waiting for him as soon as he repeated his question. What can I do? And then, as if the steps in front of him shone his path lighting up, he finally knew why he had broken his foot – because it was time to coach…

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A short while ago, a friend (and respected rival) spent the night at my house, and over a couple Pacificos and a shot of tequila we started discussing the "future of the sport."

"What place do you think tournament parties have in the future of college ultimate," he asked me.

"What tournament parties?"

When I started playing, every college tournament had a party. At 2000 college natties, Wisconsin ended the night naked in a pool with ladies from various teams. The following year saw the Doubletree Hotel in Boston host a wedding reception in one hall and the natties party in the other, ending with Bruss apologetically being carted away by the cops, Fortunat behind bars when he tried to bail out some Oregon guys from jail and discovered he had a warrant out for his own arrest, and a few very satisfied bridesmaids.

At Terminus the Hodags would often dominate pool play, dominate the party, then make a quick and deserved exit in quarterfinals Sunday morning, usually with several players groaning in blankets from the sideline. I was at a tourney party at a hotel sharing space with a Bar Mitzvah when some Metro East team performed back-to-back landsharks and land-porpoises(do this year's freshmen even know what that is?). As I mingled near the lobby, police shuttering the doors and herding everyone to their rooms, a group of 12 year old girls commiserated on a couch.

"I saw it! It was this big!" Giggles.

"Ewwwww!" It wasn't hard to guess what they were talking about.

Now, college natties doesn't even have a tourney party, having supplanted it with the All-Star game that, with my participation in it this year, must have lost some stock. Some people stay and mingle, waiting for the Callahan ceremony. Most do not; there's no free booze any more. The liability is too great, the stakes too high.

Unlike other major sports, there is no distinction currently between teams that are playing socially and those playing with title aspirations. Thus the Hodags romp through their section wearing outlandish costumes and child-sized football helmets and still shut out most teams they play. Little Jimmy SmallU pays their UPA dues so they can go to sectionals, play three games, and get waxed by teams that actually practice. In return they get a magazine that's two months outdated and increasingly irrelevant in the surge of blogs about the sport, thanks for your dues and you're welcome. Most probably don't give a shit who wins nationals; their play is an extension of hanging out on campus, relaxing and throwing the fris' around.

Thing is, for all the gigantic growth the college division has had in the 10 seasons that have passed since I played my first, most of the growth has come in the form of teams run by Jimmy SmallU and Sarah Liberal-Arts, tiny teams consisting of people that got exposure to Ultimate through the UPA's extensive juniors efforts but having no real desire to commit the whole of their college experience to this sport. They like to play, but they also like to do other things, too (near blasphemy for players from 'programs'). But with the diminishing parties at tournaments, one of their main draws, what is the UPA providing for them?

A splinter cell is coming. Tiered playing levels are an inevitability, and if they're not - for the future of the UPA - they had better be. You can't offer the same product to two wholly different groups and expect them both to be satisfied. And there are people and groups that would more than love to capitalize on that discrepancy, looking for ways to fill the niche. You need to market to both groups with different strategies or risk alienating everyone by trying to water down to the middle.

I wonder, how long before college ultimate supports a full season, with games that carry meaning and consequence, leading up to a championship between everyone who has struggled for an entire school year to be the best? And when will the the bawdy hedonism of yesteryear's ultimate parties find a comfortable in-season home for those teams that pick up a disc primarily so they can drink from it and be merry?

Of course, tournaments like Potlatch, Mars and Poultry Days will always be about the social aspect of our sport, about building community and fucking good players in their tents and getting housed on box wine and Sparks (but even now, it seems like these bastions of play-to-party have gotten out of hand, with rampant vandalism and reduced sizes due to fights and defecation on public land). But the phylogenetic tree is branching, and serious college athletes are heading down a very different path from the pure social lepidoptera, each group wanting very different things. If their divergent needs aren't met however, the only group facing extinction will be the UPA.

Let's hope they evolve.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A new feature to the blog debating issues of the day. Like Tucker Carlson vs. Paul Begala, but without all the douchiness. Various names for this recurring feature were thrown about, but Contested Picks, dubbed by one C. Matthews, was the clear winner.

Match Play

In today's player-funded traveling, heading off across the country to for a weekend packed with matches makes the most economic sense. It's best to maximize your dollar and get as much playing as you can. But the attrition of seven full games over two days is heavy, and teams naturally have adapted to surviving this ecology. Yet I see a future where teams abound, travel fees are non-existent, and the sport settles into a format that will showcase its speed, strength, and athleticism for player and spectator alike. The future of Ultimate competition is match play, a singular evening game under lights against two ready rivals.

Free from the constraints of a physically punishing weekend of play, teams will be able to scale their rosters back significantly, winnowing the chaff that settles into the bottom of even the most elite teams. Smaller rosters will elevate the ceiling in the game between the best teams, and schools will be able to pull from talented farm teams as well as differentiate between those that want to play Ultimate for the competition and those that play for its social benefits, increasing the number of teams and assuring there is a level of play that's just right for everyone, the Goldilocks Principle.

With only one game to worry about, a premium will be placed on explosive athleticism rather than a slower-paced marathon mentality. Without having to save yourself for future games, the pared-down rosters will brim with Beau-esque cutters commanding Parker-quality throws.

The logistical advantages for televising a single game compared to a weekend tournament are obvious. With schedules known in advance and only one field to set up, camera crews can plan their coverage accordingly, picking the most consequential or storied match-ups, the games people want to see. And rather than wondering what will happen if two teams meet, we can discuss it with certainty, making writing about the sport so easy even Match Diesel might get some things right.

Another benefit of match play comes from the logistics of cancellations due to weather. The damage to fields will be mitigated with only one field in use, and in the extreme case of a cancellation, only two teams are affected, rather than 20-30. Destroying field space becomes a smaller issue, as does the danger of heat exhaustion.

With only one game to focus on, every match carries significance, every match-up matters. Smaller rosters lead to great familiarization between the top players, and offenses and defenses will have to elevate with more comprehensive scouting reports.

There's much to do yet, and more evolution before we reach this level, but as Ultimate gains players and popularity, the future of match play in our sport is not a question of if, but when.

Tournament Play

Since the nation-wide expansion of Ultimate in the 1970s & '80s, our sport's venue for competition has largely been one of convenience. There simply aren't enough teams of comparable caliber within driving distance to merit match-play, and even if we move towards that format, tournaments will always have a place in the sport. The weekend-long tournament offers a temporary (if artificial) community of teams isolated to one field site, and the economies of scale lend themselves to this concentration of resources.

Hector argues that known variables like specific match-ups will allow better preparation, media, and televising, but the world is rife with sports that use tournaments as their competitions. Golf, soccer, and tennis are all extremely successful spectator and broadcast sports that feature multiple venues during the tournament and an unknown match-up in the final round. Yet this has not precluded media coverage, ticket sales, or Nielsen ratings bonanzas. NCAA basketball, perhaps the single best-known sports tournament in the U.S., capitalizes on these unknown variables as publicity ploys. Everyone watches because anything can happen.

This festival atmosphere also leads to an exciting spectator experience. As in golf, you do have to pick your athletes to watch, which sometimes means painful choices, but I think fans would rather have a choice at all than be bound to watch one game only.

For the near term, tournaments also offer the best venue for sponsorship. With our nonexistent attendance and respectable participation numbers, we should be looking to increase, not decrease, the exposure a sponsor receives. Bigger events, with more teams from more parts of the country, still beckon bigger sponsorship. Until a majority of the audience is comprised of non-players we'll want to maximize participation.

The most likely scenario I see unfolding is a match-play regular season followed by a culminating tournament. Several high-school leagues use this model and it works well. Teams know that their individual games count but they are working towards a championship. A single game can be taken care of in one night, which is easy, but I would hope that championship events will still arrive in tournament format. Besting multiple teams in variable conditions is a better test of who is champion. Baseball, basketball, and hockey use multi-game formats to determine championships; Ultimate hasn't been different and it won't be down the line.

And even if the day comes when competition is dominated by match-play, tournaments aren't going anywhere. I look forward to a future where the next generation attends Potlatch and Poultry Days, celebrating the often and newly lamented social aspect of the sport. As we accelerate towards showcasing the sport's athleticism and finesse — necessary and welcome steps I will embrace — no one will forget the joy of summer tournaments, where revelry replaces stat-keeping and tents replace Holiday Inns.

Monday, September 08, 2008

I'm always ready to eat crow when the eatin's good. I said we shouldn't have gone to Heavyweights because we needed some disciplined and focused practicing this weekend rather than a bunch of games against flyweight opponents on granite surfaces.

So I was wrong. I admit it.

Thank heaven, first of all, for Gustav, all but forgotten now in Ike's wake. The residual rains left over from the gulf's tropical storm apparently soaked the Naperville Polo club all week, rendering the stubborn surface pliable against cleat and cut. I layed out several times during the course of the weekend and this morning awoke without evidence of any of them. Perfect. After Chesapeake, it was a bit awkward apologizing to the freshman girl sitting next to me for bleeding on her half of the desk.

Sub Zero went into this tourney as the 1 seed, and we knew that our nationals seeding (and our own thinning patience with ourselves) depended on defending our top-dog status. With cheers and chants pulled directly from the Republican National Convention delegates ("Drill, baby, drill!") we opened up on the teams in our pool. After a shaky start in our first game, we came out hot against natties hopeful Madcow and sent them to the abattoir. We held court at field 10 all weekend, and the nearby trees and clubhouse proved to be a huge advantage, shading us all weekend long and providing our field with a measure of protection from the cross-winds that plagued the rest of the polo grounds.

After our disappointing performance at Labor Day, we shook up our lines and rotations and I moved to the D line. The first game was a major paradigm shift for me, and it took a bit to find my legs, but by the time we got to Madcow my body remembered the feel of pulling and running down, and I fell into my role as seamlessly as sex with an ex. Having lost Muffin and his giant (but oftentimes out-of-bounds) pulls, I was happy to be able to place most of mine within the opposite endzone.

After Los took half on us in quarterfinals, we pulled out some caffeinated gum that tasted bad but did us good, and we rolled on them in the second half, allowing only one point, at 14-8, before finishing them. A wily but inexperienced Bodhi hung on due to a series of unforced errors from the offense, but the D line fire was lit all weekend and got the breaks necessary to put us in finals against a Machine team that had dispatched Madison Club on the adjacent field.

With the sidelines full, we set to work on Machine in a game that never lost its intensity despite our commanding the pace. My pulls clicked right when I needed them to, and despite throwing two out of bounds I was able to let the rest hang with enough time so that I was still the first or second Zebro down on each one.

I had fun. Fuck it, I had a blast playing this game. Despite the fact that my hamstrings were beginning to mutter a bit under the breath of my footwork I was running and playing like the kid I used to be, the one lost in the joy of play. And because of it, I played great, throwing 4ish goals and scoring two, including a season-rejuvinating layout grab to put us comfortably in control that even I was surprised ended in my hand. Naturally, I acted naturally, and we pushed hard on Machine in front of their friends and family.

In the end, our offense was disappointingly broken once before we finished the game 15-10, but we couldn't be too upset. We righted the ship, got our job done, and were rewarded with a championship title belt that ranks amongst the coolest tourney trophies I've seen, and a full set of championship jerseys courtesy of 5ive Ultimate.

Sectionals and a hungry Madison Club await in Maple Plains in two weeks, and next weekend should be exactly what we need to tune our sets and defenses before the series begin. Drill, baby, drill!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Some quick thoughts as I think of Ultimate between classes.

Talking to a college buddy on Rhino after Labor Day, we discussed how much time has passed since our salad days in this sport. As he matched up his players on the D-line against Jam's offense, he pointed to one of his teammates. "You guard Hollywood," he directed.



"Who." came again the reply.

"Fucking A. Hollywood. The big guy over there that keeps catching unders and jacking hucks."

I remember when Hollywood was a name that everyone knew, even myself as a freshman at Wisconsin. Now we gotta point him out. Sorry Greg, don't know what this means for you. In with the new, out with the old, they say.

Also reminded me of, back when the UPA newsletter came in newspaper format, how Jason, Tyler, and I were so excited to find ourselves in a crowd on the cover picture, a shot of Oscar Pottinger laying out past Zip for a goal in their epic semifinals game. Now we've moved to a time where my program has won 3 college championships and I contribute elevated stats in the finals at club natties. Out with the old, certainly, but give us some time to enjoy our brief stints near the summit please. How I've loved my time playing this sport.

Unrelated but on my mind as i glance through RSD is Match and his madlib-template writing. "(name) was playing for (team) this weekend, but looked out of sync on (O/D). I am curious as to whether he'll be able to (cliche) and (cliche). He can play (positive adjective) but played (negative adjective). He better (generic sports improvement)."

I'm glad people have something to read: even I will occasionally flip through the pages of People or US to find out how fat Britney is now or who Lindsay Lohan is blowing these days. But his shit has the same credibility as a Page Six item. The point was driven home to me in his reflections on Chesapeake, where he claimed "it was weird to see Valdivia on the O-line when he was a D-line guy for Bravo." Then, when I pointed out the fact I played O-line for Bravo last year in the comments section, he defended himself by quoting me from an email i sent him a few months ago where i told him I played D "mostly", but clearly list my role as "get the disc to Parker in power position."

Now, based on one careless reading of my email to him, he writes as if he not only knows what I play, but is so familiar with me that it was weird to see me play O, as if the rules of his world had been rocked by such a foreign happening. It was then that the amount of 'information' he's passing off as observation became clear, that he's taking things he thinks he knows or heard and spinning wild tales of sports exploits to suit his imagination. To those who know, it's become a hilarious game of telephone we like to mock.

And that's just one example. I've mostly stopped looking in his articles for anything written of actual worth because it's so far proved to be a pointless exercise. For those too far away (like him at most tourneys he writes about) to watch, it must be nice to have something on Mondays to waste a few school or work minutes reading. To others like me, who were actually at the tourney...well, it seems that for the most part, I'm not really seeing the same things Match "saw". Greatest journalist in our sport, reaching the pinnacle? Debatable, but his skills as a master bullshitter cannot to be understated.

This weekend is the Chicago Heavyweight Championships, held at the concrete fields of Naperville. This tourney has bottomed out significantly in quality from its old Tune-Up days when teams from all over like Bravo, DoG, and Ring used to attend. Now the field looks more like "Central Regionals Lite". I wish we weren't going; Sub Zero needs more time working on specific team drills to come together and not another tourney weekend. It also gives most of the ambitious upstarts in our region a free shot at us before Delafield with nothing to lose. I hope the rain they've been getting softens up those fields. The hard surfaces at Chesapeake contributed to Muffin's broken foot, and we can't afford any more injuries with the clock winding down on the season.

Class calls. Out.