In March 2016 during my final spring of college ultimate, I finally picked up Ultimate: The First Four Decades. Coincidentally the book was only available from UNC-Wilmington, the place where ultimate took hold and began its inexorable march across North Carolina in the late 80s and early 90s. The growth of the college game into the Southeast was spurred on by the fascination many would be players had with New York-New York. It’s fascinating to hear to players from that early era of ultimate talk about just much of an impact watching that New York team made on their decision to play competitively. Back in 2013 when I was just starting to take an serious interest in ultimate media, the part time coach of UNC Asheville – Brett McCall – sat down with me for a quick interview about his and his brother’s background as players. They had seen New York play and became immersed with in the insular culture of the sport during the 90s. In The First Four Decades, a similar story was mentioned about a small cadre of players in Wilmington who in a whirl of Bob Marley records and cannabis smoke, learned about what is still arguably the best team to have ever played the game in the men’s division.
The First Four Decades stopped just shy of a new era in ultimate that would be defined by the rise of youtube and social media. Even in 2010, with the then Ultimate Players Association becoming the more modern brand that is USA Ultimate, you wouldn’t find much online about ultimate unless you really looked for it. For me, the origins of the sport went only as far back as Beau Kittredge jumping over a player (2006). Even as Brodie Smith and Florida stormed their way to a national championship in 2010 it wasn’t until the summer of 2011, when Brodie began launching himself to Youtube stardom, that I started to hear his name mentioned by players of my generation regularly. I came to know more about players like Brodie and Beau During my Junior and Senior years of high school than about my own high school program at the time.
My awareness of elite programs was stifled by my disinterest in learning about them. Until I really started to develop an understanding of how the game really worked as a rising sophomore in college, I didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on around the national scene. Seeing the semi finals and finals of college nationals streamed online by ESPN truly opened the door in May 2013. as Pittsburgh En Sabah Our and Oregon Fugue battled their way to national titles. I fell in love with Pittsburgh primarily because the embraced a philosophy that took the game seriously.
Interviews with captain Zach Kauffman and head coach Nick Kaczmarek inspired me to learn more about the game, and build a winning program. It helped that there was a clear resemblance between one of our receivers and Tyler Degirolamo (I’m serious). For myself and said player (Chad Gerber), Pitt became the team we watched that fall. It was through our interest in other programs that we also learned about the origins of our own. In March 2014, the team at Asheville screened the documentary Il Mundo in Una Spiaggia about Brett McCall’s Paganello beach ultimate team. After viewing the film, Kyle Silva (former team captain, future head coach) gave a short talk on UNC Asheville’s past ultimate programs. For a team that had just rebranded itself as Bulldogs, hearing about about the team’s humble and at times disjointed origins was empowering. It made me understand Asheville’s place in a state that was saturated with great college ultimate programs.
Later that season, North Carolina ultimate finally entered what I think many people will consider to be the beginning of its most glorious period of ultimate since the Wilmington-ECU dynasties of the nineties. UNC Wilmington’s upset of Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals of the college championships set up a UNC/UNC Wilmington semifinal for the first time in the history of college ultimate. On macro national level it made you proud to be from North Carolina. On a more personal level it made me swell with pride to see players from my very own high school program playing on ESPN. Hearing color commentator Evan Lepler talk about Chapel Hill High School on the broadcast gave meaning to the tremendous effort my old high school teammates had put in to the program. It’s worth noting that during that during that final spring in high school back in 2012, when CHUF won its last state title to date, barely anyone in the administration or student body acknowledged it. To my knowledge that hasn’t changed. Without varsity status, that kind of awareness is hard to achieve.
Later that year, it was Ring of Fire who’d make it cool to play in North Carolina. Their game against Boston Ironside in the semi finals, with the booing, a twenty minute double game point, and a streaker, put the game into the modern pantheon of great club ultimate games. It was unlike any other game I’d seen up to that point. Interviewing Noah Saul for Burning Ring several years after, the Ring players in that game knew full well what kind of opportunity being on ESPN afforded them.
“That game defined us to a modern audience, to a modern generation of ultimate players,” summed up Noah.
The second men’s semi occupied our attention as well, as Toronto GOAT and Denver Johnny Bravo played an incredible semi final that also resulted in a double game point showdown. It was the first time I’d watch every semis, and finals game being streamed from nationals. Ultimate had arrived on ESPN barely a year before and already, players were identifying with the teams they were watching in profound ways. I still regard those two mens semi final games in 2014 as classics. The Ring-Ironside semi in particular was that kind of “Where were you when…” moment for spectators across the country. It became a game I’d constantly revisit with old and new teammates in our dorm. In in a way those evenings echoed tales from The First Four Decades – chiefly, about Toad’s house in Wilmington where players would congregate in a cultish fashion to watch New York. Instead of cannabis smoke and Bob Marley records, we had PBR and Xbox. Those gatherings became routine during my last years in college as we zealously watched stream after stream of high level tournaments.
Everyone in ultimate has learned about the game through different means. For me learning about the great programs accompanied my personal journey as a young college player. I became much more attached to the sport thanks to the efforts that individuals were making to bring the game to life, whether through online media or on ESPN. There are now no college players who competed in the division when USA Ultimate didn’t have an ESPN deal or when Ultiworld was in its barebones 2012/13 infancy. I’m sure for some players who came up through the 80s and 90, The First Four Decades, may very well have been their singular moment in the media spotlight aside from the occasional UPA newsletter.
To be sure, there were internal ways for players to connect with each other and learn about other programs on platforms like RSD. The fact still remains that for ultimate’s first four decades you could potentially play completely ignorant of what was going on nationally, or even locally if you wanted to. There are still plenty of cases of classic games becoming urban legends (ex. Pitt-Wilmington 2014 quarterfinal) that you can only come to understand by talking to people who were there or by looking at brief snapshots on Ultiphotos. The ability to connect with those moments, to see high level players compete, and experience those “Where were you when…” moments in real time, is still relatively new ultimate’s time scale. That sort of accessibility – to be able to learn what drives a program, what its history means, what pushes the players within it and motivates them to excel on the field – is empowering. You tap into a sense of discovery every time you look up a new game or player and that initial interest turns into obsession.
On a closing note, if you’re a new player in North Carolina reading this, set aside some time to watch that Ring of Fire-Ironside semi. You’re in for a wild ride.