“The problem with recording history is that details are rarely known to be important until the future. Nuances of historical moments can get lost unless witnessed and recorded by the people who were there.”
On many of today’s online sites, the articles that try to detail the beginning of ultimate Frisbee are incomplete. They fail to cover all of the historical events that led to the discovery of this sport, even on official sites. Most of today’s ultimate history sites credit Joel Silver for ultimate. Silver and other students at Columbia High School introduced the first set of written rules for this Frisbee game. A few sites also include that Joel Silver learned the game from Jared Kass, while at a prep school summer camp. Their version of a game already known by Frisbee players as Frisbee-football and the required playing skills we see today became a disc sport as ultimate evolved with the first disc athletes and promoters in the early disc sports community.
This article adds context and additional information, outlining contributions made by Jared Kass, Joel Silver, Appleseeds, and the early disc athletes. Historical events, promoters, and players that shaped and shared pioneering moments in the early days of ultimate Frisbee.
“In the beginning, people played their version of Frisbee football and Frisbee golf at parks and beaches across North America. When the Frisbee was invented in the 1950s, it was a natural for ball athletes to recreationally replace the ball with the newly invented flying disc in various ball sports.”
like Tin Lid Golf in Canada (1926), there are recorded accounts of ultimate-like games being played with metal pans and other flying items since the mid-1900s, much earlier than our recent Frisbee historical records.
Frisbee football (a version of American football played with a flying disc) is recorded as the origin of many games similar to Ultimate (Johnson, 1975; Malafronte, 1998; Zagoria, 2003). Accounts of such games are recorded at institutions such as Kenyon College, Ohio as early as 1942. A version of such a game, referred to as Aceball, was later captured by Life magazine in 1950 (Malafronte, 1998). – The Sports Journal.
Evidence of another similar game, involving “a plastic or metal serving tray” cropped up at Amherst College in the early 1950s. In a letter to the editor, published in the January 1958 Amherst Alumni News, Peter Schrag (alumni from 1953) describes this game, stating that: “Rules have sprung up and although they vary, the game as now played is something like touch (football), each team trying to score goals by passing the tray downfield. There are interceptions and I believe passing is unlimited. Thus, a man may throw the Frisbee to a receiver who passes it to still another man. The opponents try to take over, either by blocking the tray or intercepting it.” (Leonardo & Zagoria, 2004,5).
There are many accounts of early disc games called Frisbee football being played recreationally by ball-minded athletes in Canada and the US. It seems that ultimate, in some form, maybe by a different name was destined to become a popular disc sport. Not hard to imagine, considering ultimate play is similar to several very established ball sports. The only thing completely unique is the flying plastic disc, which flies much better than a ball or metal tray.
“Ultimate wasn’t invented, it was discovered and then defined.”
An interview with both Jared Kass and Joel Silver on ultimate history.
‘For years it was thought that Joel Silver and fellow students at CHS invented Ultimate Frisbee, however, more recent and rigorous research has come to light to suggest that the truth may be somewhat different. Silver and his friends did much to record the rules and move the sport to the public and eventual popularity. According to Willie Herndon (2003), after interviewing Silver and Kass, it was found that Silver had learned a Frisbee game from someone named Jared Kass while attending summer camp. Herndon (2003), like many, assumed that Silver had played something like Frisbee football with Jared Kass at camp, and then returned to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, and made up and named, a whole new game called Ultimate. However, upon questioning Kass closely it seems that the whole of the Ultimate playing world had been somewhat misled. Upon investigation, Herndon (2003) learned that Kass had taught Silver not some distant relative of Ultimate, but Ultimate in its essence and by name, whilst having no idea that he had had anything to do with its creation. Kass recounts that the game evolved from a variation of touch football whilst at Amherst College where he started as a student in 1965.——–Gerald Griggs – University of Wolverhampton, U.K. The Sports Journal’
In 1966, like other Frisbee groups across North America, Jared Kass, and fellow Amherst students evolved a team Frisbee game based on concepts from American football, basketball, and soccer. This game had some of the basics of modern ultimate including scoring by passing over a goal line, advancing the disc by passing, no traveling with the disc, and turnovers on an interception or incomplete pass. Jared Kass, an instructor and, dorm advisor, taught this game to high school student Joel Silver during the summer of 1967 at Mount Hermon Prep school summer camp. Joel Silver, along with fellow students Jonny Hines, Buzzy Hellring, and others, further developed ultimate beginning in 1968 at Columbia High School, Maplewood, New Jersey.
The first sanctioned game was played at CHS in 1968 between the student council and the student newspaper staff. Members of the school paper had been tossing a Frisbee during their lunch, and in the spring members of the council and the paper started playing Frisbee Football with a black 150-gram, Wham-O Master Tournament Model. The people who made up the team were part of what made the sport so unique. “It was a chance for The Columbian (the school paper) core – the intelligentsia and non-athletes of the school – to play a sport,” says Silver. Many of the players were excellent students who were headed to Ivy League schools. According to Ed Summers, one of the original players, there was also a good representation of stoners. Summers said, “The core of us were largely among the better students. There were also some druggie types. We were about evenly split between the better students and the half who smoked dope.”
Evening games were played in the glow of mercury-vapor lights at the school’s student-designated parking lot. Hellring, Silver, and Hines further developed the first and second editions of the already established “Rules of Ultimate Frisbee”. The name Ultimate Frisbee appeared on the rules. It was clear from the personal interviews of 2003 by Herndon that Silver had learned the concept of the game from Jared Kass at summer camp. When Jared Kass introduced Joel Silver to ultimate, he wasn’t introducing his idea of a sport, he was introducing a new fun camp activity. When Joel Silver introduced the game, he learned from Kass to students at CHS, it was more of a counterculture-inspired amusement and anti-sports joke than the beginnings of a new disc sport.
Jared Kass, years later, finds out that the game of ultimate began with Joel playing Frisbee football at Mount Hermon Prep School: “There are a couple of things to say. Even as we try to pin responsibility on me for it, the part that I can’t take responsibility for is that at that moment I leaped up and said, this is the ultimate, and felt and experienced it – it’s not that the game came from me; it’s that the game came from the joy of life and that was a moment when I was lucky enough to discover it. It’s a joy to be connected to all of you who are playing this game because we all know together – we’ve all had tastes of the experience – that it’s the ultimate. It’s definitely a way of bringing a circle together that I didn’t know was there.” – Jared Kass – interview by Willie Herndon
An Accident, That Was A Sport Just Waiting To Happen.
“As a joke one day — because it was a kind of counterculture time — I had raised my hand in my student council and I say, ‘I’d like to move that we have a committee to investigate the possibility of bringing frisbee into the high school curriculum. I mean, it was a joke.” – Joel Silver
Many new ideas and concepts begin as accidents or become more than originally intended. It’s easy to see the personal abilities that Jared Kass and Joel Silver each had that were necessary to produce the version of Frisbee football they called ultimate. Jared explains in his interview with Herndon that before this interview (2003), he had no idea that the game of ultimate that he was seeing began with him at his camp. Kass explains: “Did I understand that I had something to do with creating this game called Ultimate? I didn’t understand that at all. I’ve always thought it was kind of nifty – I knew that our gang must have been in the early days of playing, but I just kind of assumed that it must have popped up in 20 or 40 different places and slowly took shape.” Frisbee-football did pop up in 20 or 40 different places, the reason Jared’s camp version evolved into today’s “ultimate,” is that it was taught to Joel Silver. Jared Kass was a creative camp instructor and an athlete, with some prior experience in other sports. Like many in the 1960s, Jared liked playing with a flying disc and invented a ball-like flying disc athletic activity. What made this version of “ultimate” destined to move forward beyond Kass and his camp is that it was seen by Joel Silver, who became one of Hollywood’s most successful film producers. Silver was a popular student and was in a position to present it to other students at his school. Without this chance meeting of Kass and Silver, the sport of ultimate, as we know it today, doesn’t begin at Mount Hermon Prep School summer camp and Columbia High School in New Jersey.
Joel Silver looking back on his contribution to ultimate, stated: “I like to say we developed it.” – Joel Silver – interview May 18, 2016, Sludge Output.
1997 Joel Silver video interview by Willie Herndon. In this interview, Joel talks about learning the game from Jared Kass. It is clear that Joel wasn’t an active Frisbee player and was not as convinced of the potential in this new Frisbee game as his friends were. What is also evident from the interview is that Silver was a social leader that knew how to make something happen. Silver and CHS classmate’s contribution was to write the words that would define and standardize ultimate Frisbee with a set of playing rules on paper for the first time. Original Rules for Ultimate.
The Ultimate Experience.
“He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.” – Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
In several places in his interview with Herndon, Jared Kass tries to explain the feeling he gets playing Ultimate while throwing and catching a flying disc. ” I leaped up and said, this is the ultimate, and felt and experienced it,” – Jared Kass.
The “ultimate experience” that Kass felt, is the mental flying sensation that players experience when throwing and catching a flying disc. At almost any skill level, playing with the flying disc can create moments that can only be described as an out-of-body feeling that you are flying. People frequently dream that they are flying, no one ever dreams of rolling or bouncing around like a ball.
Kass doesn’t believe he deserves credit for inventing the sport of ultimate and rightfully believes the credit belongs to every player that has ever played the game. Kass was correct, ultimate, even when played at a championship level, is still mostly about the play. Aside from the initial game played with a set of rules and competitive scoring, every disc sport includes this additional playing sensation. Jared’s appreciation for playing with the flying disc was shared by all the first Frisbee and disc athletes and continues to be the primary playing motivation for every disc sports player today. Frisbee-play and disc sports were invented with the same goal, to experience different ways of playing with a flying disc.
Joel Silver and his classmates get credit for writing up the first set of rules and there’s always the possibility that if Silver had not learned the game from Kass during his days at Mt Hermon Prep School summer camp, that particular version of the game and the name “ultimate,” might never have left Kass and his camps summer activity.
What’s In A Name? – The Ultimate Game.
“I leaped up and said, this is the ultimate.” – Jared Kass.
The origin of the name “Ultimate” from the Jared Kass interview by Willy Herndon, 2003.
Herndon: “It seems that, without realizing it, you named the sport of Ultimate. How did that happen?”
Kass: “What I do remember – and this piece I do remember clearly – I just remember one time running for a pass and leaping up in the air and just feeling the Frisbee making it into my hand and feeling the perfect synchrony and the joy of the moment, and as I landed I said to myself, “This is the ultimate game, this is the ultimate game.”
Herndon: “But did you later name this game Ultimate Frisbee?”
Kass: “Yes, it was when I was at Northfield Mount Herman. I can remember the moment clearly, but I can’t identify the exact date or time. [Jared Kass worked there in the summer of 1968, at age 21, between his junior and senior years at Amherst.] This was really the first time in my life I was a teacher in an official capacity. I was an assistant teacher in a creative writing program, and I was a dorm counselor for a bunch of guys. We lived on a floor together, and that’s the matrix, the context in which the thing developed. I think I was probably trying to entice the guys. I felt that they just needed some new kind of energy, so I said, “Hey guys, have you ever played ultimate?”
Herndon: “Wait, this is a memory?”
Kass: “Yes… I think the teacher in me came out in that moment, and I understood that I needed to say something that sounded confusing, and flashy to these high school kids who were all over the place in terms of who they were.”
After his interview with Kass and Silver, Herndon concluded: “The sport was conceived at Amherst, its DNA more or less complete, gestated at Northfield Mount Hermon, and birthed at Columbia High School. From this point of view, it seems accurate to say that the “Amherst Group” invented ultimate.” – Willie Herndon, interview in 2003
The name “ultimate” probably began with Kass with a defining contribution from Silver. In the 2003 Herndon/Jared Kass interview, Jared stated that he thought it was “the ultimate game as he felt and experienced it” when playing and remembered calling it ultimate when referring to the game while trying to recruit new players. The word ultimate may have been heard by Silver while learning the game at summer camp, maybe as a game descriptor by Kass. Both of them using the word “ultimate” independently in referring to the game is highly unlikely. It’s even possible that Silver, after referring to the Frisbee game as a joke, may have been using the word “ultimate” to name the sport, in a continued anti-sport sarcasm. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. During the Herndon/Joel Silver interview, Silver didn’t discount the possibility that he may have heard Kass use the word “ultimate,” and maybe didn’t consciously realize it when naming the game while writing up the rules.
The origin of the name “ultimate” would suggest that Jared Kass deserves some benefit of the doubt. Joel Silver gets credit for naming the game ultimate on the first set of rules with an assist from Jared Kass. Jared’s early description of his “ultimate game” was anything but a joke. Even then, Jared expressed the same appeal that early disc athletes had for Frisbee play and the same appreciation today’s ultimate players have for their flying disc sport.
Johnny Appleseeds and Ultimate’s First Disc Athletes
“The measure of an athlete is not determined by winning alone, it is also about the competitive spirit and character of an athlete, win or lose.”
Joel Silver and students at CHS didn’t invent Frisbee-football/ultimate, but Silver, CHS students, and Appleseeds that became disc athletes, all contributed to its development. Joel Silver and his classmates were not disc athletes or members of the counterculture. They were excellent students, who after graduation were headed to Ivy League schools for big careers. Kass and Silver never competed in ultimate or any other disc sports outside of camp and high school. After CHS graduation, Silver went on to Hollywood for a career in movies.
As already stated, today’s ultimate may have never left Jared Kass and his summer camp recreation if Joel Silver had not brought the game to his high school. By that same logic, ultimate may never have left Columbia High School had it not been for the effort of a few determined Columbia and other New Jersey High School graduates called ultimate’s Johnny Appleseeds. The Appleseeds became excellent ultimate players and began introducing ultimate at the early Frisbee and disc sports tournaments in the U.S. and Canada. A few of the Appleseeds became some of the biggest names in disc sports, in unique positions to begin promoting ultimate internationally. The original Appleseeds and other disc athlete pioneers of that period began building ultimate into the popular sport we see today.
In 1975, Ultimate Is Introduced at the Major Disc Sports Tournaments in the U.S. and Canada.
“Ultimate doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”
In 1970, CHS defeated Millburn High 43-10 in the first interscholastic ultimate game. CHS, Millburn, and three other New Jersey high schools made up the first conference of Ultimate Teams beginning in 1971. In 1972, Rutgers beat Princeton in the first intercollegiate contest. Just three years later, ultimate is demonstrated as a new sport at multi-event disc sports tournaments.
Beginning in 1975, ultimate is included, as an exhibition, at the major Frisbee and disc sports multi-event tournaments. The Octad, New Brunswick, New Jersey, the American Flying Disc Open (AFDO), Rochester, NY, the World Frisbee Championships (WFC), Pasadena, California, and ultimate’s first international appearance at Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner’s Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto. Jim Kenner later founded Discraft in Canada. A disc manufacturing company that produced discs for all disc sports, including the Ultra-Star for ultimate.
In the late 1970s, the first ultimate leagues appeared in the U.S. and Canada. Mercer County Ultimate league (New Jersey), Northern California Ultimate Frisbee League (NCUFL), and The Toronto Ultimate Club (TUC). The Mercer County and Toronto Ultimate leagues continue today.
In December 1979, the first national player-run ultimate organization was founded in the United States as the Ultimate Players Association (UPA), Tom Kennedy was elected as its first director.
Spirit of the Game – SOTG.
“An ultimate game has many moments to be won or lost. The final score at the end of the game is only one of those moments.”
The original rules for ultimate written by Joel Silver and classmates at CHS make no mention of “Spirit of the Game” and their rules did allow for referees, “a referee or referees may officiate, and if so their decision must be final.” – Original Ultimate Rules.
This playing spirit didn’t become a thing until ultimate was played by the first disc athletes from the alternative community. Before there were disc sports, playing with a Frisbee began by throwing the Frisbee just to watch it fly. The Player’s skills and all disc sports originated from that one simple attraction. As a non-competitive athletic play in the 1960s, playing Frisbee was the perfect activity and athletic alternative for the counterculture. Experimenting with freestyle throwing and catching a flying disc would begin shaping attitudes as it would later apply to Frisbee competition.
“How you play the game is everything, if you also happen to win, it’s a bonus.”
In the Herndon/Silver video interview, Joel Silver, when asked about Spirit of the Game, tries to define it, but as seen in the video, it becomes clear that he’s not sure where it came from, or even what it is. That’s because Spirit of the Game did not begin with Silver and the students at Columbia High School. Those early parking lot ultimate games didn’t require referees for the same reason kids playing sports in the park or on the streets don’t use referees, they didn’t need them. Supervision for technical issues and overly aggressive play wasn’t needed for those early student games. As seen in films (1971 & 1974 CHS Ultimate Frisbee play), while playing in those early games, CHS students were just learning basic throwing and catching skills. Even if SOTG didn’t come from Silver and CHS, some of the first excellent ultimate disc athletes called Johnny Appleseeds did. The self-regulating playing conduct in SOTG was not invented or conceived by any one person or group of players, it was discovered. This unspoken commonplace integrity rule that existed in all disc sports was birthed in the counterculture and made famous in ultimate.
“Evolving from the alternative playing appeal of all the disc sports, Spirit of the Game is about respect, honesty, and integrity in your conduct during competition. Not only as a disc athlete in a sport, but the character qualities you choose to have as a person.”
Competition in different disc sports for most players was about the play. They played hard but not aggressively. In the 1970s, Spirit of the Game, which had yet to be officially defined or named, was more about the spirit of the disc athlete’s alternative to traditional sports competitions that played the game of ultimate than the game itself.
“Every time you make a play, call, or counter a call, no matter how important it may seem at the time that you want it to favor your team, your integrity, and character as a player and a person is on display, being witnessed by everyone present. These moments are how you will be judged and remembered by others as to how you played the game, and when under moments of intense game pressure, you measured up.”
At the end of an Ultimate game, win or lose, players will almost always show comradery with the players of the other team with a team cheer or Spirit Circle. SOTG was eventually defined and written into the 1978 Official Rules for Ultimate and still serves as the competitive foundation.
Freestyle Play and Early Ultimate Athletes.
“Freestyle is the Mother of all disc sports.”
Guts, disc golf, and ultimate, all have rules and playing strategies similar to long-established ball sports. Early freestyle play shares the beginning with all of these disc sports. Inscribed on the underside of all the Frisbees since the 1960s, to “PLAY CATCH and EXPERIMENT” with different ways of throwing and catching, making freestyle, Frisbee’s first play.
Throwing variety and catching the Frisbee behind the back and various other ways, in the beginning, were techniques that would show the possibilities of substituting the ball with a flying disc as a sporting implement in future sports.
Freestyle and Guts Frisbee produced disc sport’s first excellent disc athletes. Every disc sport, including ultimate, uses what were originally known as freestyle throwing techniques. The early introduction of ultimate was played as a backhand passing, two-hand catching activity. Many of ultimate’s earliest promoters became excellent disc athletes and along with very accomplished freestylers in the 1970s began promoting ultimate as a new disc sport.
“Ultimate is a passing game made up of throwing techniques created and used by early freestylers before disc sports were invented. When I watch an ultimate game, I don’t just see ultimate players, I see what looks like early freestylers that like to run a lot.”
Freestyle play and freestyle competitions were popular events in Frisbee tournaments through the 1970s. When players would take a break from freestyling, they would play other Frisbee games like disc golf and pickup ultimate.
In the 1960s, up to the early 70s, before the nail delay, freestyle was as much a throwing as it was a catching event. Freestylers, because of their throwing skills, were always the leaders in these new disc events. Ultimate was an excellent introduction to Frisbee play for new Frisbee players. As ultimate began to grow in popularity, it was hard to present fully skilled teams. Although the athleticism of these early ultimate players was excellent, having an entire team skilled in forehands and other advanced throws was nearly impossible. Freestylers, through their playing evolution, invented and brought all of the advanced throwing techniques to ultimate. Early freestylers, having skill in all the throwing techniques, were most of the great overall disc athletes and the best ultimate handlers.
“In the past, ultimate players, playing many disc sports, including freestyle, were not played for training purposes, but looking back, that is exactly what playing these other disc sports offered. In the future, when ultimate teams are looking for every competitive edge, a throw and catch freestyle option, as a cross-trainer, will become an integral part of ultimate players handling training.” – FrisbeeGuru
Discraft Ultra-Star – Official Ultimate Disc.
“A modest pioneer in a sometimes flamboyant industry, Jim Kenner has proven himself to be a brilliant innovator in the pursuit of flying disc excellence.”
Discraft was founded in the late 1970s by Jim Kenner and Gail McColl in London, Ontario, Canada. Jim and Gail made a few initial runs of their new Sport Disc and held several disc sports tournaments in London before moving the company from Canada to its present location in Wixom, Michigan. Discraft introduced flying discs for every disc sport, including the Ultra-Star 175-gram disc in 1981, with an updated mold in 1983. This disc was adopted as the standard for ultimate during the 1980s. In 1991 the Ultra-Star was specified as the official disc for UPA tournament play. In 2011, the Discraft Ultra-Star and Jim Kenner were inducted into the USA Ultimate Hall of Fame for Special Merit.
Timeline of Major Events in Ultimate History
Before 1966 and into the 1970s, ultimate-like games called “Frisbee football,” are played with the flying disc by ball-minded athletes.
1966– Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students play early games of what would be called ultimate.
1968–Jared Kass teaches his game to Joel Silver at Northfield Mount Hermon School summer camp.
1969–Joel Silver brings this Frisbee game to the students at CHS. The first game is played between the student council and the school newspaper staff.
1970–First set of written rules and documented use of the name, “Ultimate Frisbee.”
1970–New Jersey high school graduates called Johnny Appleseeds begin organizing and promoting games of ultimate at their respective universities.
1971–CHS vs Millburn. First interscholastic game.
1972–First intercollegiate game.
1975–Ultimate first demonstrations at multi-event Frisbee tournaments in the U.S. and Canada.
1975–Ultimate Frisbee makes its first international appearance at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
1977–Mercer County Ultimate league (New Jersey).
1977–Northern California Ultimate Frisbee League (NCUFL).
1978–Discraft begins manufacturing sports discs in London, Ontario, Canada. The Sky-Styler for freestyle and the Ultra-Star is introduced to ultimate play in 1981.
1979–Ultimate Players Association is formed. Renamed USA Ultimate in 2010.
1979–The first ultimate league in Canada. The Toronto Ultimate Club (TUC).
1983–The first true World Ultimate Championship was held in Gothenburg, Sweden.
1987–First Canadian Ultimate Championships
1991–The Ultra-Star by Discraft is specified as the official disc for UPA and USA Ultimate.
1991–World Ultimate Championships, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
1993–Canadian Ultimate Players Association begins
1993–Ultimate Canada is formed.
2001–Ultimate was included as a medal sport in the World Games in Akita, Japan
2004–Ultimate Hall of Fame–USA Ultimate.
2010–AUDL is formed.
2011–Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame–Ultimate Canada.
2015–The International Olympic Committee (IOC) granted full recognition to the World Flying Disc Federation.
- Instruction: Ultimate United
- Early freestyle throwing techniques and some new throws that could be used in ultimate Rowan McDonnell’s 80 Ways to Throw a Frisbee.
- Ultimate Players Organizations and media sources: USA Ultimate | Ultimate Canada | WFDF | FrisbeeGuru | Ultimate Rob
Note: This information was referenced and time-lined from disc sport historical and biographical articles including U.S. and Canadian Disc Sports Hall of Fame inductions, Disc Sports Player Federations, and other historical resources. This article was researched, written, and compiled by Frisbee and disc sports historians. The history in this document may change as events and people are added. Linking or reproduction in whole or part with proper linked crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: email@example.com
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