History of Ultimate Frisbee

“People view it as a novelty often, but if you take away the Frisbee and replace it with a ball, it’s really difficult.” – Brandon Leshchinskiy.

Ultimate Disc Sport History.

The “history of ultimate” articles on many of today’s online sites are incomplete and haven’t been changed to reflect recently discovered historical events, even on official sites. Most of today’s articles give credit to Joel Silver for creating ultimate. Silver and other students at CHS brought ultimate to recognition by introducing the first set of written rules for a Frisbee game that began with Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students. This version of “Frisbee football” that Kass named “ultimate” and the required playing skills we see today were created as ultimate evolved and progressed with the first disc athletes in the early disc sports community. This article covers events and players that shaped and shared pioneering moments in the early days of ultimate.

“Ultimate isn’t just the winning score or how well your team plays, it’s also about your competitive conduct while playing the game. If your goal isn’t to win the Spirit Award (SOTG) as much as you would like to win the game, you’re not playing ultimate.”

like Tin Lid Golf (1926), there are recorded accounts of ultimate-like games being played with metal pans and other flying items since the early 1900s, much earlier than our recent Frisbee historical records.

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Group of Kenyon College students playing what appears to be a freestyle or ultimate-like activity with a Frisbee-like flying disc. in Ohio, 1950.

There are many accounts of early disc games being played recreationally by ball-minded athletes called Frisbee football. 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, that flies much better than a ball. 

The history of ultimate was updated in 2003 to include Jared Kass as a founder, after an interview with both Jared Kass and Joel Silver.

‘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’

Jared Kass.

Jared Kass (1966) is credited with inventing and naming today’s version of the game of ultimate.

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 on the school’s student-designated parking lot. Hellring, Silver, and Hines further developed the first and second edition 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 name ‘ultimate’ and the rules 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-sport, than the beginnings of a new disc sport.

“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 – interview May 18, 2016, Sludge Output.

“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.

In the above statement and in several places in his interview with Herndon, Jared Kass tries to explain the feeling he gets playing ultimate, when he’s throwing and catching a flying disc. ” I leaped up and said, “This is the ultimate” and felt and experienced it” – Kass. This is best described as the playing-spirit (not to be confused with the “Spirit of the Game.” The ultimate-play that Kass felt, is the mental flying sensation that players experience when throwing and catching a flying disc.

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.

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Playing with a ‘flying disc’ has been described as a Spiritual Transcendence.

There is a uniquely different experience when playing with a flying disc, then when playing with a ball. At just about any skill level, playing with the flying disc can create moments that can only be described as a feeling that you are flying. People frequently dream that they are flying, no one ever dreams of rolling or bouncing around like a ball.  Not only does Kass not want to take credit for inventing the sport of ultimate, he believes the credit belongs to every player that has ever played the game. In a certain way, Kass was correct. Ultimate, even when played at a championship level, is still mostly about the play. Aside from the initial game concept, bounded by a set of rules and competitive scoring, every game is a unique playing experience for each ultimate player, every time.  Jared’s appreciation for playing with the flying disc reflects the motivation created by the playing-spirit that existed for all the early 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. This exuberant playing sensation (playing-spirit) and these early alternative disc athletes evolved a self officiating conduct of play called Spirit of the Game. SOTG, as it is also called, serves as the competitive foundation on which the sport of ultimate is still played to this day. 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. Joel Silver and Jared Kass are the founders of the game, the name “ultimate” and a set of  written rules. The early alternative-minded disc athletes brought the skills, established SOTG and the playing-spirit that players continue to experience for every game, a sensation described by Kass and other disc athletes as “the ultimate experience.”

What’s In A Name? – The ‘Ultimate’ Game.

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 the 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, 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

An Accident, That Was A Sport Just Waiting To Happen.

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Ultimate founders and some Columbia High School players appear to be posing mockingly, especially Silver on the far left. They were probably reflecting the same anti-sport attitude in which ultimate was presented to their school council, according to Silver, “as a joke.”

Many inventions and concepts begin as accidents or turn out to be more than originally intended. Remembering that in the 1960s, there were other disc games similar to ultimate, with concepts from football, basketball, and soccer being played as recreation in various places throughout North America. The reason today’s version of  “ultimate” became the sport that is played today, is that someone wrote down a set of playing rules and someone gave it a name. It’s easy to see the personal abilities that Jared Kass and Joel Silver each had that was necessary to produce today’s ultimate. Jared explains in his interview with Herndon, that prior to this interview (2003), he had no idea that the version of ultimate 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.” It did pop up in 20 or 40 different places, the reason Jared’s camp game 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 recognized the attraction of 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, who was not an athlete, had a gift for spotting creativity and a talent for producing. Without this chance meeting of Kass and Silver, the sport of ultimate, as we know it today, doesn’t begin in New Jersey.

Johnny Appleseeds and Ultimate’s First Disc Athletes

Joel Silver and his classmates at CHS 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. At that same period, Frisbee players that were considered athletes and aligned with the counterculture were developing disc sports, not as a joke, but as new sports. The history of today’s ultimate disc sport began with some summer camp activities and high school students (CHS) in New Jersey. Ultimate didn’t become a popular disc sport in the U.S. and Canada until disc athletes, that also played ultimate, got involved in promoting and organizing in the 1970s. 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. It was the sixties, looking for ‘alternatives’ was always a fun option. Silver and CHS students played ultimate as a fun alternative to traditional sports for students that didn’t play sports and not considered athletes. Whatever the reason, this was the beginning of ‘ultimate disc sport’ as it is played today. As has been stated before, today’s ultimate sport may have never left Jared Kass and his summer camp recreation if Joel Silver had not brought the game to his high school (CHS) and wrote down the first edition of the ‘Rules for Ultimate Frisbee.’ By that same logic, it could also be said that ultimate may never have left Columbia High School had it not been for the effort of a few determined CHS and other New Jersey High School graduates called ultimate’s  Johnny Appleseeds. Unlike Silver and other non-athletic students that played ultimate at CHS, the ‘Appleseeds’ became excellent disc athletes and along with other disc athletes and disc sports promoters in the 1970s, introduced ultimate at the early disc sports tournaments in the U.S. and Canada. Ultimate began as a camp recreation and a high school anti-sports joke, the Johnny Appleseeds and other disc athletes of that period turned it into a sport.

Ultimate at the First Disc Sports Tournaments in the U.S. and Canada, 1975.

rutgers-catch- Geoff West and Irv Kalb.

Appleseeds, Geoff West and Irv Kalb, Rutgers vs Princeton (1972).

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, Johnny Appleseeds and other disc athletes would demonstrate ultimate as a new sport at multi-event disc sports tournaments. Including ultimate’s first international appearance in Canada at Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner’s Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto. Jim Kenner later founded a disc manufacturing company called Discraft and designed the Ultra-Star, today’s official disc for ultimate play.

Beginning in 1975, ultimate was included as a new disc sports exhibition at the four major Frisbee and disc sports multi-event tournaments of that period. The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, Ontario, the Octad, New Brunswick, New Jersey, the American Flying Disc Open (AFDO), Rochester, NY and the World Frisbee Championships (WFC), Pasadena, California.

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.”

Spirit of the GameSOTG was mostly recognized in ultimate, one of disc sports most competitive non-contact team sports. In the early days, the Spirit of the Game, that had yet to be officially named and defined, was more about the spirit of the alternative to traditional sports athletes that played the game of ultimate, then the game itself. I’m not talking about the non-athletes that first played the game with Silver at CHS, I’m talking about the first disc athletes that played all the disc sports, including ultimate. Evolving from the counterculture playing appeal of all the disc sports, Spirit of the Game (SOTG) was about fair play and personal competitive conduct. SOTG, has also become about integrity, honesty and respect, not just as a disc athlete in a sport, but the character qualities you choose to have as a person. 

“Ultimate doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” – Stork.

Every time you make a play, a 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 and 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. In 1978, Spirit of the Game (SOTG), that began organically by the countercultural influence in disc sports, was officially recognized and written into the 7th Edition of the Rules of Ultimate.  

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Tom Kennedy (TK) and JC Cohn in the background, 1976 WFC, Rose Bowl.

Ultimate Beginnings and Freestyle Early Play.

“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.”

Guts, disc golf and ultimate, replacing the ball with a flying disc, all have rules and playing strategies very similar to long-established ball sports. All disc sports and early freestyle-play share a common history.  Inscribed on the underside of all the Frisbees since the 1960s, to ‘PLAY CATCH’ and ‘EXPERIMENT’ with different ways of throwing and catching, ‘freestyle’ was Frisbee’s first play.

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Freestyle was Frisbees 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 using the Frisbee as a sporting implement in future sports. Freestylers became disc sports 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 camp activity by Kass and Silver with friends in high school. Many of ultimate’s earliest promoters called Johnny Appleseeds became excellent disc athletes and along with very accomplished freestylers in the 1970s began promoting ultimate as a new disc sport.

Freestyle play and freestyle competitions were the popular events in all of the tournaments through the 1970s. When players would take a break from freestyling, they would play other disc sports like disc golf and ultimate. Although the athleticism of early ultimate players was excellent, having an entire team skilled in forehands and other advanced throws was nearly impossible. Freestylers, prior to all the disc sports and through their playing evolution, invented and developed all of the advanced throwing techniques used in today’s disc sports. Early freestylers, having skill in all the throwing techniques, were most of the best overall disc athletes and the early excellent ultimate handlers, introducing the big throwing techniques that make disc sports the fun throwing and passing games they are today.

Discraft Ultra-Star (official ultimate disc)

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 organized 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

Prior to 1966 and into the 1970s, ultimate-like games called “Frisbee football,” are played with flying disc by ball-minded athletes.
1966–Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students play early games of  a flying disc activity they call “ultimate.”
1968–Jared Kass teaches his ultimate game to Joel Silver at Northfield Mount Hermon School summer camp.
1969–CHS first ultimate 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–First international appearance at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto.
1975–Ultimate first demonstrations at multi-event Frisbee tournaments in the U.S. and Canada.
1977–Mercer County Ultimate league (New Jersey).
1977–Northern California Ultimate Frisbee League (NCUFL).
1978–Discraft begins manufacturing sport discs in London, Ontario, Canada. The Ultra-Star was created and 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 tournament play
1991–World Ultimate Championships, Toronto.
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 (WFDF).

Ultimate Skills Instruction with Ken Westerfeld: 360 Whip Forehand and Backhand Pulling  |  Ultimate Skill Articles  |  

Early freestyle throwing techniques and some new throws that could be used in ultimate Rowan McDonnells 80 Ways to Throw a Frisbee.

Ultimate Players Organizations and media sources: USA Ultimate Ultimate Canada | WFDF | FrisbeeGuru | Ultimate Rob

Next Articles:frisbee-anyone-lets-talk-about-the-american-ultimate-disc-league

Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History
History of Disc Golf in Canada
Freestyle Frisbee History
Guts Frisbee History
History of Frisbee and Disc Sports in Canada
Home page:  The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports

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: discsports@hotmail.com

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