History of Ultimate Frisbee

 

“I do not exist to impress the world. I exist to live my life in a way that will make me happy.” – Richard Bach.

Ultimate Disc Sport History.

There is more to the history of ultimate, then the Jared Kass and Joel Silver story. Much of the history of ultimate that is available online is dated, lacks context and hasn’t been changed to reflect historical events that have been discovered in the last twenty years, even on official sites.  These are some of the events and players that shared pioneering moments in the early days of ultimate disc sport.

“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 SOTG award 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 tin lids since the early 1900s, much earlier than our recent Frisbee historical records.

111480251.jpg

Group of Kenyon College students playing with a Frisbee-like flying disc. in Ohio, 1950.

There were many accounts of early disc games being played recreationally by ball-minded athletes called Frisbee football. Ultimate’ in some similar form, maybe by a different name would become a popular disc sport. Easy to imagine since both disc golf and ultimate are sports with similar competitive playing concepts as very established ball sports.  The only thing completely unique is the flying plastic disc, that flies much better than a ball or a tin lid and the spirit of playing conduct for all disc sports, including ultimate. 

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, 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 or 1968 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 developed the first and second edition of “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 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 what was really important to him when playing ultimate, the feeling he gets 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 ‘play’ that Kass refers to, is the flying sensation 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.

blank-white-flying-plastic-frisbee-mockup-motion-blur-sky-background-3d-rendering-empty-flying-disc-mock-up-on-blue-clear-round-toy-movin (2)

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 way, Kass is 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 that created 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 rules. The early alternative-minded disc athletes established SOTG and discovered the ‘playing-spirit’ that players continue to experience for every game, a sensation described by Kass 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.

chs ultimate (2)

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 up the rules and 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 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 disc 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 in the moment and a natural talent for producing. Without this chance meeting of Kass and Silver, 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 members of the counterculture, nor were they disc athletes. They were excellent students who, after graduation, were headed to Ivy League schools for big careers. At that same period, Frisbee players that were aligned with the counterculture, were also developing new 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 athlete’s, 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 probably not even 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 up the first edition of rules for ultimate. 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-athletes that played ultimate at CHS, the Appleseed’s 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 Sport 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. 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 World Frisbee Championships (WFC), Pasadena, California, The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, Ontario, The Octad, New Brunswick, New Jersey and The American Flying Disc Open (AFDO), Rochester, NY.

In the late 1970s, the first ultimate leagues appeared in the U.S. and Canada.

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.

“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.”

 In the early days, the ‘Spirit of the Game’ that had yet to be 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.Spirit of the Game Evolving from the counterculture playing appeal of all the disc sports, ‘Spirit of the Game’ (SOTG) became about fair play and personal competitive conduct. It 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.”

‘SOTG’ was mostly recognized in ultimate, one of disc sports most competitive non-contact team sport. “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 respect for the players of the other team with a team cheer and after championship games, will even celebrate their opponent’s victory with them. In 1978, SOTG was officially recognized and written into the 7th Edition of the Ultimate Rules.  

1976TKleapingRoseBowl

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

Ultimate and Freestyle Early Play.

“Ultimate is a passing game mostly 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.imagesKCLJIWWQ 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 most popular events in all the tournaments through the 1970s. When players weren’t freestyling, they would recreationally play other disc sports like disc golf and ultimate. Freestylers, prior to all disc sports and through their playing evolution, invented and developed all the advanced throwing techniques used in disc sports. Freestylers were most of the first accomplished overall disc athletes, inventing and introducing the big throwing techniques that make disc sports the fun throwing and passing games they are today.

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 crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: discsports@hotmail.com

© 2020 Disc Sports History. All rights reserved.