by Olga Bonfiglio
“When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee®,” according to Bruce “Frisbee” Johnson ’76, the “father” of Ultimate Frisbee at Kalamazoo College. And why not! On those warm, balmy days on the quad, when students fling the saucer-like disc in long graceful arcs, what ball wouldn’t want to be a Frisbee.
Of course some of those students are merely relaxing. Many others, however, are seriously training for Ultimate (formerly known as Ultimate Frisbee), the sport that involves 5 million players across the country. And the sport at which Kalamazoo College is among the very best.
The Buzz, for example, the “K” men’s team, has regularly taken first place in its Division III league. This year they played in the Division I finals in Rockford, Illinois, and competed against schools like Michigan State University. They defeated Western Illinois University and nearly beat Indiana (11-13).
“We’ve always looked at ourselves on a Division I scale,” said co-captain Ezra Shaffer ’11, “and this past [year] was the closest we’ve come to performing at that level.”
The Queen Bees, the four-year-old women’s team, made it to the week-long quarter-finals of the Division III sectionals tournament held in Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia. They played teams like Michigan State and Northwestern, schools with coaches and larger student bodies. They also earned a top spot in the Division I regional competition. Cassandra Dobbins ’11 and Cody Musselman ’11 were co-captains of the 20-member team.
Such success in this sport warrants some recognition, especially since a “K” student both introduced Ultimate to campus and has been instrumental in bringing it to national prominence.
It began in fall 1972 when wide-eyed first-year student Bruce (a.k.a. “Frisbee”) Johnson started recruiting players during the first dorm meeting at Hoben Hall (all male at the time). He had learned the sport from its founders at the annual International Frisbee Tournament held in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Driven by his passion for the sport, he literally pulled students out to the Quad to teach them how to play.
Kalamazoo College played its first intercollegiate Ultimate contest in 1974 against Calvin College in what was supposedly one of the first match-ups held west of Pennsylvania.
From there, the team developed quickly, eventually acquiring the name Kalamazoo College Ultimate Frisbee Society (KCUF). In 1976, KCUF was one of a select few teams to participate in the first-ever College Nationals Tournament in Amherst, Massachusetts. Around the same time, the team played a showcase game against Michigan State University during the halftime of a basketball game between MSU and Indiana. In front of 15,000 fans, KCUF defeated MSU 7-1.
After graduation—as a result of a contact he made through Ultimate—Johnson became an assistant manager of the Athlete Shop in Ann Arbor.
In 1981, he returned to Kalamazoo to run its Athlete Shop franchise. His future business partner, Chris Crowell, was one of the employees. The duo planned to buy the Kalamazoo store, but when the deal fell through they teamed to start up Gazelle Sports in 1985. That store has served as an anchor store on the Kalamazoo Mall. The partners subsequently opened two other stores in Holland and Grand Rapids, and the combined enterprise employed 150 people and grossed $10 million in sales.
Johnson stayed with Gazelle until 2009. Today, he does business advising, coaches cross-country, and sells customized car magnets and various athletic apparel and footwear.
Not bad for the philosophy major who claims to have “struggled” at “K.” But his greatest source of pride is the legacy of bringing Ultimate—as well as Frisbee Golf—to the Kalamazoo College campus. “What I helped create is ongoing for hundreds of students,” said Johnson.
Johnson is a great runner. He served as captain of the “K” cross-country team (twice) earned All-Conference honors (twice), and was named team MVP (twice). Nevertheless, Ultimate is his favorite sport because it involves running and strategy. On one occasion he left an Ultimate Tournament in the middle of the day, ran in a cross-country competition, and returned in time to keep playing in the tournament. Feats such as that make “Frisbee” Johnson one of Kalamazoo College’s all-time great multiple-sport athletes!
In August 1976, he was an All-American in the World Frisbee Championship that took place in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Corporate event sponsor Wham-O paid for the players’ air travel.
“There’s nothing like playing in the Rose Bowl,” said Johnson, “especially when you’re there before 25,000 people.”
He teased his roommate, Randy Morse ’76—who earned honors in two majors and went to Cal Tech for graduate school—that he, “Frisbee” Johnson, was making it to Pasadena before Morse.
In 1977, Johnson suffered a serious knee injury while playing in the Regionals—the same year “K” qualified for its second appearance in the Nationals. He had his knee reconstructed but an eventual knee replacement in 2006 sidelined him from Ultimate forever.
Today he walks with a limp, but that doesn’t keep him from promoting the game to newcomers and devoted veterans alike. He also loves to watch his sons play Ultimate.
Johnson has also promoted the sport by serving in various leadership positions. He became the first Midwest director of the Ultimate Players Association (USA Ultimate) in 1978. More recently, Johnson has been part of the Kalamazoo Ultimate Disc League (KUDL) “brain trust,” which boasts multiple “K” connections. Johnson works with league co-founder, Chris Tower ’86, and two other “K” alums—Stewart Gulliver ’90 and William Cherup ’08, and he has helped increase the visibility of the league through radio interviews and marketing programs. He also works with the “brain trust” to create a vision for a model club that leagues throughout the country replicate.
Another “K” player to attain legendary status in Ultimate is Paul Greff ’83, who won four USA Ultimate Club Championships and three World Championships (most recently in 2008) after his career at Kalamazoo College. His classmate and Ultimate teammate at “K,” Marc Zigterman ’83, also has remained involved in the sport. Zigterman is the coordinator for Ultimate for the Central Region (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio), and his son, Duncan ’13, continues the family’s Ultimate legacy.
Other alumni have started college and club teams, notably Leonard Johnson ’77 (Ferris State University) and Dave Neely ’78 (University of Michigan). It’s a history that continues to inspire today’s students. “I hope the College continues to get lots of freshmen interested in Ultimate, which is an alternative to varsity sports for people who still want to be involved in competitive athletics,” said co-captain of last year’s Buzz, Ben Ayres ’11.
Ultimate mixes soccer, basketball, football and netball. It requires a demanding degree of speed, stamina, and agility. Players strive to score points by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone; they are not allowed to run the disc. Teams maintain possession until they drop the disc, which, by rule, constitutes a turnover to the opposing team.
Ultimate may be the most democratic of all sports. Players govern themselves on the field without a referee because the rules are guided by “the spirit of the game,” said long-time Ultimate player, Lanny Potts, professor of theatre arts, who teaches Ultimate every spring quarter for physical education credit.
“There is the sense that in order to be a good player, you must have a good spirit,” Potts said. “Disputes are worked out on the field by the players where it is assumed that the person with the best perspective on a play is the one best able to make a call on out-of-bounds disputes.”
In fact, controversy has surfaced in the Ultimate nationals competition where some people want to include observers of the game to act as line judges, he said. While proponents contend this will speed up the game, others are worried that it will ruin its spirit of fun.
Ultimate began on a whim in fall 1968 when Joel Silver, a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, proposed to the student council there that a school Frisbee team be formed. The following summer he recruited students to play what he called “the ultimate game experience,” which was an adaptation of a Frisbee football game that he had learned at a summer camp in Massachusetts. The rules were eventually
Ultimate may be the most democratic of all sports.codified by the students at Columbia High School, and the sport became identified as a counter-cultural activity.
Another popular but very different game on campus is Frisbee Golf. And “Frisbee” Johnson helped bring it to Kalamazoo College.
“It was a fun way to test myself competitively using a Frisbee,” he said. “And people who would never play Ultimate could enjoy playing Frisbee Golf.”
The 18-hole sport is played much like regular golf, with signs, trees, fire hydrants, and lamp posts serving as tees and holes.
It isn’t unusual to see alumni taking in a game or two during Homecoming Weekend, especially since the course hasn’t changed that much through the years.
One significant exception is the first tee, which used to be located at behind Trowbridge Hall. “From there, we simply found our way around campus and the holes became fairly obvious based on the distance we wanted the hole to be,” said Johnson, who worked with James Pickett ’76 and several others to map out the course.
Today, the first hole is a par-five monster that begins at the Kalamazoo College Michigan Historical sign on Campus Drive and leads through the arch between Olds-Upton and Mandelle Hall. Most holes, however, are par-three.
In more competitive play, the tee is a concrete pad and three-foot wide metal baskets serve as the holes. The discs are smaller than the Frisbees® used in Ultimate.
The Kalamazoo region is known nationally for its excellent Frisbee golf courses, said Potts. In fact, the 27th Professional and Amateur Disc Golf World Championships took place in 2008 in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area.The tournament was sponsored by Bell’s Brewery, which is owned by Kalamazoo College alumnus Larry Bell ’80.
Potts attributes the appeal of Ultimate and Frisbee Golf to several sources: both are fun; they’re accessible to all age groups; and they attract people with a variety of skill levels.
“And their duration at ‘K’ is amazing,” he added. “They’re special because they have been self-sustaining purely through the interest of the students and without any ‘official’ team sport status. That’s pretty cool.”
The Frisbee® started out as a cake pan. Walter Frederick Morrison and his future wife were tossing the pan on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. in 1938 when he figured he had a market for the flying disc as a toy. After his service as a pilot in World War II, he designed an aerodynamically-improved flying disc called the Whirlo-Way, which evolved into the Flyin-Saucer in 1948 and the Pluto Platter in 1950. In 1957 he sold patent rights to Wham-O Corporation. By 1982, Morrison had received $2 million in royalty payments for his invention.
Wham-O’s co-founder Richard Kerr re-named the disc the Frisbee once he learned that East Coast students were using that moniker based on the New England-based Frisbie Pie Company. Wham-O’s Ed Headrick created a more controllable disc by reworking the rim’s thickness and top design in 1964. Headrick, commonly known as the “Father of Disc Sports,” later founded “The International Frisbee Association (IFA)” and began establishing standards for various sports using the Frisbee.
Photo 1 – Founding Saucer-er Bruce “Frisbee” Johnson ’76, wearing a vintage Kalamazoo College Ultimate jersey.
Photo 2 – Ultimate physical education instructor (and Professor of Theatre Arts) Lanny Potts has been playing Ultimate since high school, during his undergraduate years at Valparaiso University, and throughout graduate school at Michigan State. He still participates in area leagues even though his wife claims that when he dives for the disc he falls like an “old man.”
Photo 3 – Ben Ayres ’11 got involved with Ultimate his freshman year. “I played a number of sports in high school, but was not able to continue at the collegiate level. One of my friends was on the team, and he finally convinced me to come to a practice. I was very skeptical at first and did not think that this was anything like a ‘real’ sport. However, at that first practice the captain and the other players really highlighted the athleticism and competition that is involved with Ultimate at a high level. After that, I was hooked and have been playing every chance I get.”