Amherst College alum played key role in Ultimate Frisbee’s rise on the world stage

  • Jared Kass, seen here in 1968, is credited as a co-founder of ultimate, a game he began playing 50 years ago with his undergraduate friends at Amherst College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Jared Kass, 71, is credited as a co-founder of ultimate, a game he began playing 50 years ago with his friends while studying at Amherst College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Phoebe Young, from left, Jackson Barber-Just and Marcus Gilmore stretch at the start of an Ultimate Frisbee course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst. This class was for 5th-8th grades. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Drew Leutz, who is in seventh grade, prepares to catch during an Ultimate Frisbee course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst. This class was for 5th-8th grades.

  • Taylor Hanson, who is in eighth grade, prepares to catch during an Ultimate Frisbee course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst. This class was for 5th-8th grades.

  • Taylor Hanson, front, who is in eighth grade, prepares to catch during an Ultimate Frisbee course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst. Waiting to throw are, from left, Amrita Rutter, Gemma Polino and Alexander Marlin. This class was for 5th-8th grades.

  • A group practices ultimate during a course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education at Fort River School in Amherst. This class was for fifth through eighth grades. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amrita Rutter, who is in seventh grade, runs to catch a pass during an Ultimate Frisbee course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst. This class was for 5th-8th grades.

  • Henry Barber-Just, who is in seventh grade, throws as coach Isaac Weitzman watches his form during an ultimate course for grades 5 through 8 organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Sept. 20, at Fort River School in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rachel Levitt, who is in 12th grade, passes against Eli Smith, a sophomore, during an ultimate course for high schoolers organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Sept. 20, at Fort River School in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Owen Lynch, from top left, Phillip Patterson and Lane Hall-Witt converge on a pass as Eli Smith looks on during an ultimate course. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Luca Harwood, right, catches a pass while defended by Leif Corp during an ultimate course for high schoolers organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Sept. 20, at Fort River School in Amherst. Both are in 12th grade. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Asa Thomson, right, reaches for a pass beside Galen Harwood during an ultimate Frisbee course. This class was for ninth to 12th grades. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ultimate Frisbee coach Jim Pistrang talks to a group of 5th-8th grade students during a course organized by Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 at Fort River School in Amherst.

  • Jared Kass, considered one of the co-founders of the sport Ultimate, stands together with University of Massachusetts Amherst men's Ultimate coach Tiina Booth, who was instrumental in growing the sport in western Massachusetts. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/28/2018 11:50:35 PM

AMHERST — When Jared Kass worked at a summer camp for high schoolers in 1968, he never could have imagined that a game he taught to boys living on his dorm floor would end up, 50 years later, on the verge of being played at the Olympics.

It was a game he and his friends first began playing using Frisbees at Amherst College and that would later come to be known as the sport ultimate.

“The whole thing happened to me as a big surprise,” Kass said in a recent interview. “None of this was planned ... It’s wonderful the way it all kind of happened in an organic sort of way.”

Ultimate Frisbee has deep roots in Amherst, where Kass and his friends began playing the game he says was strongly influenced by the zeitgeist of those years: anti-establishment politics and ideas, and the prevalence of Frisbees on college campuses. One of his students from that summer camp took the sport back home to New Jersey, where he is credited with writing a rulebook and organizing the first official game of ultimate between his high school’s student council and school newspaper staff.

In a half century, ultimate’s following has soared. Whereas Kass and his friends used to use sweatshirts to mark goal lines on campus quads, now ultimate is played across the globe and has been recognized by the International Olympic Committee. However, its climate of sportsmanship — the game features no referees — has largely remained the same.

As with other sports, ultimate’s true origins are somewhat murky, with seminal figures and moments emerging from a mix of various pickup games, youthful creativity and competition.

“I always thought it was a folk process,” said ultimate historian Tony Leonardo, the author of “Ultimate: The First Four Decades.”

Early years

What is clear is that Amherst played a key role in the early development of the game and still plays an outsized role in ultimate’s continuing development.

Back in 1968, however, helping to create an international phenomenon was the last thing on Kass’s mind. He and his friends weren’t even all that interested in sports.

“We were hardly jocks — we were not on the football teams, the basketball teams or anything like that,” he said. “We just all needed to take breaks, and we just all had enough background in touch football a little bit, pickup basketball and this and that… It’s not distinct to me, but we just at a certain point began to invent a game together.”

What started as a fun way to pass time with friends morphed into a game that Kass and his buddies played whenever they had the chance. One day, Kass said, he jumped for a disc sailing his way, and as he caught it and landed, a thought occurred to him.

“I said to myself, ‘This is the ultimate game. This is just the ultimate game,’ ” Kass recalled. “Truthfully, that got stored in my memory. But it’s not like I landed on the ground and said to my friends, ‘We’ve got to call this game ultimate.’”

Flying discs of all kinds had long been present at Amherst and other college campuses.

Students at Kenyon College in Ohio were documented playing a “two-hand touch” style game with a plastic Frisbee as early as 1942, and from around 1949 there is evidence of Amherst College students playing a game with plastic or metal serving trays, according to the historian Victor Malafronte’s book “The Complete Book of Frisbee.” Malafronte also discovered a similar touch football-like disc game at Amherst in the late 1950s.

“Frisbee was something we played a lot on the campus,” said Amherst College Class of 1960 alum Ken Rosenthal, now 80.

Rosenthal said ultimate didn’t exist when he was in college, but students at Amherst had thrown trays, and later Frisbees, long before he was on campus. In 1957, he and some friends wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated to challenge the assertion that Princeton University students had first given Frisbee “a local habitation and a name.”

Kass and his friends began playing their game a decade later, and in the summer of 1968, Kass went off to work as a student-teacher at what was then Mount Hermon School for Boys. Kass said he taught that “ultimate game” to students at the school, insisting that they call fouls and regulate themselves, without Kass or anyone else stepping in as a referee.

One of the students at Mount Hermon that summer was Joel Silver, a junior at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. The rest, as they say, is history. Silver is credited with bringing the game back to New Jersey, where he and his friends are credited with playing the first official game of ultimate, naming the sport and writing an official rulebook. Silver is these days better known as a Hollywood producer whose work includes The Matrix trilogy and the first two Die Hard films.

“Ultimate is definitely credited, for good reason, to that Columbia High School group,” Leonardo, the historian, said. “But it does have a lot of appearances that [Silver] was able to borrow from that Amherst game, specifically that one that Kass taught.”

What Silver’s peers viewed as a fun counterculture sport, however, began to take on more gravity among students in subsequent years, according to Leonardo’s book. Members of the Columbia High School class of 1972 sent out the ultimate rulebook to other high schools in northern New Jersey, and in November of 1970, the first interscholastic game was played.

In the spring of 1971, Columbia was joined by several other high schools in a league, and the next spring several more teams joined. One of those teams was from Northern Valley Regional High School, where Jim Pistrang was a student.

“The gang of us in high school formed a Frisbee team, not knowing anything about ultimate,” said Pistrang, who now lives in Amherst, where he was the last Town Moderator. After playing in the ultimate league in ‘72, Pistrang was part of a group of New Jersey students — many from Columbia High School — who brought the game to their respective colleges.

“That same year, teams started at about eight to 10 other colleges,” he said. In the spring of ‘73, The Boston Globe did a feature on Pistrang’s team at Tufts University, and he said that soon after students from Hampshire College contacted him about starting up their own team. In the following years, teams formed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Amherst College, he said.

From the college game, ultimate eventually expanded to high school. And in Amherst, Tiina Booth, who co-coaches the UMass Amherst men’s ultimate team, played a central role in spreading the game.

Booth moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1989 after learning ultimate as a graduate student at Cornell University earlier in the decade. Soon after, she began recruiting kids at Amherst Regional High School, where she taught English for around two decades, to play ultimate with her. At the first Sunday afternoon practice, only four kids showed up.

“And I said to myself, ‘Tiina, this is crazy. This is never going to work,’ ” Booth remembers.

Booth recruited any students she could, including those who were slow leaving her classroom. One time, she even recruited the yearbook photographer who came to photograph practice. In those early years, Booth would buy cleats for her players at tag sales and would call all of them the night before to make sure they were on the bus the next day.

To give some competition to her early high school teams — which were co-ed from 1992 to 1997 — Booth in 1992 co-founded what is now the oldest high school ultimate tournament in the country, the Amherst Invitational. She pressed her school’s athletic director every year to make ultimate a varsity sport until the late ‘90s, when he finally agreed. In 1998, Booth helped co-organize the first high school national championship in Maplewood, New Jersey, and in 2001 founded the National Ultimate Training Camp, now the oldest overnight ultimate camp in the country.

“My model has always been gentle and relentless pressure,” Booth said. “Basically, I just kept building structures because I saw the sport getting bigger and bigger.”

Amherst Regional is now a national powerhouse in ultimate, and the town continues to play a major role in a game that has spread around the country and the world. The Boston-based women’s club team Brute Squad — currently undefeated and heading into the national championships — currently features five Amherst Regional graduates. When the team won nationals in 2016 for the second straight year, they had eight Amherst players. Last year, they lost in the semifinals of the World Ultimate Club Championships to a Colombian team.

“It’s a pipeline, and I’d say that it’s played a huge role in the growth of the sport,” Brute Squad player and Amherst native Amber Sinicrope said of her hometown. Sinicrope said Amherst Regional High School has fed players and coaches into colleges and clubs around the country. In fact, Booth and Pistrang, the former Town Moderator, are both in the Ultimate Hall of Fame — Booth as a “contributor” and Pistrang as one of the “Johnny Appleseeds.”

Ultimate’s challenges

But Booth said the sport needs to continue evolving, particularly when it comes to gender and racial equality. Booth said that ultimate’s now well-told creation story should really be viewed as the beginnings of the men’s game, not the women’s.

Women have pushed for greater equality in the sport for a while. In the 1980s, Booth said, she asked the male founder and director of the Ultimate Players Association to create a women’s division — and he told her no. She said it was difficult to find competition for the high school girls in the early 2000s, because there just weren’t that many teams that existed.

Today, there is a boycott among some players against the national American Ultimate Disc League because, although the AUDL is open to all genders, women only occasionally make a team. Boycotting players want to the teams to have more gender equality.

“We’re right, I believe, at the forefront of how do you develop a women’s sport without using the old model of the NBA and then the WNBA,” Booth said, referring to the professional basketball leagues for men and women.

Booth said the ultimate community is also grappling with the fact that it is largely white, upper middle class and college-educated.

“There’s a big race and gender equity movement in ultimate,” Booth said. With travel and other costs, the sport can also be prohibitively expensive for some. “It is not a cheap sport to compete at the top level ... We are working to change that profile.”

Those are some of the challenges for ultimate going forward as the sport continues to grow in popularity. Soon it may be included in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has recognized the sport, but has not yet made it part of the games. But under a new policy, five recognized sports that appeal to youth and promote female athletes can be added during each games without replacing other sports.

As for Kass, who considers himself a co-founder of the game, ultimate faded from his life even as it grew on those increasingly larger stages. As the summer of ‘68 ended, he came back to Amherst and became immersed in the antiwar and civil rights protests and activism of that era.

“I really hardly played it at all once I left Amherst,” Kass said. “I was not on that trajectory.”

It wasn’t until Willie Herndon — a math teacher and ultimate player from St. Louis, Missouri — contacted Kass in 2003 that Kass really started to put together his important role in the founding of ultimate. Herndon learned of Kass during an interview he was conducting with Joel Silver. If Silver had not mentioned Kass in that interview, Kass’s role in ultimate’s founding may have been lost to history.

Kass is now a professor of counseling and psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and serves as a visiting scholar with the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He said he feels like a lot of his current work remains consistent with the spirit of ultimate.

That ethos — the “spirit of the game,” as ultimate players call it — is the most important part for Kass. He even describes the absence of a referee in ultimate in Buddhist terms now, calling it “dharmic.”

“You want to win. You’re playing to win — there’s no question about that,” he said. “But you know perfectly well that, even in the games you lose, you can have that feeling of having the ultimate experience.”

“I’m delighted with the idea that there’s a game creeping toward the Olympics without a referee,” Kass said. “Just imagine if, worldwide, people were watching a game, and different than anything else, it has no referees.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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