Ultimate Bonding Experience
As the men's ultimate team at Haverford prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary this weekend, we look back at the history of the club sport that defined so many Fords' college experience.
A group of students tossing a Frisbee on a quad is one of the quintessential collegiate tableaus of the modern era. But some students are more serious about their disc flinging than others. Ultimate (or as you may have heard it called, "ultimate Frisbee") is a seven-on-seven hybrid of soccer and football that uses a flying disc in lieu of a ball, and it inspires a devotion in players that's unique for non-varsity athletes playing a club sport.
It makes sense that ultimate flourishes on college campuses because it's a game basically invented by students—played in some incarnation at Amherst College and then developed by kids at Columbia High School in the late '60s. It first came to Haverford in 1978, only six years after the first ever intercollegiate game, and, after some fits and starts, took hold in its current manifestation in the fall of 1985.
The men's team, now known as Big Donkey Ultimate, owes its 30-year existence to Dan Steuer '90, David Miller '89, and Shawn Kaplan '89, three New Yorkers who played ultimate in high school. Though they didn't know each other well prior to starting college, they came together in the fall of '85, during the first weeks of their freshmen year, to start an ultimate club team on campus.
"One thing that was very important when the team was in its infancy was the cooperation we received from Greg Kannerstein and the Athletic Department," says Steuer, now a lawyer for the Colorado Attorney General's Office. "In addition to providing us a field reservation, he allowed ultimate to be an activity for which students could receive gym credit. That was huge when we were struggling for numbers and commitment." (Ultimate team members still receive one P.E. credit per quarter for their participation.)
But the sport took off at Haverford, and in just four years, the club team made it to the regional championships in Raleigh, N.C., where, as a very low seed, they unseated a favored Navy team on muddy, rain-slicked "Field 3" to advance to the final day of play.
"Those of us who still have our 'Field 3' shirts from that game treat those mud-stained garments as if they were the Shroud of Turin," says Rick Kahn '91, a Brooklyn-based lawyer for BOOM!Health, a community-based organization in the Bronx, and former four-year member of Haverford’s ultimate team..
"That tournament, that game, was pivotal to Haverford ultimate's future," says Steuer. "It fundamentally changed people's mindsets. What we were doing was no longer just some fun activity, we were now truly a competitive team with competitive goals. The following fall we were just a completely different group of people, and there was a completely different level of commitment to the team."
That said, then, as now, the team never held tryouts or cut players. At the beginning of each year, all interested Fords are simply invited to come out and learn the game from captains tasked with molding newbies into a cohesive team.
"We provide a place for everybody who wants to play, whether that's high school all-stars who have been playing for years or people who have never really played competitive sports," says Matt Lowenthal '12, who spent his whole college career on the team and is now the coach of Big Donkey Ultimate. "We try to create a supportive, challenging environment for everybody who wants to be involved."
Steuer says that inclusive nature has been a part of the team since its inception. "You didn't have to be an 'athlete,'" he says. "If you wanted to play, you came out and played. If you were committed to the team, to learning and improving, we were committed to you being there, no matter how bad or unathletic you might be. I wasn't much of an athlete in high school, so that inclusiveness very much appealed to me. And ultimate turned me into an athlete."
That is true to the essence of the sport, which is also self-officiated, even at the highest level of play. Every person we spoke to for this article mentioned "The Spirit of the Game," which emphasizes sportsmanship and spirited play over end results, as one of ultimate's biggest draws. "The Spirit of the Game was borne out of ultimate's somewhat mythical granola-crunching origins, but to this day, 47 years later, it still enables players in the heat of competition to take a moment to discuss whether a certain physical contact on the field that disrupted a play constituted a foul or not," says Kahn. "It's not exactly Haverford's Honor Code, but the parallels between the two are not lost on us, and I think that the virtue of The Spirit of the Game resonates loudly with Haverford students."
The soul of the team may be the same, but it's name is not. When Steuer and his co-founders started the team it was known as Stone Age Disc/Fred. In the early '90s it became Mud Luscious, after an E.E. Cummings poem, and subsequently went by the names Iron Curtain Ultimate, Lumberjack Lemmings, Seven Deadly Sins, Flatball Tribe, and Cobra Kai (a reference to the antagonist's dojo in the movie Karate Kid) before taking its current moniker, Big Donkey Ultimate. "They weren't really concerned with consistent branding," laughs Lowenthal.
In its early years the team was "open," meaning women could play, but didn't have to (as they would on a "co-ed" team). It fielded a few women in the '90s, including Matissa Hollister '94, who went on to become its co-captain her senior year. "My success in ultimate at Haverford was also due to the great attitude of all of the guys on the team," Hollister told Haverford magazine earlier this year. "From the beginning, I never felt like my presence was an issue. They accepted me with ease, grace, and friendship." After encouraging more female players to join, Hollister launched a second team, the Sneetches, for the women of the Bi-College community in 1994.
"We have discovered the value of 'funtensity,' which is the notion that the Sneetches competitive advantage lies in the significantly higher level of play that emerges when we genuinely have fun on the field," says current Sneetch Co-Captain Rosemary Ventura '16.
All that talk of friendship and fun is why ultimate players are so single-mindedly devoted to their teams and their sport. Ultimate players at Haverford don't only train together, they also live together, travel together (the teams take annual spring break trips), and remain part of a vital community after graduation.
"I think people put a lot of effort into their ultimate friendships because these are the people we spent most our time with when we were at Haverford," says Lowenthal. "This is what you do, this is how you define yourself—you're an ultimate player. I know that if I'm in a new city, I could email any [former player], even if we haven't met, and they'd have my back."
"I was pretty engaged with the entire Haverford experience,” says Kahn. “I was a Customs Person, on Customs Committee for two years, on Honor Council for a year, was an Honor Code Orienteer. But … I view my time at Haverford through the lens of my experience on the ultimate team." He is still playing the sport 25 years after he started at the College and even met his wife while playing on a summer league team.
The current incarnations of the Donkeys and Sneetches are going strong. Each team has roughly 40 members—a high number given Haverford's small size and the fact that many schools field teams of 25—and both are on a competitive upswing. The Sneetches played in the National College Championship Tournament in 2014, both teams took third place in their respective Regional Championships last spring, and several recent alums (and one current player) had success at this fall's USA Club National Championships.
And co-founder Steuer couldn't be prouder of the legacy he helped to create.
"I worked my ass off in college to sustain that team, harder than I worked at anything else," he says, "and not just to keep it going so I could keep playing, but to make sure that the team continued long past my departure. So to know that the team has continued on, that so many people at Haverford have had ultimate impact their lives over the years, and that I played a role in that? Well, I consider that quite an achievement."
It's an achievement that continues to grow. Though there may be more players than ever and the level of play may be higher, the spirit that bonds Haverford ultimate players is the same as it ever was.
"Having played with the alumni team at the Haverween tournament last year, I know from first-hand experience that the team is still very much like it was in my day," says Kahn. "The depth of team skill may be a bit higher and the shorts [they wear] a bit longer, but beyond that I felt like I was looking at and playing against the guys that I had cleated up with 25 years ago."
This weekend, the two Haverford ultimate teams host Haverween, one of their two annual campus tournaments. As in years past, team alumni will come back to Haverford to compete, but for Big Donkey Ultimate, it is a special occasion. They will celebrate the team's 30th anniversary with more than 50 returning alumni and a Saturday night banquet in Founders Great Hall.
A gallery of historic photos of the team, courtesy of Matt Lowenthal '12, appears on the Haverblog.