The Playing Fields: How friendships are formed and life-long bonds take flight
The simple act of tearing off a phone number from one of those handwritten, photocopied ads posted on Bongo Java’s bulletin board back in 1995 determined the course of my next 15 summers. “We’re forming a new Ultimate Frisbee women’s team,” the flyer said. “Beginners welcome.”
Good thing we were welcome, because the first official “practice” of the women’s Ultimate Club team was not an impressive sight to behold. A dozen or so jittery young women faced each other on a blustery spring day at the park and attempted to perform what could loosely be described as a throwing drill, which was entirely thwarted by gusty winds and sheer ineptitude.
It was the first of many ruthless lessons the sport taught me over the years, lessons in futility and aerodynamics, humiliation and physical limitations, gyroscopic precession and the viscosity of mud, but most of all, comradeship, guts, and unmitigated youthful joy.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, Ultimate Frisbee is a lung-busting sprint-fest that looks a little like soccer, a little like football, and features two seven-person squads, a football-sized field,and a small plastic disc. But the sport could better be defined by what you won’t see: referees. That may be what has attracted so many left-of-center athletic types like me to Ultimate: the game is policed not by whistles and penalty boxes, but by a code of ethics known simply as “Spirit of the Game.” You step out of bounds, you call yourself “out,” no matter the stakes — Sunday afternoon pick-up or national championship.
I’ve always played some sort of organized team sport, ever since my dad first winged a softball to my outstretched glove. (Remaining unscathed quickly let me know that I was a natural if not breathtakingly talented athlete.) Even if I wasn’t usually the star, I always found a role for myself as a trusted teammate my girls could count on, from speedy center fielder and point guard to flag-football QB on a college intramural squad. The one drawback: I had (and still have) a bit of a sass problem, which didn’t always endear me to coaches or umpires.
Which may be why, that spring and summer of 1995, it was love at first sight for me and that irreverent, freewheeling sport that eschews the coach-as-demagogue model, leaving players to run their teams and tournaments themselves, and reserving its devotion for a personal honor code and an unassuming flying gyroscope-airfoil.
That first Ultimate summer, our fledgling Frisbee squad set about choosing a team name (we settled on “FLO,” an acronym standing for a number of things, almost none of which can be printed here); tie-dying and painting our own uniforms (mauve v-neck undershirts with new-agey woman-symbols on the back); and doing the kind of bonding more often seen in the ranks of men. (As a male friend quipped recently, men tend to compete, pursue, or kill things together, whereas women merely converse. “For hours!” he marveled. “What do they talk about for that long?)
The first generation of FLO did a whole lot of both that season and the many that followed. Most of us in our early 20s, single, and still in that not-quite-sure stage of professional and family life, we still possessed time and energy to spare to devote to carefree silliness and to each other. Although we played throughout the year, in summer we did little else: women’s practice, co-ed pickup games, a semi-organized summer league, and weekend tournaments throughout the Midwest and Southeast.
On tournament weekends, we’d cram sleeping bags, thrift-store prom dresses (to play in and/or wear to the after party), and worn cleats up to the ceiling of somebody’s hatchback on a Friday afternoon and caravan to Savannah, Lexington, or Versailles, Ohio. Upon arrival, we’d pile into a seedy Super 8 near the fields and play something like 14 hours of Ultimate over two days, eking out a few hours of sleep in there somewhere.
Those summer road trips bleed together in my mind in a golden haze of blended recollections: nervously pulling on cleats in the dewy grass before the first game on Saturday morning; diving into a mud puddle to catch a disc thrown just out of reach — the greatest feeling on earth; and settling into a Crazy Creek chair on the sidelines after your last game is done in order to heckle whoever’s still playing, and (gasp of pleasure) pop open the first cold beverage of the afternoon — the other greatest feeling on earth.
One weekend in particular stands out in my memory, a St. Louis trip about two years after our inaugural season. I was struggling with a stubborn bout of depression that summer, of the kind that seems to descend upon so many young women during those uncertain postgraduate years. I remember staring out the car’s rear window, oblivious to my teammates’ carefree joking and laughing, feeling the kind of inexpressible awfulness that is at once utterly embarrassing and impossible to explain.
I felt like an idiot, tears streaming down my face for five hours, a nightmare merry-go-round of obsessive, self-loathing thoughts whirling in my mind, shouting insults at me like some remorseless playground bully.
I remember the St. Louis playing fields as being particularly lovely that weekend, silvery prairie grasses rippling under a constant breeze. By Saturday night, the sunshine, camaraderie, and exertion had somehow worked their magic on me. At the Saturday night party, I found myself onstage in a rural Missouri barn, playing the washboard with a Cajun band, my teammates egging me on mercilessly. As my counselor later pointed out, this was “not a particularly depressive thing to do.”
This is not to say that a weekend of playing Frisbee with your best friends can be construed as a sure-fire cure for depression. But it strikes me that sometimes, when you have no idea what to do with your life, just doing something is enough to take you out of your own head for awhile and remind you there’s joyful stuff going on all around you … even if the something is as silly as traveling around the country with girlfriends, dressing up in ridiculous outfits and chasing around a plastic disc.
Another summer memory endures, a camping trip that first year to celebrate a teammate who was soon to marry and move away. We circled around a campfire and solemnly passed around a Frisbee full of execrable cheap red wine, in turn bidding her farewell and taking a sip from the disc. That ritual (the details of which I have sworn not to divulge) has become a FLO tradition marking teammates’ rites of passage — marriages, graduations, childbirth and departures.
Looking back on the scores of disc-passing ceremonies since 1995, it strikes me that the FLO years served to ease the thrilling, but often painful process of creating ourselves, as the doctors, teachers, writers, mothers, entrepreneurs, or simply fitter, better-adjusted adult women we were to become.
A few months ago, we passed the disc for four FLO teammates who turned 40 within a few weeks of each other, one of whom was me. Multiple ACL tears, arthritic knees, and the dizzying pace of adult life have driven most of us into semi- or full-on Frisbee retirement. But even as we pass the torch to a new generation of athletes, the notion of FLO lives on for us, manifested in friendships cemented over 15 years of playing and growing up together.
Our summer playing fields have given way to other shared pleasures: we hike and camp, run marathons, travel to visit each others’ new homes in new cities … And it seems a new tradition is unfolding, one involving a pontoon boat, execrable cheap wine, and more than a few diving Frisbee catches into the lake. You see, once your best girlfriends teach you the art of practicing unmitigated youthful joy, you can’t unlearn it, no matter how much your knees might ache.