Outside it’s a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, and because I’m physically and emotionally exhausted, I’d much rather take a nap than start a new ‘blog entry. But someone told me that it’s not such a good idea to go to sleep when there’s the possibility you may have a concussion…
I can remember the first time I ever played ultimate. A couple friends and I were hanging out at the local comic book store in Ketchikan when one of the co-owners started reminiscing with his visiting college buddy about the game. Having spent many summers on the beach in Nags Head, North Carolina, I was somewhat familiar with the aerodynamics of a common Frisbee, but this was the first I’d heard of sport utilizing one.
Six of us decided to go out that afternoon and play the game. I remember only a few things: The amazement I felt at learning that there was more than one way to throw a disc; kicking up dust clouds on a dry, dirt field in the heat of summer; the fountaining explosion of my only chance at refreshment – a can of Diet Coke that had inadvertently been left out in the sun; and a single, breathless quote from a fellow inexperienced player, delivered after maybe half an hour of play, “Are we seriously considering more of this?”
After that (arguably) enjoyable outing, a small group of us began to take up ultimate as a sort of pastime. We had no formal understanding of the rules, were lucky if we could gather 6 or 8 people to play at a time, and always struggled to find a decent spot to play in grassless Ketchikan. It was fun.
At Totem Bight, we played on mossy grass in and around a totem pole and the pointy skirts of a two large pine trees until we collapsed on our backs, chests heaving for much needed oxygen. At a narrow sloping park on the hillside above the post office, we shared the rules as we knew them and our enthusiasm for the sport with friends from our Tae Kwon Do class and kids from the local teen home. (That’s where our Tae Kwon Do instructor matched the new guy up on me and thought it would be funny to tell him to “just tackle the guy with the disc.” When you’re used to playing a non-contact sport, moments like that come as a surprise.)
When two of my friends and I moved to Juneau, one of the first things I did was investigate the local ultimate scene. I discovered that every Tuesday and Thursday evening there was a pickup game at Twin Lakes. The grass was nice, though the park wasn’t without its problems. The playing field was narrow, it sloped enough in one direction to give a team the benefit of downhill play, the mosquitoes swarmed whenever it wasn’t downpouring or blowing sideways, and there was never enough people on rainy days and too many on sunny ones.
I only played a few months before the allure of racquetball took hold. In that short time, however, I watched and learned from many of the “old school” locals who carried on the ultimate tradition in Juneau. I learned the rules, official as well as house, and tried to model my game after the better players.
48 hours have passed and I’m typing in the emergency room. I brought my laptop along because of the notoriously long waits, but surprisingly I’m the only one here. The swelling in my knee has progressed half way down my shin, and my sinuses have been congested for days. Wouldn’t you know it, I ran into a fellow ultimate player that works here in the hospital and spent most of my preplanned blogging time talking about what happened…
A couple years passed where I didn’t play much of any ultimate at all. Other things kept me busy: racquetball, bike riding, sporadic weight training. Still, I kept a chuck of circular plastic in the back of my car just in case any of my roommates wanted to spend an afternoon tossing the ol’ disc around.
One year, an enterprising MAT student came to UAS and spearheaded the formation of an actual ultimate club. I got in on the tail end of that action and remember playing games on the Sandy Beach softball fields in Douglas. When you weren’t laying out over gravel, the wind was puffing the disc up over your waiting hands and into your upper lip. It was brutal, but it was also a great weekend compliment to the games going on at Twin Lakes. I got to know many new student players and met some great players from Anchorage who were down for the legislative session, too. Once again, the sport grabbed me.
After the UAS club dissolved at the end of the year, I continued to play at Twin Lakes and my understanding of the game improved. Unfortunately, heavy rains caused mudslides to cover our field and the local Parks and Recreation department put and end to our cleats-on-grass destruction of the new grass with a blunt chain-link fence around the new seedlings.
Ultimate was going strong in Juneau by that point and the three groups – the Twin Lakes crowd, the UAS students, and the legislative players – kept it going by reserving weekly field time direct from Parks and Rec. The fields to which we were relegated were of the mud and rock variety, but at least we were playing.
And then we discovered disc golf. A handful of friends and I devised our own haphazard courses on the Dredge Lakes Trail and on the university campus. We didn’t have the benefit of fancy goals – Hit this tree! Land on that rock! – but it became a sort of after-work addiction after awhile. Even before the “official” disc golf course opened in Juneau, we were refining our throws’ accuracy with inappropriate-to-the-sport, 175-gram ultimate discs.
As my skills improved, my friends began to tell me that I should teach an ultimate class at the university. Their only rationale seemed to be that I was “good” at the game (“good” being a very subjective term – I always felt as though there were plenty of people in Juneau who consistently took advantage of me on the field). But under the onslaught of similar suggestions from others, and the fact that it was unlikely that anyone else would step forward to develop a class, I decided to at least explore the possibility.
One summer, while playing softball for the UAS Flukes, I asked the Dean’s Assistant:
“Beth, what would it take to get an Ultimate Frisbee class offered at UAS.”
“You’d have to ask me,” she replied.
“Okay. Consider yourself asked.”
“Okay.” She said.
“Yeah. You can teach it this fall.”
I love working at a small university. It wasn’t quite that easy, but it was close. I spent part of that summer’s vacation to the East Coast mulling over the creation of a syllabus. The only other hurdle was that, during the first week of class, we had to scramble to sign up one last student to reach the minimum-enrollment of 10. All-in-all, piece of cake.
The first semester was a crazy, disorganized mess. On the first day of class, there were only nine students registered. By the end of the third week, we picked up 8 more students who needed “just one more credit to be full time.” While learning to teach via trial and error, I was also trying to corral 17 students, many of them friends that I already played ultimate with, in the tiny Auke Bay gym.
While I hoped that the students new to the sport learned a lot about ultimate that semester, I learned a lot about teaching. Before starting, I decided that my week-to-week teaching would have to be flexible, so I had more of a guideline for the semester than a plan. Still, I felt that in the hours before every single class, I was wracking my brain to come up with drills and exercises that would emphasize a required skill.
Despite what I felt was a somewhat unsuccessful first semester, the class still managed to produce a few converts to the sport that I would see on the field for years to come. Beth asked if I wanted to teach the class again the following semester and I jumped at the chance. The annoying timeslot remained, 9pm on Mondays, but my request for a bigger gym was granted. Community Schools graciously donated a couple dead hours in the DZ middle school gym to the class and, as a bonus, to the club.
As my ultimate class progressed through its second semester, I started to get a handle on teaching. I mined the internet for ideas and created my own handouts. In addition to the “attendance only” grading policy, I offered extra credit for those students that showed up for a “real” game late on Friday nights. During most of the spring semester, the only real option was indoor play in the DZ gym, and I did my best to promote it with weekly e-mail invites. Before long, we had a good group of regulars that weren’t too put off by a late-night game of 5-on-5.
The doctor in the emergency room peered into my nostrils and mouth, twisted and prodded my knee, and then decided that there wasn’t anything he could do while it was still so swollen. He referred me to my own dentist and a local sports medicine doctor down the hill. Neither one would be able to see me that day…
Somewhere along the way, I became the official faculty representative of a thriving ultimate club. Aside from playing every Friday night, our only other notable achievement was in creating our own custom discs. The constant games kept me fit – even in the dead of winter I was playing (or at least teaching) ultimate twice a week.
And then, around 5 years ago, the city of Juneau dropped $800,000 on an artificial turf field, ostensibly for the local high school football team. With the lack of grass fields in Juneau, every team-oriented sports organization was vying for playing time and ultimate was no exception. Unfortunately, the field was managed by Parks and Rec, and in order to make a reservation, organizations had to prove that everyone playing on it had insurance.
That didn’t stop the ultimate players. When not reserved, the field was “first come, first serve.” The problem was that sometimes we’ve expend a ton of effort to get a game organized only to discover that someone else had officially reserved the field.
In 2001, a group of us regulars got together and decided to do something about that. Early that year, the Ultimate Players of Southeast Alaska (UPSEA) was formed, and we created a league that was officially sponsored by the Ultimate Players’ Association (UPA). Each player in the league was required to obtain a UPA membership… because they came with liability insurance.
That first year was both a lot of work and a lot of fun. We worked hard to develop the rules and guidelines for a hat league where both new and experienced players alike could have a good time. To advertise the league (and drum up the registration money needed to pay for the field time!) we posted fliers, talked on the radio, gave interviews for the newspaper, and created a web site.
Despite getting the table scraps of the field schedule (9-11pm weeknights!?) we managed to pull in over 80 people for that first season. We did out best to evaluate their experience levels and to split them equally among four teams. Over the next two months, we played round robin games and, eventually, an all-day, Saturday tournament.
As one of players selected to be a speaker, I did my best to motivate my team, Polar Insanity. I hosted a BBQ to get everyone introduced. I arrived at the field early for each game, ready to talk strategy with anyone that wanted to listen. I sent out e-mails and made phone calls before every game so that we’d have a good turnout. I e-mailed video screen caps of the previous game’s good plays. Something must have worked because by the end of the season we were at the top of the standings, were comfortably running a zone defense, and eventually won the end-of-season tournament.
That first year was great. I took a video camera with me to every game and posted pictures and video clips to the web site every week. When the season was over, I was pleasantly surprised to be voted Most Valuable Player (Male) for the league. I was living and breathing ultimate… Come to think of it, that may have even been the first year that some friends and I formed a team that traveled up to Anchorage.
The tournament is known as the Daze of Disc and we had been invited up by one of the same legislative contacts we’d made a couple years before. After discussing the cost, we decided that it would be less expensive (and more fun) to pile 15 people into a van and drive from Haines to Anchorage and back again. It was less expensive.
Yeah, okay, it was fun, too. Mostly. It was a long drive up, but we were excited about playing and, despite the crowded van, our spirits were high. The night before the two-day tournament was to begin, we passed the evening watching Monty Python’s Holy Grail and custom-designing our bright-orange “Knights of Ni” T-shirts.
The next morning, we ignored the tenants of “ultimate time” and were the first ones out on the field. There were five other teams that year, I think, and we played each one of them that day. Five games, almost 12 hours on the field, and I realized that my body contained entire muscle groups that I wasn’t previously aware of.
The next morning, we painfully crawled from our sleeping bags and wondered aloud if we were “seriously considering playing more today.” By the time we arrived at the field, I wasn’t feeling any more optimistic. My swollen and blistered feet didn’t seem to fit into my cleats and I was sure that my legs would cramp up – more – as soon as I tried to run. Fortunately (for my physique, if not for my spirit), we lost our first game and were eliminated from the tournament. I’ve never been so happy to lose at anything in my life.
A year later, we returned with many of the same players to compete as “Where the Hell is Aquaman?!” Our team jerseys were all Superman T-shirts and having had a little bit more practice in our own league, we fared much better. We won our first game during the actual tournament and were even up at half-time in our second… against the team that eventually went on to win the championship! Most of us had to depart during the last game, though, because we had a plane to catch. We assured ourselves that it was probably a good thing that we didn’t progress to the last game – it wouldn’t have been polite to forfeit in the middle of it.
My dentist’s assistant quizzed me over the phone and decided that there likely wasn’t any damage to my teeth. The sports doctor’s office called on Wednesday with a cancellation – a full week before the earliest appointment I was able to book. I’m there now, sitting in the waiting room. The swelling in my knee has gone down, but there’s still so much pain when I touch the left side of my kneecap…
In 2002, I worked again on organizing the second UPSEA summer league, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I was in the middle of planning an August marriage and there were a million things to get done before the big day. I signed up anyway, paid my fees, but you could probably count on one hand the number of times I showed up to play.
Although my fiancée and I really did knock ourselves out planning our wedding, that was really just an excuse. After playing twice a week, practically non-stop, for two years, I was burned out on ultimate. The university had cut my pay for teaching the ultimate class, the time was never changed from 9pm on a weeknight, and Community Schools was jerking us around on gym reservations. Although I always had fun when I started playing ultimate, it had been a long time since I actually looked forward to going.
So I quit, pretty much cold turkey. I stopped teaching, officially because I couldn’t get the larger gyms, but really because I was sick of having to psych myself up for class when all I really wanted to do was go to bed. I handed off the advisor duties to the UAS club and didn’t make a pretense of playing in, nor even helping to organize, the next summer league. When it was gone, I didn’t even miss it.
Two years later, this summer, I decided that I should get back into the swing of things. Much of my feelings for the bad had long since faded, but I still wasn’t ready to commit myself as I had before. I didn’t offer to help organize anything other than the web site and I let it be known that I didn’t want to be considered a team speaker. All I really wanted was some exercise; I had become sluggish.
I discovered how truly out of shape I was in the first league game of the season. At the first sprint, I felt my thigh start to seize. Throughout the rest of the game, I drink water, massaged the muscle, and slowed down as much as I could – which was easy, considering how much wind I was sucking. Unfortunately, the charley horse persisted into the next game and I was worried that if I didn’t take it easy, I’d be in pain all season.
I took the next three games off (which wasn’t a difficult decision; I was out of town for two of them) and returned good as new. As I played more games, my endurance gradually built until I felt like I was back to my old self. Our team, “The Scientific Name for Hooligan” did better and better each week and I found myself starting to look forward to showing up, again.
The doctor told me that I have “an amazing ability to relax on command; especially considering that you know I’m just going to hurt you again.” I had no complaints as he twisted my leg around and pointed out the popping that indicated normal ACL movement, but if he so much as touched my kneecap, I couldn’t help but flinch. He told me that he’s not one of those doctors that recommends X-rays for just any old injury, but in this case…
Late in June, as we were nearing the end of the league’s two-month season, a short 5-on-5 tournament was held on Saturday. Both the fields and teams were intended to be small, and when the day arrived, sunny and warm, four teams were ready to play from 9am to 5pm.
Our team, “Stella’s Dad’s Team,” played hard in the first game. One of the rafters that rows for a local company put together an athletic team of ultimate newbies and we went drew them first. We had a serious speed and height disadvantage, but before long, it was obvious that our strengths were disc handling and field awareness. The game went all the way to a win-by-two overtime and near the very end, I gave it everything I had. The other two teams had already finished their game and were cheering us on from the sidelines. I made a diving block that kept the other team from scoring, and I’d be lying if I told you that their cheers didn’t pump me up.
We finally won, but “Isostatic Rebound” promised us a hell of a rematch in the semi-finals.
After the game, I noticed a twinge in my knee. I experimented a bit and realized that it didn’t hurt when I walked or ran, but only when I bent it past 90 degrees or so. I suspected that it would probably be much worse after 4 or 5 more games, but I thought that I would still be able to play through. Ibuprofen ingestion had become a post-tournament ritual for me since the Anchorage games, but this time I went looking for Vitamin-I ahead of time.
The second team we played threw a zone defense on us and it took us a few points to get the hang of it. It seemed as though we were always down by a few points, but we managed to tie it up just before the time cap was announced. On the last point, I was acting as one of two handlers, patiently passing the disc back and forth to tire out their cup. At one point, as we were finally threatening to score, one of our poppers moved back into my position for a dump. The whole side of my field was open, and both the thrower and I saw the opportunity. I ran for the endzone; he hammered.
The disc arched high and short, and instead of an uncontested catch by the sideline, I had to change direction and sky for it in the middle of the endzone. Unfortunately, there was more than enough time for the defense to make an adjustment and I met a couple players in the air. More to the point, their kinetic energy met my nose.
I never saw what hit me and I don’t even remember if I touched the disc. I was aware of a sickening crunch somewhere behind my face and then I was on my back, lying on rubber dirt and fake grass. “Pain” was the word of the day as my sinuses tried to climb out of head; despite my desires, my eyes remained involuntarily closed.
I was aware that play had stopped and players from both teams had formed a concerned circle around me. I loathe being the object of such sympathy and normally do everything I can to get back on my feet, but this time I could hardly move. I was attuned to the agony, mentally reading the memos that my nerves were faxing to my brain. I wondered if some part of my skull had actually been broken. I could hear people talking (to me or about me, I don’t know), but I wasn’t able to communicate with them.
After what seemed like a very long time, I began to feel something dripping into my throat. I was coming around enough to realize that my nose was probably bleeding back into my sinuses, and although I wasn’t experiencing any difficulty breathing, it seemed prudent to roll over. I did, and my head swam.
My first word to those standing around me, uttered quite some time after the collision, was a weak “foul.” A short discussion about whether or not the foul should be contested sprung up – a discussion in which I participated only sparingly and from my stomach. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and the wetness I felt there was enough to finally persuade me to open my eyes. There was blood; someone went for paper towels.
Eventually (maybe two minutes after the collision, maybe ten), a few players from my team stood close as I rose unsteadily and walked to the sidelines. Safely off the field-of-play, I collapsed on my stomach, rested my forehead on my forearm, and listened as the two teams gathered again to finish the game. I was paying more attention to my injury than to the subsequent action, but I listened long enough to hear my team score the next point and win the game.
After the high-fives and “‘good games,’” both teams came back over to check up on me. I rolled over and checked the bridge of my nose – it didn’t appear to be broken, but I still felt as if I had inhaled a few too many helium balloons. I mentioned feeling light-headed and someone checked my pupils for evidence of a concussion. Adrenaline and pain coursed through me as my competitive side fought with the logical. For once, logic won, and I felt my voice wavering as I had to tell my team that I wouldn’t be playing the rest of the afternoon. All I wanted to do was stay as still as possible.
Eventually, someone produced an ice pack and, with a red-spotted paper towel held gingerly against my nose, I walked slowly back over to our sideline camp and rooted around in my bag for some water. Once I’d partially quenched my thirst, I dug out my cell phone and called Oksana. Because she always chastises me (“Don’t hurt yourself!”), I wasn’t looking forward to telling her, but I knew that after getting hit so hard, someone else should drive me home.
In my wife’s defense, she showed only concern on the phone and didn’t make me feel guilty for getting clobbered.
As soon as we got home, I sat my sweaty self down on the floor and stretched my legs out in front of me. I was talking to Oksana for quite a few minutes before I noticed that my left knee was twice its normal size. I stretched it this way and that, trying to figure out what was wrong, but aside from the compression of the swelling, it didn’t hurt all that much. Either the pain in my face was sending out “all circuits busy” signals, or the Ibuprofen I’d taken earlier was doing its job.
I passed the next few hours showering and writing about ultimate. Around 4pm, I was feeling better and decided to have Oksana take me back to the field. I wasn’t planning to play; I just wanted to get my Jeep. Fortunately, I arrived before the tournament was over, and got to cheer on my team in the last half of the championship game. With a substitute standing in for me, Stella’s Dad’s Team, once again, managed to win by just a single point.
It’s been a little over two weeks since the tournament, and my body has almost returned to normal. The limp is gone (I can feel only the tiniest of twinges when my knee is bent all the way back) and my nose only hurts when I pinch the cartilage between my fingers and wiggle it from side to side. The congestion (nasal swelling?) has FINALLY started to dissipate and I’m once again taking for granted the ease with which people normally breathe.
The official prognosis is that I probably stretched (and/or enflamed) the ligament that holds my kneecap in place. I’ll have to stay away from sharp twisting actions for the next six weeks, but the doctor said that jogging and bike riding should still be safe. If, after all that time, I still feel pain or weakness in the knee, I need to make another appointment, but even so, the next step to recovery will likely be physical therapy, not surgery.
My only regret is that the injury caused me to miss the last two games of the 2005 UPSEA season…