I have always shied away from team sports, mainly for fear of letting down my mates or, worse, disgracing myself. This summer, though, I've been playing a game that throws such cautions to the wind.
It's called Ultimate Frisbee or, now that firms besides Wham-O make the plastic flying disc, just plain Ultimate. It was invented by high-school kids in New Jersey, which is maybe why I like it.
Joel Silver, 29, now a movie producer out in Hollywood, remembers well a fateful day in 1968:
"It was near the end of a student council session at Columbia High School in Maplewood. They called for new business. There was a standing joke in the council that there was never any new business. So I raised my hand, stood up and said, 'I'd like to move that a committee be formed to investigate the possibility of putting Frisbee into the curriculum.' Everyone laughed, and the motion was passed. I was made chairman of the Frisbee Committee."
Thus charged by student government, Silver and two buddies, Johnny Hines and Buzzy Hellring, set about making up the sport on a parking lot behind the high school. They blended elements of soccer and football into a game of running and tossing. They played and played, refining along the way, and gave it a name.
Finally Hellring wrote down some rules. Then he formed the Columbia High School Varsity Frisbee Squad, naming Mr. Ossinsky, a security guard, manager, and Cono Pavone, a janitor, coach.
"Really," Silver said, in tones still fresh with amazement, "it was just a lark."
These days, the sport conceived on the Harvey J. Kukuk Memorial Parking Lot -- dubbed for a whimsical figure of Frisbee lore -- gets played competitively by more than 600 teams from coast to coast, and casually by countless others.
Science writer John Tierney, a member of Yale's varsity Ultimate squad during the mid-1970s, put together the weekly bouts at which I discovered the pastime. He's fond of aphorisms. One goes, "When a ball dreams, it dreams it's a Frisbee." Another asserts, "Frisbee is not a fad; Frisbee is reality."
With some justice, Tierney allows, "It's a lot more fun than throwing dead pigskin around."
While Ultimate can be played on just about any swatch of grass, the officially sanctioned field is 60 by 40 yards, with end zones 30 yards deep; the preferred disc is Wham-O's 165-gram Frisbee.
Nominally played in two 24-minute halves, with seven people to a side, the game can be adapted to the wishes of the participants. The object is to score points by moving the disc downfield and over the end zone in a series of passes; the rules, virtually unchanged since the beginning, are simple.
The teams line up at the end zones and the game begins with a throw-off; the play is constant passing in any direction, with no player permitted to hold the disc for more than 15 seconds -- an infraction called "stalling" -- or to run with it, though a receiver can take a few momentum steps. A goal is worth a point. The disc changes possession whenever stalling is called, or there's an incomplete pass, knockdown, interception or a toss that lands out of bounds. Double-guarding is not allowed, and physical contact is not encouraged. An offensive player may call a foul if he's hit while throwing or catching; play then resumes at the site of the foul.
There's plenty of room for tactics and strategy -- man-to-man and zone defenses, V formations, fly patterns and such -- but our games have generally proceeded with something approaching anarchy. Tierney and some of the better players favor a wrist-flicking side-arm delivery, which makes the disc shoot out like a bullet; others like the plain back-hand toss, which makes it glide gracefully and curve; I'm not quite sure what it is I do.
It doesn't seem to matter, though. The important thing, where Ultimate's concerned, is that everyone gets a chance to run and dive and make the play; and occasionally, go for glory.