When David Gessner graduated from Harvard in 1983, he could have joined his former classmates on Wall Street or signed up for medical school. But instead, he dedicated his life to Ultimate Frisbee, “a game that was considered by most, if they considered it at all, to be on par with Hula-Hoops,” he writes in “Ultimate Glory,” his lively, honest coming-of-age story.
Invented by New Jersey high-schoolers in 1968, Ultimate is played between two teams of seven, combining elements of football, basketball and soccer. It’s ubiquitous on college campuses today, but when Gessner discovered it, the game was barely 10 years old. And like the adolescence of leatherhead football, it was a rambunctious game, with fistfights and excessive beer drinking. Today, ESPN broadcasts the game, and the sport is a contender for the Olympics.
Gessner discovered Ultimate during his freshman year. A bumptious, unruly kid, he once, in a rage of self-loathing, tore a bathroom sink from its mounting. Unlike the sink, the sport gave his life a foundation.
“As silly as it sounds, it is true: I had begun to form myself through Ultimate. Frisbee helped make me.”
The obsession would last the better part of 20 years.
“My emerging goals were simple. I wanted to become a great Ultimate player and win Nationals.”
Neither fame nor fortune would accompany his laurels. This would be the pursuit of greatness for greatness’s sake: the purest form of amateurism. Few, including his father, thought he was doing much with his life.
“To be a top amateur can require a greater stalling of real life,” Gessner writes, “though in particular sports some prestige and respect are given to amateurs. Ultimate players are not afforded that luxury. If you told someone that you ‘played Frisbee seriously,’ they would understandably regard the phrase as oxymoronic.”
He plays in tournaments, gets in a few brawls. After a collision, he leaves a tooth lodged in the head of another player. He’s banned from ever playing Ultimate in Washington again. And he guzzles beer. Lots of beer. It was a raucous good time.
He also begins a fitful transition to becoming a nature writer and a biographer of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. He finds and loses love and, just before he turns 31, is diagnosed with prostate cancer. It’s an eventful young life.
An exploration of the questing desires of the young heart, “Ultimate Glory” should be recommended reading for every college student. A 20-something, unsure whether to listen to the yearnings of the soul, might find answers in Gessner’s chase of a flying plastic disc.
Timothy R. Smith is on the staff of Book World.
By David Gessner
Riverhead. 333 pp. Paperback, $16