On a midsummer Saturday evening, Matthew "Rowan" McDonnell, the 29-year-old star of the DC Breeze, Washington's only pro ultimate Frisbee team, caught the disc near midfield, turned to his left and fired a 57-yard bomb to the end zone. It was almost a no-look pass, made with a flick of the wrist to a teammate who had begun sprinting as soon as he saw the Frisbee float toward McDonnell.
A few minutes later, McDonnell caught the disc in open space, looked far downfield and unleashed a backhand throw. It hung in the air for six seconds, traveling all of 66 yards, before it was snagged by a Breeze cutter — the equivalent of a wide receiver in football — who outjumped two defenders of the New York Empire, a team that had marched onto the Catholic University football field to the strains of Darth Vader’s theme from “Star Wars.”
The rout was on. A pair of middle-schoolers ran alongside the field with Breeze and D.C. flags, and the game’s emcee urged the 500-person crowd to “get Breezy” — not for the last time, on a night that ended with a 29-19 Breeze victory.
Thirty-six men play for the Breeze: a motley group of interns, college students, IT professionals and military contractors, who mostly earn $25 each game. McDonnell, a cutter with bright blue eyes and shoulder-length hair, is at the high end of the pay scale, making $50 plus the occasional bonus. According to Breeze coach Darryl Stanley and owner Don Grage, he is far and away the team’s MVP — and one of the finest players in the American Ultimate Disc League.
Like basketball with the jump shot and football with the forward pass, the sport has evolved since it was invented 50 years ago by a high school student in Maplewood, N.J. “Ultimate Frisbee started off with just the backhand,” McDonnell told me one evening in July, just before one of the Breeze’s last practices of the season. Along came the forehand, the hammer, the scoober, and more exotic passes with names like the thumber, overhand, duck and blade — all deployed, as in football, with the aim of helping a team reach the end zone. “I probably have about 45 different throws,” McDonnell said, several of which he invented.
McDonnell started playing at 22, after being cut from his college basketball squad his senior year and following a six-month spell as a professional poker player. He recalled watching his younger brother once play ultimate in a Connecticut summer league match. “That night I saw what I thought was just Frisbee turn into a sport,” he said. “Some of those kids out there were just throwing it 50, 60, 70 yards.” The game also had a “cerebral” aspect to it — “where to go, when to go, how to go there.” He taught himself to throw by watching YouTube videos and tossing discs against a blanket draped across his closet door.
A year after he began playing, the AUDL held its inaugural season. A rival league, Major League Ultimate, soon started up as well; he joined its Boston team before decamping for Washington in 2015. The MLU folded after four seasons but lasted long enough for the D.C. Current to win a national championship in 2014 — a title that has so far eluded the Breeze.
Being one of the best ultimate Frisbee players in the country comes with few public accolades, aside from fans who want to help you celebrate with postgame drinks at Murphy’s Grill, the campus bar at Catholic University — where, from April through July, the Breeze play their home games, including against divisional rivals Toronto, New York, Montreal, Philadelphia and Ottawa. When McDonnell first got here, he supported himself delivering Jimmy John’s sandwiches on a bicycle. Since last fall, though, he’s been able to cover the rent on his Trinidad apartment by coaching and running an ultimate Frisbee camp. He’s now something of an ambassador for ultimate. It’s a challenge when many people haven’t heard of the sport, and when those who have tend to write it off as recreation for engineering majors.
To introduce ultimate Frisbee to more people, McDonnell runs a free clinic before each home game. At the last match of the regular season, he showed about a dozen kids the best way to launch a forehand — “two fingers on each side, thumb on the flight ring, palm to the sky” — and led them in a scrimmage.
A future ultimate Frisbee star may well have been among them. But as for the current best player in Washington, he and his team will have to wait at least one more year for a championship. A week after their rout of New York, the Empire struck back, winning 19-15 and eliminating the Breeze from the playoffs.
Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk.