History of Ultimate Frisbee

The sport of Ultimate Frisbee as we know it started in 1968 at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ. A group of students from the school paper and the Student Council, led by Joel Silver (yes, it’s the same guy as the film director), who was a member of both the paper and the council, developed the rules of what was then called Frisbee Football and what would develop into the modern sport of Ultimate.

Silver had played Frisbee Football at a summer camp in Mount Hernon, Massachusetts in the summer of 1967, and when he returned to Maplewood, he proposed to the Student Council that the school form a Frisbee team. It was suggested as a joke, but was seconded and passed. Discussion of the Frisbee team occasionally came up during the school year, but was still mostly regarded as folly. By the end of the year, however, Silver and other members of the council were organizing a game during their lunch period.

History of Ultimate Frisbee

Members of the school paper had been tossing a disc during their lunch, and in the spring members of the council and the paper began to play Frisbee Football with a black 150 gram, Wham-O Master Tournament Model (as opposed to the 175 gram Discraft Ultra Star Professional Disc used now). The people who made up the team were part of what made the sport so revolutionary. “It was a chance for The Columbian (the school paper) core – the intelligentsia and non-athletes of the school – to play a sport,” says Silver. Many of the players were excellent students who were headed to Ivy League schools. According to Ed Summers, one of the original players, there was also a good representation of stoners. Summers said,

“The core of us were largely among the better students. There were also some druggie types. We were about evenly split between the better students and the half who smoked dope.”

Ultimate Frisbee History is Made

Early versions of the game were very freeform. As many as 20 or 30 players might play on a team. The original game included running many parts of American Football, such as a series of downs, lines of scrimmage and running with the disc. However, as the game progressed, Silver and fellow founders Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring and Jonny Hines, started visualizing a game more similar to basketball, soccer, or hockey. The system of downs and running with the disc were eliminated, and rules for defense were established at this time. Originally there was no mention of the idea of the “Spirit of the Game” in the rules, because it was regarded by the Columbia High School players as a gentleman’s sport.

The game also developed some of the athleticism that makes Ultimate so much fun to watch and play. Hines said that the players liked the graceful running and jumping. “There was a mix of athletes and some uncoordinated, overweight people playing. The former could run and jump like gazelles; the latter evoked other analogies.” Hellring said.

By the fall of 1968 a rivalry had developed between the Student Council and the Columbian. In game with two large co-ed teams, the Columbian beat the Council 11-7. By the summer of 1969, the famous Columbia parking lot had been formed. The lot was lit, so the players could play at night. Teams were quickly whittled down from the 20 or more to 7, because that was as many as could play easily at one time on the lot. Soon, a regular game was being played on the lot every weekend night and on school vacations. The sport also started gaining some publicity, being featured in a Newark Evening News article in June 1969 entitled “Frisbee Flippers Form Team,” written by Silver. The team adopted the name Columbia High School Varsity Frisbee Squad, despite the fact that the team had no official connection with the school. Silver and Hellring also took the International Frisbee Association’s test and passed as masters, and the IFA became the sport’s governing body. Today Ultimate is governed by the Ultimate Players Association.

The original group of founders including Silver, Hines, and Hellring went off to college in the fall of 1970, but not before printing up the rules and bringing them up to date. Some of the rules are still in place, but others have changed dramatically. The size of the field in the original rules was only limited by the goal lines which were described as being between 40 and 60 yards apart and parallel. There were no lateral boundaries or limits on the size of the end zones. Today the field is 70 yards long, 40 yards across, and the end zones are 25 yards deep. The rules also provided for a referee, even though most games are now played without one, and the players now make all their own calls. The rules also said that while “7 is the optimum number, this sport can be played with as many as 20 or 30 for each team.” Today Ultimate games always have 7 players on a side.

During the summer before the founders left, a group of younger Columbia students known as the Richmond Avenue Gang challenged the CHS Varsity Squad to a game. RAG lost 47-28 but played with the varsity for the rest of the summer, and a member of RAG was selected as the next CHS Varsity captain. An annual Thanksgiving match was established between the alumni and the current CHS squad, a tradition that continues to this day. RAG sent the rules of Ultimate to other New Jersey high schools, and on November 7, 1970, the first interscholastic game of Ultimate was played in the parking lot between Millburn High School and the CHS Varsity. CHS won 43-10. The game was covered by the Newark Evening News, and other schools requested the rules. The New Jersey Frisbee Conference was formed in the spring of 1971 with 5 schools – Columbia, Dumont, Millburn, Mountain (now West Orange), and Nutley. At the same time, Columbia graduates were spreading the word at their colleges. The first intercollegiate match was held between Rutgers and Princeton on November 6, 1972.

Here’s another great history of west coast ultimate frisbee as seen through the creation of the Santa Barbara Condors.