This Is How It All Began

This is a word-for-word transcription done by Willie Herndon in July 2013, of an article entitled “This Is How It All Began” which appeared in “Ultimate News” Volume 23 No. 4, Winter 2003. An author’s note from July 2013, appears at the end of this transcription.

Willie Herndon interviews Jared Kass, the man who taught Joel Silver to play Ultimate and who gave the sport its name

In 1998 I interviewed Joel Silver in his office at Warner Brothers Studio in Los Angeles, California. He spoke of his role in creating the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. He mentioned, without adding any detail, that he had learned a Frisbee game from someone named Jared Kass while attending a summer camp at Mount Herman School, now the Northfield-Mount Herman School in Massachusetts.

I tried to track down Kass, but didn’t think, from the way Silver described things, that he had actually taught Silver the game of Ultimate. It sounded like Silver had played something like Frisbee football with Kass at camp, and then gone back to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey and made up, and named, a whole new game called Ultimate with his buddies Jon Hines and Buzzy Hellring Jr. (now deceased) back in 1968. I was mistaken in that impression. Thank goodness Joel Silver mentioned the name of Jared Kass, and cared for the truth about the origins of Ultimate. Otherwise, we might never have known the real story of how Ultimate came to be.

Last summer I did an internet search and found a name and number, this time having the presence of mind to try the state of Massachusetts. For the sake of history and just plain curiosity, I left a message at the home of someone named Jared Kass. It was a shot in the dark. I hoped he might be the same Jared Kass that Silver had remembered from 35 years ago, and he was.

To my surprise, once I spoke with Mr. Kass, I discovered that he had taught Silver not some distant relative of Ultimate, but Ultimate in its essence. Jared Kass, a professor of Counseling and Psychology at Leslie University, agreed to be interviewed August 30, 2003. He had no idea that he had had anything to do with the creation of Ultimate, and hardly thought or heard about the game for the last 35 years, except that his son’s best friend plays Ultimate, and one of his son’s teachers is Moses Rifkin, a top notch Boston area player. Here then are excerpts from that interview which took place in Mr. Kass’ home in Concord, Massachusetts, just a couple of miles from Walden Pond.

WH: What was the game you made up, who did you make it up with, and where did you make it up?

JK: The way it started – I’ve had to think this over the last couple of months to really put this together. When I arrived at Amherst College in 1965, it was a very poor social environment, and not just in the sense of being an all male school, but also in the sense that it was a fairly competitive environment.

There were a bunch of us who knew how to throw the Frisbee, and we also played touch football… I think it was probably really in our junior year [’67-‘68] that it kind of happened and gelled – when we shifted from sometimes playing touch football or sometimes kicking a soccer ball around to using the Frisbee in that way. There was a moment when we began to play a team game using a Frisbee.

WH: On the campus of Amherst College?

JK: Yes, there were a couple of nice quads – reasonably flat greens.

WH: Do you remember a day when you were playing touch football and you happened to have a Frisbee and someone said, “Why don’t we play with a Frisbee?”

JK: I don’t remember that, and I wish I did. I remember there was a point when we had made the shift. I just remember most clearly that you weren’t kicking it through a goal; you were having to pass it to somebody who was across the line. What was so wonderful about the frisbee game was that it was so much more fluid than the downs in football. In that way soccer, with all the constant movement back and forth, had more of the fluidity of what made sense for a Frisbee. So obviously if somebody intercepted a Frisbee pass, the teams changed possession. Then you realized if a pass is dropped, that was it; it changed possession.

WH: So you changed the rules. Did you or someone else decide about these new rules?

JK: It’s an indistinct memory, and I was definitely part of it. But that’s part of what was fun: at least at that point I think it was just a bunch of guys playing together and you just suddenly realized intuitively, “No, that’s the way we should do it,” because you wanted the game to keep changing to be very fluid. That’s what was fun about it – the fluidity and the change of direction that happened so naturally and quickly.

WH: What were the rules of the Frisbee game that you and your friends made up?

JK: I don’t think we actually thought of it as rules. It was just sort of the way you did it. Contact was not what it was about. Whether it was because we were the intellectuals who were not into contact sports, or I just think we understood that the beauty was to keep the Frisbee moving and that that’s what it was about. If you were running with it, then how could someone stop you? It had to become a contact sport. So [we decided] it was okay to take a couple of steps to position yourself, but basically you couldn’t travel by running. If the frisbee was intercepted or the frisbee pass was dropped or if it was blocked and knocked down, then the direction changed. If it was knocked down by somebody bashing your arm, the hey, everybody understood that was no go – everybody got that – then the guy was allowed to pick it up and throw it again…

WH: Do you remember any names from that group, and did any of you keep playing?

JK: Steve Ward, Richard Jacobsen, Bob Fine, Robert Marblestone, Gordon Murray… The gang broke up. I didn’t really play after Amherst.

WH: It seems that, without realizing it, you named the sport of Ultimate. How did that happen?

JK: What I do remember – and this piece I do remember clearly – I just remember one time running for a pass and leaping up in the air and just feeling the Frisbee making it into my hand and feeling the perfect synchrony and the joy of the moment, and as I landed I said to myself, “This is the ultimate game. This is the ultimate game.”

WH: You do remember this moment?

JK: I do; I remember that. It was like saying, “I’ve played football, basketball, baseball-“

WH: You had played those sports?

JK: Yeah. I played all the different things. I was just a kid who liked sports and didn’t care to be in heavy competition. I wasn’t that good, but I was good enough to be graceful and really just enjoy them. So saying, “This is the ultimate game,” was saying this game just really matches and beats other ones that I’ve enjoyed. And it’s not that I then turned around to my friends and said, “We should call this ultimate Frisbee.” We just kept saying we were playing frisbee.

WH: But did you later name this game Ultimate Frisbee?

JK: Yes, it was when I was at Northfield Mount Herman. I can remember the moment clearly, but I can’t identify the exact date or the time. [Jared Kass worked there in the summer of 1968, at age 21, between his junior and senior years at Amherst.] This was really the first time in my life I was a teacher in an official capacity. I was an assistant teacher in a creative writing program, and I was a dorm counselor for a bunch of guys. We lived on a floor together, and that’s the matrix, the context in which the thing developed. I think I was probably trying to entice the guys. I felt that they just needed some new kind of energy, so I said, “Hey guys, have you ever played ultimate?”

WH: Wait, this is a memory?

JK: Yes… I think the teacher in me came out in that moment, and I understood that I needed to say something that sounded confusing, flashy to these high school kids who were all over the place in terms of who they were.

WH: Was Joel Silver one of the guys on your floor?

JK: I can’t swear to that, but it must have been because I wasn’t teaching it to the whole school. There were a bunch of guys that I was bonding with, and we were the ones who played Ultimate together.

WH: Do you remember who Joel Silver was?

JK: I wish I could say that I remember Joel. When you called me, it jogged my memory, and I thought, “Yeah, there was a Joel.” That came back.

WH: Why did you want them to play this Frisbee game?

JK: They were kids who were trying to figure themselves out… I could feel that they didn’t know how to be friends or whether they should be competing with each other. I mean, after all, you’re in an enrichment program to get into college, so it’s as though “Who’s supposed to be doing best.” Many of them were showing signs of loneliness. It galvanized them. I wanted the game to basically be fun, not another thing to compete in and worry about, “Am I good enough, how am I being seen?”

Someone would drop a pass. I could see the kid getting really pissed at himself, and I’d say, “Don’t worry about it. That’s what’s cool about this game because the mistakes are what allow the direction to change so fast.” And so it began to give them a way to relax. Sometimes someone would take too many steps, and someone would start yelling, “YOU TOOK TOO MANY STEPS,” and I’d say, “Yeah, that’s right, but the most important thing is actually to keep the game going. So let’s not count steps, guys. Let’s try to just sort of self-regulate on this. Nobody’s gonna’ give you any trouble.”

WH: Are you sure you said that? This isn’t hindsight now with your knowledge of Ultimate and “Spirit of the Game?”

JK: The weirdest thing about this is that I had not seen an official game until you called and sent me a tape.

WH: So you did say “self-regulate” or words to that effect?

JK: Yes, definitely words to that effect. I was saying, “Guys, what’s important is the fun of the game; it’s not catching each other on mistakes. Being mad at each other and feeling like we’re making mistakes – that’s not going to make the game feel fun. It’s going to make the game feel like another thing that you’re competing on, and we’re all doing that way too much in our lives. So let go of it.” I already understood as a young man just how much I hated that kind of competition and hated the pressure because Amherst was a hotbed of that.

WH: Do you think you succeeded at Northfield Mount Herman?

JK: Yes, I think that succeeded in that way.

WH: So you stopped playing Ultimate after college and later heard about a sport called Ultimate. It didn’t occur to you that maybe that was you – that you had developed the name of the sport and the sport itself?

JK: Did I understand that I had something to do with creating this game called Ultimate? I didn’t understand that at all. I’ve always thought it was kind of nifty – I knew that our gang must have been in the early days of playing, but I just kind of assumed that it must have popped up in 20 or 40 different places and slowly took shape. I didn’t follow its development enough to understand that the rules that it’s played by were so similar to the rules that we played by then, because I think I would have understood. The whole thing’s really a wonderful surprise and a wonderful shock. I still can’t quite comprehend that you’re naming a connection between those things I did at Northfield Mount Hermon that Joel Silver was involved in, and, I mean I get it, but it’s bigger than you can quite take in and imagine. I just didn’t understand that that was a seed germ that was very specific and that that planting has grown into the tree you’re describing. If it took hold, it’s only because that desire for joyousness, connection, relaxation, and being lovingly, highly engaged in something is in everybody. And so when somebody finds a way to do it, they just grab hold of it. It’s not that, “Oh, this guy Jared Kass had this good idea: let’s all follow it.” That wouldn’t do it. It’s only because it really stirs up something in us that we really need.

WH: What would you like to say to the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who now play Ultimate?

JK: There are a couple of things to say. Even as we try to pin responsibility on me for it, the part that I can’t take responsibility for is that at that moment I leaped up and said, “This is the ultimate” and felt and experienced it – it’s not that the game came from me; it’s that the game came from the joy of life and that was a moment when I was lucky enough to discover it. It’s a joy to be connected to all of you who are playing this game because we all know together – we’ve all had tastes of the experience – that it’s the ultimate. It’s definitely a way of bringing a circle together that I didn’t know was there.

WH: What do you think of the UPA Newsletter? [USA Ultimate was formerly known as the Ultimate Players Association, UPA]

JK: To me it’s a shock to know that there’s such a thing as a newsletter like this.

WH: The September 2003 newsletter, and the sport itself, has a healthy debate about whether or not to have penalties and referees at highly competitive levels, while hopefully maintaining the “Spirit of the Game.” Do you have an opinion on this question?

JK: I don’t want to assume that I have a wisdom about this that would be more important than somebody else’s wisdom who really has been a part of the development of Ultimate as a serious, organized, official sport, which I guess it clearly is. I understand that Ultimate has its own unique qualities, and somebody could easily use it in all of those competitive ways. And I’m way past the point of being so moralistic as to say, “Oh, you guys are betraying it,” or something like that. No, sure, it easily could take several forms. But, but, but that’s what our culture does. It always turns everything into vanquished and conqueror. Our culture turns everything into who’s winning and who’s the best. So it just saddens me to know that this is what our culture always does so much. I wish that more of us could continue to join together and say, “This great culture we live in, with all that technology has brought us, would benefit even more if we could just learn together to share the joy and to shed that joyousness and that way of being loving and accepting.” To say, “I’m not attached to whether we won or lost. What engaged me was that ultimate feeling of flying in the air, the grace of it.” It’s a different value than what we usually talk about, but it’s such an important value.

WH: What would you say to Joel Silver?

JK: Joel! I want to meet you sometime! [hearty laughter]

Author’s additional thoughts dated 7/21/13:

Since the publication of this article a lot more research has been done about the invention of ultimate, and there remains controversy and doubt around two important aspects of the history of the birth of ultimate.

1) Joel Silver heard about this interview and later, when he supported the production “Ultimate, The First Four Decades” by Pasquale Anthony Leonardo and Adam Zagoria, Mr. Silver vehemently objected to what he thought was Jared Kass’ claim to have named the sport of ultimate. Joel Silver, in my interview with him, talks about how the name came to be, and seems to have no memory (he certainly did not mention any such memory) of Jared Kass using the word ultimate as either an adjective or a title for the game he showed them at Northfield Mount Hermon camp in the summer of 1968.

Mr. Kass simply stood by his memories from Amherst and the camp, and upon hearing Joel Silver’s objection, said (I paraphrase) “I make no claim to have named the sport, I do remember clearly describing it as the ultimate.” And so, maybe they are both right – Joel Silver, what do you think? Maybe Jared Kass did describe the game this way, and only ever used the word ultimate as an adjective and, as he says in the interview, as a way to peak interest in the game with his campers. Perhaps Joel Silver heard that but forgot about it, and later, with Jon Hines and Buzzy Hellring Jr., named the sport “Ultimate” entirely unrelated to Jared Kass’ earlier use of the word.

2) Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is the question of what the Frisbee game consisted of when Kass taught it to Joel Silver at summer camp in 1968. As far as I can tell, the most fundamental rules of Ultimate were in place when Joel Silver learned the game from Jared Kass: you had to stop running when you caught the Frisbee, play continued until someone caught the Frisbee in the end zone, a dropped or knocked down pass was a turnover (not a live disc) it was non-contact, such that you would get the Frisbee back if the opponent hit your body and caused the Frisbee to drop during play, and the whole idea was to have fun and play by the rules and not try to catch people in a violation.

Based on this version of events, here is how I would describe how Ultimate came to be:

The sport was conceived at Amherst, its DNA more or less complete, gestated at Northfield Mount Hermon, and birthed at Columbia High School. From this point of view, it seems accurate to say that the “Amherst Group” invented ultimate.

Willie Herndon. 7/21/13

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