Ask a Luther Ultimate Frisbee player what they do in the off-season and they’ll likely answer, “What’s an off-season?” Luther’s Ultimate teams practice five days a week year-round, including during J-term. In the winter months, when practice outdoors isn’t possible, they grab what time they can—9 to 11 p.m.—in the Regents Center, splitting the space between all three teams.
As student organizations and not varsity sports teams, LUFDA (a Division I men’s team), Freya (a Division III women’s team), and Pound (a Division III men’s team) coach themselves, maintain team finances, work with administrators, put in bids for tournaments, arrange travel and lodging, transport themselves to games, fundraise, advertise, and recruit. For the past three years, they’ve also hosted the Luther Invite, which, as LUFDA president Matt Smith ’18 details, involves “a long checklist of tasks that need to be taken care of, like getting our date and field approved by Luther, promoting the tournament and getting other teams to come, making sure fields are painted, getting athletic trainers for the weekend, getting porta-potties for the weekend, collecting entry fees and waivers from each team, putting together a schedule, plus about a thousand little things that pop up along the way.”
So why, given full course loads, jobs, and other extracurriculars, do more than 70 Luther students commit to this sport each year? Love of the game and love of each other.
Say hello to your new best friends
“Freshman year, you come in nervous. You come in worried about if you’re going to fit in, if you’re going to find a home. By joining Pound, I immediately found my home. It was as a part of the team,” explains Jesse Hitz Graff ’16.
“As soon as you join, you have 70 new friends, both boys and girls,” says outdoor instructor and Pound grad Adam Winter ’15.
Biology major Hanna Doerr ’18 says the camaraderie Ultimate creates has caused her to “think a lot more about fostering mutual growth within a team, rather than competing with teammates for playing time. This can and has been applied to other aspects of my life where I find myself opting to make sure everyone develops to their full potential.”
“I mean, we all like the fact that it keeps us in decent shape, but the biggest draw is just how much of a brotherhood it actually is,” says Pounder Mickey Callen ’17.
LUFDA grad Colin Berry ’15, choir director for Waterloo East High School in Iowa, agrees: “I loved the challenge, although being the worst player on the team my freshman year was difficult to deal with considering how competitive I am. What kept me on the team was the group of guys. I had no idea that I had just met my new group of best friends. The combination of accountability, genuine friendship, open-mindedness, and infuriating hypothetical arguments made hanging out with the team as formative personally as it was fun.”
Former Pounder Isaac Hitz Graff ’14, who now works at a homeless shelter in Denver, puts a philosophical spin on it: “Ultimate was a driving force in teaching me that college is more than just the classes and the degree, but also about the relationships. Some of the relationships I made on Pound remain the strongest and most important in my life.” Hitz Graff says that he now strives for “Ultimate” relationships in all areas of life. “Both the sport of Ultimate itself and the people I played with taught me to search honestly for what I love, and I hope to always live true to that.”
Ultimate Frisbee, explains LUFDA grad Collin Meyer ’12, “incorporates elements of soccer, football, and basketball, but is still entirely unique.” Teams score by catching a disc in their opponent’s end zone. Unlike most sports, however, Ultimate lacks referees and instead relies on something called spirit of the game, or SOTG. SOTG means that players themselves are responsible for calling fouls, out-of-bounds plays, and other rule violations. If teams disagree on a call, they work it out. “The goal is to be as respectful as possible,” says Freya cocaptain Lucia Holte ’17. “You don’t have to be a pushover, but you have to be honest.”
SOTG tends to weed out athletes who play with a win-at-all-costs mentality or those who would put point-scoring ahead of a clean, congenial game. That doesn’t mean that teams aren’t competitive—LUFDA, for example, has made it to Nationals four times, and Freya has made it twice. But most players agree that winning is less important than integrity and community.
“A game with a team you really enjoy playing can feel like a victory regardless of the score,” Callen notes. He remembers going up against Virginia Commmonwealth, a top team in the nation, at a tournament last year. “They ran us, but they played such a good, clean game and they were so much fun to be around that we didn’t care that they beat us as bad as they did. We had a ton of fun, we had a dance-off at halftime, we had a group hug session. It was a win for Ultimate, because both teams had a great time.”
Chemistry major Ben Oanes ’17, a Pound cocaptain, remembers another game last year that exemplified the spirit of Ultimate. “It was a last-minute tournament, and we brought eight guys, so we had only one sub the entire game. But we were the happiest guys out there.” Their performance so impressed the opposing coach that he complimented them afterward, saying he’d been trying to get that attitude through to his own team all day.
“He was responding to the fact that our team could embody the spirit of Ultimate, which is self-officiating, being honest, being relaxed, and also playing good Ultimate and making all these friends,” says music major Ethan Harris ’18, a Pound cocaptain.
And of course friendship is part of the reason Luther’s Ultimate teams practice so much—they love hanging out together. But that’s not the only reason. Freya cocaptain Rachel Johnson ’17, a psychology major, says that many players join the team having never encountered the sport before, which means that she and Holte have to start with the basics. “We can do our best to teach it, but it just takes a lot of repetition and a lot of time. When I was learning, people taught me the mechanics of throwing, but in the end . . .”
“In the end,” Holte pipes in, “you have to throw a thousand times to learn it.”
Paul Fritzell ’18, LUFDA cocaptain, offers a third reason why Ultimate practice is so intense. Luther’s Ultimate teams are self-funded, as are teams at many schools, and generally have to travel far to compete. It doesn’t make financial sense to play just one game per trip, so most teams usually face up to ten teams over a two-day tournament. They end up running around for eight or nine hours per day. “It’s pretty stressful and hard on your body,” he says, “so to get ready for that, we really have to practice.”
Are we there yet?
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Harris begins, “is find a house to rent for four days for 20 college students.” On the beach. During spring break. It’s not a task most of us would relish, but Harris pulled it off for Pound’s spring break tournament in Georgia this spring.
Travel is a big part of Ultimate. Berry recalls, “We probably had over 50 hours of road time every season, and you don’t really know someone until you’re on hour nine together and have exhausted all intelligent conversation.”
Johnson agrees that travel is “a good time to get to know everybody and learn weird quirks about people. We try to find a player’s house that can host the team. It’s kind of like a sleepover with your 25 best friends, all in the same house.”
When staying with family or alumni isn’t possible, teams have been known to get . . . creative. Pound graduate Fred Burdine ’13, who works with refugees at World Relief in Baltimore, remembers the time they crammed 24 guys into two hotel rooms to save money: “I told them all that if anyone causes us to get busted, then they have to pay the difference for the additional rooms. Quietest night of my Ultimate career!”
Smith, who’s traveled with LUFDA to Texas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri, and other places, recalls a trip to Las Vegas last year, when the team stayed in the tiny town of Searchlight, Nev., pop. 500. “One of my favorite memories from last year,” he says, “was climbing up a small rock hill in Searchlight with several teammates, watching the sunset and talking.”
Is there life after Frisbee?
Ultimate grads attribute a lot of their character development and post-college success to the sport.
“Ultimate has shaped me into the person I am today,” says Freya grad Meg Ostrem ’16. “It taught me to manage my time better and prioritize what is really important to me. It also taught me to stand up for what I believe in. When you are passionate about something, you have to stand up for it.”
Ben Nordquist ’15, who played on LUFDA, remembers getting up at 5 a.m. to use the fields before other teams had practice, or practicing indoors until the second the facilities closed. “We were hungry and took whatever time we could find. This experience and mindset has followed me into my professional life. I truly value my time and take advantage of all the moments I have to work toward a goal I desperately want to achieve.”
“I learned to be a better loser and a humble winner,” says Pound grad Esteban Rodriguez-Hefty ’14, who now lives in the Twin Cities along with many other Ultimate grads, including Jesse Hitz Graff, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
“All the friendships I’ve developed at the U stem from the social confidence I gained being on Pound,” Hitz Graff says. “Moving to a new area can be daunting, but I’ve adjusted well socially and academically thanks in large part to the skills I developed on and especially off the field as a member of Pound.”
Hitz Graff lives with fellow Pound grad Gabriel Eide ’16 and points out that having automatic roommates is another long-term benefit of playing Ultimate. But Ultimate grads don’t need to move to Minnesota to reap the sport’s rewards.
Former Pounder Patrick Nyberg ’12 teaches math in Casablanca, Morocco, and says he has been part of Ultimate communities in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Spain as well. “More than anything else, Frisbee is that shot of familiarity for me,” he says. “I feel lucky to have this community no matter where in the world I’m living.”
Former LUFDA player Peter Graffy ’12, a grad student and researcher in the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison, says, “These days I play on a semi-pro team in Madison called the Radicals, who are pretty well-known around town, so it’s pretty often that I get recognized around the city or on campus, and it’s opened a lot of doors for me.”
The sport has also opened doors for LUFDA grad and wealth management advisor Eric Johnson ’12. “I work with clients all over the country, many from my connections as an Ultimate player,” he says, adding that he was able to visit 40–50 states during his time on LUFDA and other Ultimate teams.
“Having that network, both personally and professionally, is great,” agrees Meyer, who works in the advisory practice at Deloitte in Minneapolis and who, along with Ben Kofoed ’12, coaches the Apple Valley High School girls Ultimate team.
Berry, who still helps out with LUFDA when he can, sums up a common sentiment among players: “I don’t know if any one of us knew what we were getting into the first time we stepped out onto the practice field together, but I know that we’re all thankful that we did, humbled for the depth of relationships we’ve been able to build, and excited to see what crazy stories come next.”