RYC_7075
Bobby Chen (@rysChen)

Ultimate Frisbee: Philly pro sports’ best-kept secret

Remember that one time you saw a top 10 play of the day in the NFL, a wide receiver stretched out horizontally, feet above the ground and laying out to catch a ball in the end zone?

It’s pretty rare for the gridiron. But Nick Hirannet saw a team captain do it on his first day playing in a recreational Ultimate Frisbee league in the Philly area a decade ago.

“Once a season you might see a crazy play like that in football,” he said. “It’s a crazy catch to see, and it happened on the first day. It’s just a normal thing for these people and this sport. The athleticism is insane. They throw their bodies around in a way you’ve never seen.”

From there, he was hooked. And now, Hirannet’s the captain throwing his body around — this time leading the Philadelphia Spinners, Philly’s professional Ultimate Frisbee team, to a 5-3 record.

Nick Hirannet of the Philadelphia Spinners.

Nick Hirannet of the Philadelphia Spinners. Bobby Chen/ Billy Penn

Ultimate Frisbee, called simply “Ultimate” by those who play because the word “Frisbee” is trademarked, has grown up in the last decade. Major League Ultimate was established in 2013 when Hirannet and many of his teammates were members of the inaugural squad in Philly, and a growing number of high schools and colleges have teams that travel around the country to play the game.

It works a little bit like soccer, a little bit like football, and a little bit like nothing you’ve ever played before. Games are played with seven people on the field from each team, consisting of handlers (the experienced throwers), cutters (the people downfield), an offensive line and a defensive line. In the pros, the game is split into 10-minute quarters.

This is far from the backyard Frisbee games you reluctantly played with your weird cousins growing up, and this is nothing like the joint-smoking, bandana-wearing hippie stereotype that can come along with the idea of playing a game with a Frisbee. It’s more like quick, ripped athletes who can make dynamic cuts and impressive leaps.

At a recent practice at Phoenixville High, the Spinners started off the evening with rounds of suicides, the fast goal line to midfield sprints that sports teams do to improve quickness. That Wednesday, they were practicing new offensive schemes after discussing film of their last game, later throwing around phrases like “once the two sees that one is cut and the handler’s about to go blind, you have to bust for the fill” and “look for the easy cheese with the cutters down the middle.”

Yeah, this team of two dozen men find time to goof around, play beach games at practice, talk about Game of Thrones and make jokes about play-calling numbers (420 is a funny number, guys). But these men sprinting around fields with Frisbees also make up one of the city’s only winning professional sports teams.

A burgeoning sport

RYC_7003

Steve Wherry coaches the Philadelphia Spinners during a recent practice. Bobby Chen/ Billy Penn

When Steve Wherry started playing Ultimate on his first post-college team in the 80’s in Philly, his team was called Lunchmeat and his nickname was Spam. At the time, there were very few college teams, let alone high school teams and younger.

Just a few years later, after playing on teams called SWAT, Nasty Habits, Double Secret and Rage, he and some of his Ultimate friends started a club team loyal to Philly called One Last Ditch Shot At Glory, or Old Sag. After making it to the national championships of Ultimate in 2001, Old Sag went on to win the national title in 2002 and set off a years-long reign of being one of the most successful club teams in the country.

Also on that team was Billy Maroon, the current coach of the Philadelphia Spinners. And Wherry, 54, of Lansdale, is the offensive coordinator for the Spinners and coaches high school-level Ultimate players at North Penn High School in Montgomery County.

Since the days of Old Sag, Ultimate has exploded in popularity. Tournaments are held across the country for club teams that draw thousands of players. ESPN showed up to cover Ultimate in 2013 — albeit, on ESPN 3 — and the MLU started airing on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia last year. In 2012 before the publicity, it was estimated that nearly 200,000 players participate in organized leagues in this part of the state.

The requests for camps and clinics for kids as young as elementary school are growing too, including in the ‘burbs. Wherry said parents are realizing kids can learn a lot from playing Ultimate, in some ways because of the referee situation — besides in the pros, there are none.

“You have to learn to be fair and govern yourself and make sure you’re doing the right thing on the field,” Wherry said. “At the same time, you can go out, have fun, play this really cool sport where you get to… score goals and dive and catch and just have a tremendous amount of fun playing. And all with people who are all trying to play in the right way.”

The Spinners are born

Tom O'Connor during a Philadelphia Spinners practice at Phoenixville High School.

Tom O'Connor during a Philadelphia Spinners practice at Phoenixville High School. Bobby Chen/ Billy Penn

In 2012, the Philadelphia Spinners were created, had a home field of Franklin Field at Penn and played in the inaugural season of the American Ultimate Disc League, the highest level of the time. That year, the team went on to win the 2012 AUDL championship.

In the fall of 2012 though, news broke that the Spinners would be leaving the AUDL to join a new, professional league that team owner and GM Jeff Snader would be a part of creating. Now, Snader is the commissioner of Major League Ultimate.

The MLU even notes on its website that its direct origins can be traced to the 2012 Philly team, saying, “the Spinners demonstrated the viability of professional ultimate through the commitment of their fans, the excitement of their games and their engagement of those outside of the existing ultimate community.”

These days the Spinners, which hold open tryouts for athletes who want to join every January, are based at different fields in the Philadelphia area. They face off against teams in the League from New York, Washington D.C. and Boston. Click here to find tickets. 

The ‘ultimate’ lifestyle

RYC_7121

Bobby Chen/ Billy Penn

Hirannet, who plays handler, now sprints a lot. During the day, the 29-year-old is working in Penn Square at the Army Corp. of Engineers Marine Design Center, drafting boats and architecture for the Army, the Marines and any other government agency that asks for them.

Several times a week, he’s sprinting in between goal lines on football fields around Philadelphia, quarterbacking plays and flinging around the discs.

“Winning season or not, we want people to know that we exist,” said Hirannet, who lives in Graduate Hospital. “It comes with the older connotations of hippies or potheads or whatever. But it would be nice for people to know exactly what we’re doing, and how athletic the sport really is.”

But does that pro status mean they are paid? Sort of. Team members who play on club teams can often shell out thousands of dollars a year in costs and fees in order to sustain equipment, uniforms and transportation to tournaments. Spinners don’t have to take on those costs, which are instead handled by sponsors and partners like Berkshire Hathaway, Nike and Comcast as well as ticket sales. Players do receive what amounts to a “per diem” when traveling. But it’s not a salary to live on.

It’s why the majority of the members have other day jobs, whether they’re businessmen, teachers, lawyers or students. It makes for an interesting mix of characters who come from different backgrounds, ranging from athletes who look like typical soccer players to a guy with a purple mohawk.

At practice, they certainly screw around like a bunch of 20-something guys would, too. But they also coach each other and appear laser focused when they’re on the field throwing and on the sidelines going over the latest schemes.

“It’s like the beating of a heart, you go bump bump… bump,” Wherry said. “There’s that moment where even your heart relaxes. So just like in life, people like to have that release, and so there’s a lot of guys who are goofing around in practice but when you’re on the field, you’re on the field. That means you are locked in and focused, and you are paying attention to every and any little thing.”

×