Ultimate Frisbee is the ‘Ultimate’
BEMIDJI — Bill Stafford has a lot of ideas.
Most involve Ultimate Frisbee, and all will come at you with speed only matched when Stafford lets the disc fly.
The Bemidji State senior, who refers to his sport of choice simply as "Ultimate," and a crew of nine from the college travelled to Winona on the weekend of April 20 to compete in a tournament there. BSU was the only public college represented in a field that included St. John’s, St. Olaf, Carleton-GOP, Macalester, St. Mary’s, Gustavus Adolphus and Bethel.
Those teams had rosters of between 15 and 30 players, Stafford said.
Bemidji’s own? Just nine.
Stafford’s team lost three games that weekend, but the maxim taught to us all as children — it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game — is alive and well. Stafford lives it.
"The best thing about Ultimate is that it’s self-governed," he said. "It really teaches kids good values, ways to communicate, a fair debate. That’s the spirit of the game. No matter what, competitiveness will never rise above respect."
While that’s a noble mindset, don’t think Stafford is out on the turf just for fun. Don’t be fooled by the backwards, orange camouflage hat and the boyish grin: Stafford wants to win.
"When I first got here, everybody had bare feet," he said of BSU’s Ultimate team when he arrived in Bemidji five years ago as a freshman. "There were no cleats and no rules."
There was something else missing. Something that any football player who’s gone through hell week or any infielder who’s chased grounder after grounder on baseball diamond hates despite knowing it makes him or her better.
"There were no drills," Stafford said.
And so the drills began.
"One of my goals when I got here was to leave this program better than when I found it," Stafford said. "We’re leaving behind captains who are also as motivated and trying to make it better than when they showed up."
But there were bureaucratic challenges. Paperwork, waivers, releases, registration with student groups and fees — all completed under Stafford’s direction.
"That’s one of the things we do better now," he said. "Next year, we’re getting a good chunk of change from alumni, but (funding) has really been on the students themselves, the players. That goes to show their level of commitment."
One of those alumni, Sky Davey, (what, you’ve never heard of him? He’s a legend.) taught Stafford the ways of the disc. After getting hooked on the sport, Stafford went on to create a team at his high school. From scratch, naturally. He envisions similar Ultimate-obsessed start-ups here.
"The sport in general is taking off. The participation of Ultimate has been skyrocketing in the last 20 years," said Stafford, who added the amount of people playing Ultimate outnumbers rugby and lacrosse players combined.
"It’s cheap. It’s eight cones and a Frisbee. Obviously I want to be teaching. And there’s one of two directions. I could go somewhere like TrekNorth or Bemidji High School, or I could go to Cass Lake or some of these other places and grassroot a team.
"The sport can really take off in low-income areas. I think it can do what basketball, another fairly cheap sport, did for places like Red Lake. I think Ultimate could be in that category."
The future of the sport is in flux, Stafford said. And while it’s tempting to become a part of that discussion — there are several leagues "pulling at each other right now" — Stafford wants to be in a place where cleats are required.
"I’d like to be involved with the grass roots and the youth development," he said. "You get two endzones and a couple of buddies, and that’s all you need."
The question isn’t whether Stafford will introduce others to the sport, as Davey did for him, but where those introductions will be taking place.
"I would really like it to have been easier for me, and if I can go out and make it easier for other kids who are passionate of the sport, that’s great," Stafford said. "We really want to part of this community. I have all of these ideas I’d really like execute."