A Parking Lot Game Spread Around the World

Movie producer Joel Silver is to Ultimate what Abner Doubleday was to baseball.

Nov. 26, 2008 — -- On Thanksgiving night, a group of adults, including some pushing 60, will gather in an unused high school parking lot for the holiday tradition of playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee.

That parking lot in the New Jersey suburb of Maplewood is where the game of Ultimate Frisbee began and this year's game will mark the 40th anniversary of the sport.

In a corner of the lot is a weathered metal plaque embedded in a rock that proclaims "Birth Place of Ultimate Frisbee Created by Columbia High School Students in 1968."

Cooperstown it's not, but from that cracked splotch of pavement, Ultimate Frisbee -- or Ultimate as it's known to players -- has spread throughout college campuses and around the world.

It has become so popular, and in some places so competitive, it has spawned an official rule book, a regulatory body known as the Ultimate Players Association and dueling national championship games.

"I marvel at it sometimes," said movie producer Joel Silver, who is to Ultimate Frisbee what Abner Doubleday was to baseball.

"It's kind of a shock that it's reached such proportions," Silver, better known for his "Matrix," "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" series, told ABCNews.com.

As a Columbia High School student in 1968 and a member of the school's student council, he won a vote, almost as a joke, to have the game declared a club sport. He and a couple of fellow students refined the rules from football's first-down rules to the fast paced free flowing game that has swarmed across hundreds of college campuses and around the world.

Silver recalled, as a teenager, watching the game he helped invent and saying to another student on the sidelines, "Someday they'll be playing this game all over the world. And the kid said, 'Yeah, right.'"

From Guts Frisbee to Speed Frisbee to Ultimate Frisbee

Silver brought a version of the game to Columbia High School from a summer in Massachusetts. He taught it to his pals and they revised the rules until they were codified and printed up by Silver and two friends, Jonny Hines and Bernard "Buzzy" Hellring. Hellring died in a car accident and Hines is now a lawyer in Moscow.

The name also evolved from Guts Frisbee, where they lined up and simply threw it at each other as hard as they could, to Speed Frisbee, Ultimate's forerunner. Thinking Speed Frisbee didn't sound very cool, Silver suggested Ultimate Frisbee instead.

"It was all very kind of funny, silly and we played in the faculty parking lot because it was lit at night," he said. "It was always kind of a counterculture kind of joke."

It was the students after him who began to take the game seriously, Silver said.

"Classes in the years after us had the fervor and they took it to their colleges and were really serious about it. They were the Johnny Appleseeds," Silver said.

That seriousness remains. In the halls of Columbia High School, which serves the sister towns of Maplewood and South Orange, Ultimate is not a sport for unaggressive peace-loving hippie types. The school has won the New Jersey state championship eight years running and is the reigning champion for the eastern United States.

Although it has standing only as a club sport, its players train with a dedication that the school's varsity football team can only dream about.

When the team plays for keeps, it is a game remarkable for its speed and the gleeful willingness of players to launch themselves into the air to catch a frisbee and land stretched out, breaking their fall with their chins, or chests or knees.

Current Players Must Be Dedicated

Maplewood takes pride in its frisbee heritage and its teams. The Columbia players are split into an A team and a B team, instead of varsity and junior varsity.

The B team is composed of players as young as eighth-graders, and the town recreation department has a training program for kids that starts in the sixth-grade.

Coaches warn the kids and their parents that they expect year-round dedication to Ultimate that will produce another championship.

Silver, 56, has made his reputation as a high-powered and flamboyant mogul of Hollywood, but he looks back at his creation with affection.

He says he has some frisbees "somewhere in my house," and recently took his 7-year-old son to Maplewood to show him the plaque in the parking lot and teach him how to throw the disc.

"I hope at the end of my obit they will say that I invented Ultimate Frisbee," he said.

He was serious.