THIS IS HOW IT ALL BEGAN
An interview with Jared Kass, by Willie Herndon
This article was originally published in the Winter 2003 edition of the
Ultimate Players Association newsletter
I tried to track down Jared Kass, but didn’t think, from the way Joel Silver described things, that Mr. Kass had actually taught Joel Silver the game of ultimate, not to mention giving the sport its name. It sounded like Joel Silver had played something like frisbee football with Jared 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 remembered 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 a 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 Joel 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 Joel 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.
Q: What was the game you made up, who did you make it up with, and where did you make it up?
A: 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. We were trying to figure out how to be friends at the same time as knowing that you’re in a hothouse, an academically competitive environment.
There were a bunch of us who knew how to throw the frisbee, and we also played, I and a set of friends, touch football...I think that 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...We started playing with a frisbee...There was a moment where we began to play a team game using a frisbee.
Q: On the campus of Amherst College?
Yes, there were a couple of nice quads - reasonably flat greens.
Q: 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?”
A: I don’t remember that and I wish 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 posession. Then you realized if a pass dropped, that was it, it changed posession.
Q: So you changed the rules. Did you or someone else decide about these new rules?
A: 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 and that’s what was fun about it was the fluidity and the change of direction that happened so naturally and so quickly.
Q: What were the rules of the frisbee game that you and your friends made up?
A: 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 of it was to keep the frisbee moving and that that’s what it was about. If you were running with it then how could somebody 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 then hey, everybody understood that was no go - everybody got that - then the guy was allowed to pick it up and throw it again.
Q: Do you remember any names from that group, and did any of you keep playing?
A: Steve Ward, Richard Jacobsen, Bob Fine, Robert Marblestone, Gordon Murray...The gang broke up. I didn’t really play after Amherst.
Q: It seems that, without realizing it, you named the sport of ultimate. How did that happen?
A: 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
Q: You do remember this moment?
A: I do, I remember that. It was like saying, I’ve played football, basketball, baseball -
Q: You had played those sports?
A: Yeah. I played all the different things. I was just a kid who like 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...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.
Q: But you did later name this game ultimate frisbee?
A: Yes, it was when I was at Northfield-Mount Hermon. 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 the 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 on the floor. I felt that they just needed some new kind of energy so I said “Hey guys, did you ever play ultimate?”
Q: Wait, is this a memory?
A: Yes...I think the teacher in me came out in that kind of moment and I understood that I needed to just say something that sounded confusing, flashy, to these bunch of high school kids who were all over the place in terms of who they were.
Q: Was Joel Silver one of the guys on your floor?
A: I can’t swear to that, but it must have been because it wasn’t that I was teaching it to the whole school. There were a bunch of guys that I was bonding with and we were the ones that played ultimate together.
Q: Do you remember who Joel Silver was?
A: 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.
Q: Why did you want them to play this frisbee game?
A: 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 having another thing to compete about 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 somebody 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 shit...”
Q: Are you sure you said that? This isn’t hindsight now with your knowledge of ultimate and the ‘spirit of the game?’
A: The weirdest thing about this is I had not seen an official game until you called and sent me a tape.
Q: So you did say “self-regulate or words to that effect?
A: 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 fucking 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.
Q: Do you think you succeeded at Northfield-Mount Hermon?
A: Yes, I think that that succeeded in that way.
Q: 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?
A: Did I understand that I had something to do with creating this game called ultimate? I didn’t understand 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 kind of 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 Mt. 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 that all of this happened. I just didn’t understand that that was a seed germ that was very specific and 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, being lovingly highly engaged 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.
Q: What would you like to say to the tens or hundreds thousands of people who now play ultimate?
A: There a couple of things to say. Even as we try to pin responsibility on me about it, the part that I can’t take of it is that at that moment that I leaped up and said “this is the ultimate” and felt it and experienced it...it’s not that the game came from me it’s that the game 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.
Q: What do you think of the UPA Newsletter?
A: To me it’s a shock to know that there’s such a thing as a newsletter like this.
Q: 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?
A: I don’t want to assume that I have a wisdom about this that would be more than somebody else’s wisdom who has really been a part of the development of it as a serious, organized, offical 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 spread 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.
Q: What would you like to say to Joel Silver?
A: Joel! I want to meet you sometime! [hearty laughter]