Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Flying saucers make history in New Brunswick

In a history-making event that garnered virtually no media attention, flying saucers hovered just feet above the ground on Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus one Monday afternoon in the fall of 1972.

UFO Passaic NJ Hidden New Jersey
No, not this one.
No, the flying saucers weren't of the "take me to your leader" variety, and their appearance on the Banks on November 6 was entirely planned by terrestrial beings. The hovering craft we're referring to are the rimmed plastic platters better known as Frisbees or, more generically, flying discs, and they were making their debut in college competition. Sprinting that day almost literally in the footsteps of their forebears of more than a century before, Rutgers and Princeton students added Ultimate Frisbee to the rivalry between the two old schools.

That's not to say that Frisbees themselves were a rare sight on campus. The link between college students and flying discs was forged in the 1940s, when Yale undergrads discovered that tins from the nearby Frisbie* Pie Company would sail a good distance when thrown a certain way. By the late '60s, Wham-O was selling plastic discs by the millions, and sailing one from person to person had become the perfect low-key campus activity. It took some enterprising New Jersey teenagers to turn the toss of a disc from a casual pastime between friends into a competitive sport.

Ultimate frisbee combines aspects of football, basketball and soccer, with two teams of seven playing on a field about the size of a football gridiron. The World Flying Disc Federation attributes the start of competitive ultimate to a student at Maplewood's Columbia High School, who proposed the game to the student council in 1968. Rules were written, a playing field was determined and two years later Columbia and Millburn High Schools competed in the first interscholastic game.

That brings us to the fateful day on the parking lot behind Rutgers' College Avenue Gym in New Brunswick, not coincidentally the birthplace of college football. By November 6, 1972, the historic field had been paved over but still retained enough favorable qualities to host the first intercollegiate ultimate disc game. Echoing the outcome of the schools' first history-making meeting in 1869, Rutgers won by two goals, though the 29-27 score was significantly higher than the original 6-4 football game. The Scarlet Knights continued their dominance as competitive ultimate spread to other colleges, winning the first National Collegiate Championships in 1975 and the successor National Ultimate Frisbee Championship in 1976.

Both universities continue to field both men's and women's ultimate teams, as do several other colleges around the state. Consistent with the laid-back nature of the ultimate culture, Rutgers fields a competitive men's A team while welcoming students of any skill to play on a B team without having to try out. There's no expectation or pressure on team members to develop (or want to develop) the skills that would enable them to play on the A level. It's all cool.

*That's not a typo. The bakery name was really spelled "Frisbie." Wham-O changed the spelling to avoid copyright infringement.


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