The first true game of ultimate, with seven players to a side, that I ever played took place on the Sheep Meadow in New York's Central Park in the late 70's. Prior to that day my experience with the game was confined to three on three affairs played on a patch of Central Park dirt near West 93rd Street, the "field" defined by a an asphalt path on one side, a stand of trees on the other, and imaginary lines between lampposts at the ends. It was there that I first learned the thrill of out-jumping a taller player for a goal, or sprinting the length of the field to haul in another of my brother's beautiful throws. So when he announced one day that we were going to the Meadow to play a real game on a full size field, I was thrilled.
I realize now that what we were going to was a pick-up game, the kind of loosely organized, all are welcome event that I wouldn't bother with now on a bet. But back then, to me at least, it couldn't have been more exciting if it were being played between nationally ranked teams in a stadium packed with fans. Such is the folly of youthful exuberance.
It has been close to thirty years, so the details are hazy at best. In fact, all I really remember is that Andy Borinstein was there, and the first point I played was on offense. I use the term point rather liberally, because in truth I only "played" for about fifteen seconds, a period of time I spent sprinting around aimlessly at full speed. The field was unimaginably huge, and with no asphalt, lampposts or trees to guide me, I had no idea where to run. But run I did, as fast as I could and with no discernible purpose, right up until the point when I ran headlong into another player.
I note with some amusement that to this day I not only have no idea who the other player was, I don't even know if we were on the same team. I might have figured it out once I got my wits about me, but by then a crimson runnel was already flowing from my face. I made my way off the field awkwardly, bent at the waist and cupping handfuls of blood away from me so as to keep from staining my shirt. Once on the sideline I was relieved to see Brian coming off the field to check on me, knowing full well that my older brother would take care of me. In all fairness, he did place a reassuring hand on my shoulder as he examined the gash I had bitten through the left side of my upper lip on impact, but I'll never forget what he said next: "It's not too bad. You can make it home on your own, can't you?" Before I could answer, he was back in the game.
That was the day I learned the two most fundamental truths about ultimate. First, once you've learned the game, it doesn't take long for you to place it above family in order of importance. Second, it is a non-contact sport in name only.
Brian was right; I was able to make it home on my own. After cleaning up at a water fountain and being given some tissues by a kind stranger, I rode the M10 bus twenty blocks up Central Park West to our apartment building, then stopped in at the 14th floor office of Doctor Nora Gottschalk, a kind old German doctor whose family practice was located two floors below our family's apartment. She put three stitches in my upper lip and sent me home with the first of many scars I would receive over a nearly thirty-year career in the game.
In a strange twist of fate, Dr. Gottschalk would die senselessly some years later, run down by an M10 bus while crossing the street.
Over the years I would continue to bleed for the game, both internally and externally. In the fall of '84, I split my kidney colliding with Paul Sayles(?) after making a layout block on a Kevin Cande hammer at yet another meaningless Purchase tournament. The incident earned Paul the moniker "Trog-Buster" from his Static Disc teammates, and it earned me a trip to the emergency room of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where I might well have died from internal bleeding if not for the intervention of one Dr. Thomas King, famous father to the even more famous ultimate legend, Pat.
An amusing side note: Pat's father loved the game and often went to tournaments, both big and small. At '86 Nationals in Houston, Matt Jefferson suffered a dislocated shoulder. Accompanied by Dr. King to the nearest emergency room, Matty J was seen by a physician who had stopped reading Dr. King's book to attend to him.
Yet another amusing side note: While many believed that Matty J had suffered the injury while playing, he had actually suffered it the night before in an elevator at the hotel when a drunk and belligerent Nob Rauch, angry because Matty was wearing an opponent's t-shirt, grabbed him by the arm and threw him to the floor. Those truly were the days.
We played the following nationals without Matty (can you blame him?), but Nob still drank and I still bled. In a pool play game against Windy City, I ran down and caught a lead pass from Dan Weiss just before Ironman, on a futile poach block attempt, crashed into me head first. Fortunately for me, I had enough time to turn my head slightly. Unfortunately for Iron, he didn't. He came up from the ground with blood pouring from a gash that was rumored to take more than a hundred stitches to close (hence why he's not called Ironhead). I stayed in the game, threw a score, then walked off the field with a strange feeling of moist warmth running down my neck. Seems I had completed the point oblivious to the fact that my ear had been torn, an injury whose nine stitch remedy was, like me, paltry compared to Ironman.
Watching video of the collision later, I was struck not by the blow but by the sound it made, a hard, hollow, and sickeningly wet sound, like two coconuts colliding at high speed with a thick raw steak between them. Exquisite.
I played semis and finals the next day with a bandage wrapped around my head, looking like the fife player from the Archibald M. Willard painting, The Spirit of '76. Pat, in sympathy, wrapped his head in an (almost) equally bizarre manner. We won nationals for the first time that day, but for many years before and many years since, I've been bleeding.