June 8, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
When Jacob Fairfax made his AUDL debut as a 19-year-old with the Charlotte Express in 2016, his teammates recognized his enormous potential almost immediately. A skinny yet explosive 6’2”, Fairfax’s raw athleticism earned him a roster spot for every game, providing 14 opportunities for invaluable seasoning during that educational rookie season, the Express’s final voyage in the franchise’s brief but memorable two-year existence. He only tallied multiple goals three times for the Express, but erupted for seven scores in his first game as a full member of the O-line, establishing the baseline for how big of an impact he could make as his experience grew.
That potential has blossomed into stardom over of the past three seasons. He joined the Raleigh Flyers in 2017 and has been a key cog in the squad’s big play offense ever since. His throws have improved, his confidence has grown, and at age 23 it feels like he’s still just scratching the surface of the dominant all-around player he can be. He’s snagged at least five goals in a game a dozen times over the past three years, including performances of eight and nine goals, both of which occurred before he turned 22. Beyond the highlight-reel skies, you could clearly view his development as a distributor last summer, a dynamic that transformed Fairfax from a promising young stud into an AUDL All-Star in 2019. (In fact, it was exactly one year ago today that Fairfax joined 31 other standouts at Breese Stevens Field for that memorable double overtime exhibition!)
Over the course of his 2019 regular season, Fairfax smashed his previous career high in assists, dishing 39 dimes, 15 more than he accumulated in his three previous seasons combined! Interestingly, it was a preseason conversation with teammate and former AUDL MVP Jonathan Nethercutt that gave Fairfax more belief in his throws as weapons.
“I essentially challenged [Nethercutt] to a distance throwing competition, and although I lost, I think he noticed that there was more to my game than I was showing,” Fairfax explained to me last July. “He asked me why I never take shots in games, and I think I responded by saying that it wasn’t my job. To that he said, ‘why not?’ I am not sure how much intent he had behind our conversation, but I took him to mean that there was no reason that I should not be responsible for that type of offensive production. So with my teammates and coaches pushing me to expand my game, I started to take more shots. It certainly helps having great downfield targets like Terrence [Mitchell], Henry [Fisher], and Mischa [Freystaetter], so I get bailed out even when I make mistakes.”
By integrating a more aggressive approach into his mindset on the field, Fairfax registered a career-best +65, tied for ninth-best in the league. Furthermore, his balance as a threat while maintaining his efficiency, with 41 assists, 31 goals, and a 94 percent completion rate, put him in rare company. Among the AUDL’s top 20 plus/minus compilers in 2019, only Fairfax and San Diego’s Travis Dunn tallied at least 30 assists, 30 goals, and a 94 percent completion rate. And just as a reminder, Fairfax did not even celebrate his 23rd birthday until after the regular season ended!
Now, a month away from turning 24, recently married, and wondering when ultimate will return, Fairfax generously shared his perspectives on his maturation as a player, his Express memories, and his life during the pandemic. Our conversation, from a week ago, has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: Firstly, how's everything going and what has life been like for you since mid-March? Any particular highlights from the past few months?
Jacob Fairfax: Despite the pandemic, things have actually been really good for me over the past couple months. One major highlight is that I just got married last week! We had to alter the wedding a fair amount, but I am very thankful that we were able to have a small ceremony. Other than that, I have stayed healthy and employed so I just feel very fortunate.
EL: How active have you been in terms of maintaining your training since the pandemic began, and what types of things have you been doing to try and stay in ultimate shape? If the season started tomorrow, what percentage of the best version of yourself would you estimate you'd be?
JF: Since gyms have closed, training has had to change a bit for me. Thankfully, Goose [Helton] has updated his workout plan to include at home workouts for people with limited equipment. I have stayed pretty consistent with following the GPP [Game Point Performance] plan and I feel like I am in good physical shape. I have not been able to throw much though, so I don't think my throws would be as crisp as I would like if the season were to start tomorrow. I guess I would say between 80-85 percent of my best.
EL: I'm curious to ask how you felt about yourself as a player back in 2016, when you first joined the Charlotte Express at age 19. Obviously, the Express did not win a ton, and your role had you bouncing from one line to another throughout the season; consequently, I wonder how you'd characterize your confidence as a player and outlook about what you were experiencing very early on in the AUDL? Did you finish that year with a firm belief and conviction that you'd be able to be an All-Star caliber player in this league? What do you look back on as your big picture takeaways from your rookie AUDL season with the Express?
JF: Considering that I just discovered ultimate in 2015, I did not expect to make the Express roster in 2016. Especially in the beginning of that season, I was not very confident in myself as an ultimate player. It was a huge confidence boost for me that I made the roster for every game that season. I think it was really beneficial for me to play on that team and get the amount of experience I did on both the offensive and defensive sides. I found that I was athletic enough to have some success as a player despite my lack of experience. I also discovered that I was a competent enough thrower to not be a liability with the disc, and that helped my comfort level on the O-line. I don't think I would have used the term All-Star, but by the end of that first season I was confident that I could become a good player in this league. Funnily enough, one of the Express owners [and current AUDL Commissioner], Steve Hall, told my parents that I would be an AUDL superstar during a game in 2016, and he reminded me of that when I saw him at All-Star weekend last year. The amount of support I got in Charlotte definitely helped grow my confidence during that first year.
EL: Before going further, can you quickly share your narrative about what sports you played growing up, how you discovered ultimate, and how long it took you to begin feeling fairly confident on the ultimate field?
JF: Growing up I played baseball, basketball and football. By the time I got to high school, I was primarily a baseball player. As a kid, I did play some "ultimate" in the yard with my brothers and friends. We of course did not know the real rules and played with a Wham-O, but I loved playing even that type of frisbee. I discovered organized ultimate my freshman year of college when I joined UNC Charlotte's club team. I am not sure how well I can answer the confidence question, as that always seems to be an ongoing battle for me. After 2017, I felt like a confident receiver, but not confident in my throws. This past year I became more confident as a deep thrower, but not in my ability to break the mark. I guess I tend to focus more on areas that I need to improve, so I am not sure I will be truly confident until I feel like a complete player.
EL: Considering how you played a good mix of O and D with the Express in 2016, were you at all surprised a year later when you predominantly took on a main O-line cutter role with the Flyers? What were the challenges and key things to learn quickly as you sought to maximize your contributions on that 2017 Flyers team (that obviously had such a strong season with Jonathan Nethercutt's MVP performance leading the way)?
JF: I was not too surprised to be on the O-line in 2017. I have always felt more comfortable on the offensive side, and I connected well with the offensive coordinator, David Allison, in the early practices that year. The biggest thing for me that year was trying to learn how to best time my cuts for when Nutt could get the disc in power position. We had a really talented O-line, so another important thing to learn was how to effectively clear space. We always had a mismatch somewhere, so we wanted to isolate that cutter and take advantage whenever possible.
EL: Here’s a question that's a tad out of left field, but in 2018, the Callahan Award finalists in the men's division came from the following schools: Oregon, Pittsburgh, Stanford, UNC, and UNC Charlotte; obviously, you were the finalist from Charlotte and I'm curious what that felt like for you to be on the same level with players from all those other big-time schools and ultimate programs? Certainly not intending to slight Charlotte, but each of those other programs has Callahan Awards, national championships, and have been annual contenders, while Charlotte, to the best of my knowledge, has never had the same type of national prestige in the world of ultimate. Do you remember when and where you learned that you'd been voted as a finalist and what that feeling was like, considering the context that I just discussed?
JF: I don't remember exactly how I heard that I was a Callahan finalist, but I remember being very shocked. UNC Charlotte's program is still relatively new and has certainly never been very well-known in the ultimate world. A lot of my time in college, my teammates and I mainly focused on just growing the ultimate program at Charlotte. I was the first ever Callahan nominee that UNC Charlotte ever submitted, so I did feel accomplished to even be recognized as a finalist.
EL: Who were the players you most looked up to as mentors in your first couple seasons in the AUDL, and why?
JF: My first year, I would say I looked up to Shane Sisco and Micah Hood since they were the two best players on Express. When I got to the Flyers, I would say that I looked up to Goose Helton. Goose is just so good at every aspect of the game and still very athletic to be in his 30s.
EL: Having played a mix of O and D throughout your career, I'm curious to ask you who have been the toughest matchups you've ever had to guard and also who have been the toughest matchups when they've guarded you?
JF: Jay Froude is always tough to guard. He is very fast and has become a versatile thrower. As far as guarding me, I guess [Jeff] Babbitt comes to mind now after our New York game last year. He is one of the few players that I don't feel like I have an athletic advantage over.
EL: What was your first reaction to the offseason news about AUDL realignment, particularly with your division changing so significantly?
JF: I was extremely excited about the division change this year. I was really looking forward to playing some new teams, and I definitely won't miss the Texas trip.
EL: And lastly, aside from ultimate, what's something else about yourself--a hobby or passion or mindset--that's important to you?
JF: Something that is important to me would be my faith as a Christian. I accepted Christ in 2017 and I feel like I have been saved in more ways than one. Especially during uncertain times like this pandemic, it has been a huge help to be rooted in a God that is greater than the things of this world.