April 13, 2020
By Evan Lepler - "Disc In" Interview Series Archive
I specifically remember the first time Jonathan Nethercutt rifled a flick that made me say ‘wow!’ It was an unseasonably warm winter Sunday in late January 2014, and I had driven over to Chapel Hill for the “ACC Tournament” of ultimate, which UNC hosted on campus. I probably went because I wanted to scout Pitt, the reigning national champ, but my lasting takeaway from the day was watching “Nutt,” as all his teammates referred to him, quarterback Carolina to Sunday victories over Pitt, NC State, and Florida.
It may be hard to believe now considering the program has been a semifinal staple over the past six seasons, but at that particular time, UNC Men’s Ultimate, known as Dark Side, had never before made the semifinals of College Nationals. Four months after that January tourney, on Memorial Day Weekend that May, Carolina crashed the final four for the first time, commencing a dynastic run that remains very much alive today. Surely, Nethercutt was not the sole or even primary architect of Carolina ultimate’s dominant half-decade, however he might be the most decorated and accomplished star that has ever emerged from the now powerhouse program.
Rising into the professional landscape, Nethercutt made his AUDL debut for the Raleigh Flyers on May 2, 2015, just a few weeks prior to winning a college national title with UNC. Though he only contributed to seven games in the Flyers first season, Nethercutt steadily began to emerge as a full-time playmaker in 2016, collecting 45 assists and 10 goals. And one year after that, he blossomed as an all-encompassing star, racking up 72 assists and 13 goals en route to being named AUDL MVP following a 13-1 season.
Truly one of the faces of the sport following that three-year stretch, Nethercutt began to take a step back from the AUDL in 2018, as life circumstances prevented him from competing regularly. He still accumulated an eye-popping 70 assists in 11 games between the 2018 & 2019 seasons combined, but only two of those tilts were last year. And now that he’s relocated to Colorado, it appears unlikely he’ll be suiting up for the Flyers in the near future. Alas, Nethercutt authored some of the most ridiculous handling highlights in the league’s history, including his Greatest against the Roughnecks and his outrageous behind-the-back flick that became a buzzer-beater against the Breeze. With swagger, personality, and maybe the best beard in the sport, Nethercutt will be missed if his AUDL career is indeed over. But he’s only 28 years old, and my hunch says we see him suited up again sometime down the road.
Even with his pro career currently on hiatus, I wanted to check in with the 2017 AUDL MVP to see how he’s handling himself during these scary, unprecedented times and to reminisce about some of the moments he treasured most throughout his ultimate career. The conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
Evan Lepler: For starters, how are you and what's it been like in your current hometown over the past few weeks?
Jonathan Nethercutt: I’m doing well, or at least as well as one can do during these strange times. I'm fortunate enough to still be working, but in a limited capacity compared to my work's normal operations as we've switched to only running the E-commerce portion of our business. I work at a ski shop, so with all this craziness (and pretty much every ski resort globally closing down) it's definitely caused a big shift in my everyday life at work. On top of that, most of the [University of Colorado] students have gone home (I live in Boulder, CO), which has only amplified the "ghost town" feeling that has been developing with the social distancing and shelter in place orders.
EL: What are the biggest changes you've had to make to your everyday life amidst the current circumstances?
JN: I think like a lot of people the current circumstances have really shifted my routines around, especially in regards to exercise and time in the outdoors. For Colorado especially, ski resorts shut down, climbing gyms are closed, and all the normal gyms have shut down as well making all the normal non-ultimate activities during this time of the year essentially non-existent. It's really proven more challenging to train and feel like I'm staying as active as I'd like - not to mention the fact that going to workout and throw with friends is off the table at the moment. I think the biggest shift I've had to make overall is just getting adjusted to spending a lot more time at home.
EL: Shifting to ultimate, what's your current level of involvement in the sport? Have you tossed a disc more or less since mid-March when much of the world closed down?
JN: I’m still playing! I'm currently slated to be a captain of Johnny Bravo, the mens' club ultimate team out of Denver, and the rest of the leadership and myself are still putting a lot of time toward season planning and resource development for that team despite being unsure of what the season will look like. I'm not playing AUDL this year, partly due to not being "local" to any team (the closest being in Dallas/Austin) and partly due to just not having the bandwidth to play exclusively as a travel player with my other commitments. I was definitely still tossing the disc pretty frequently until our governor issued a state-wide stay at home order. I've been a bit more reluctant to go into public spaces since then - not to mention that throwing in small groups is taken out of the equation for the time being.
EL: When you think back on your MVP season with the Raleigh Flyers in 2017, what are the first things that come to mind? What were the factors that enabled you to have such a strong and memorable season?
JN: I think one of the things that comes up is just how fun that whole season was and how much enjoyment I got out of being around that specific group of guys. Not to mention the fact that we had a lot of really amazing games, many of which came down to the wire (and went our way) that season: DC Breeze in OT, Tampa Bay twice at the buzzer, and our first regular season win over Dallas. I think the factors that enabled me to have such a great season really came down to three things: (1) It was an offense and group of guys that I was really familiar with and confident in; (2) It was one of the first seasons in several years where all I essentially had to do was show up and play; and (3) I took a small step back in terms of responsibility (behind-the-scenes) on the team that year to focus just on enjoying the season. I think not having as much on my mind, loving the group of guys I played with, and really being dialed in on just trying to enjoy the ride as much as possible made it easy for me to find a groove most games.
EL: What’s your favorite game you've ever played in and why?
JN: I feel like there are so many games that could easily slot in here, but I definitely think college semifinals in 2014 against UNCW takes the cake. That whole day was spectacular, and that feeling of being totally locked in—that state of “flow”—was definitely there for the entirety of the second half of that game, which is a feeling I'm constantly chasing in every game I play. On top of that, it was in a stadium and under the lights, which is always such an awesome atmosphere to play in. We had played a great game against Wisconsin that morning in quarters and won—making semis for the first time ever at Nationals—and got to play an in-state rival and regionals rematch for our semis. That's a matchup that is impossible not to get amped about, and coming into that game and essentially feeling "lights out" as a thrower in the second half was just awesome. On top of it all, winning that game took us to finals which was something that the group of seniors I was a part of had been working so hard to achieve over the previous four years.
EL: You played with many other great players throughout your career. Can you pick a former teammate and share something that surprised you about the way they prepared or led or competed or handled a certain situation?
JN: I think one of the players that molded how I approached leadership and being a teammate—though I can't confidently say I've been great at emulating him—was Josh Berkowitz, who was a veteran on Ring of Fire (Raleigh's club team) when I was a rookie. I remember throwing him an errant pass at one of our midseason practices that the defense promptly took advantage of and punched in for a break. After the point I remember going up to "Berko" and apologizing to him for the poor placement on the pass. There was no question that the turnover was my fault, so I expected a little frustration and thought I should own up to the mistake. I still remember what he told me in reply, and have used it myself many times since: "No need to apologize. You did your job, which as the thrower is to choose whether or not the disc should be thrown. After that, it is my job to catch it. So, you keep doing your job and I'll do a better job on my end.” I was pretty surprised at the response, I think even more so since it was a veteran telling that to a rookie when it was clearly the rookie's (my) fault. As someone who wasn't always great at taking blame early in my career, after that I made a much bigger point of going out of my way to take fault on the field when mistakes happen—even if they were clearly not my fault—which I think has only been had a positive impact over the years.
EL: What’s the question you're asked most often by young ultimate players, and what advice do you typically share?
JN: I think the question I get asked the most is "how do I become a better thrower?" Probably more accurately, I get asked "how do I throw my flick farther?" For both, I almost always say the same thing: go out and throw, do it every day, and do it with a goal and purpose in mind. I think a lot of people watch highlights and see really sweet throws, but obviously don't see all the work and time that went into developing that throw. Not to mention, you don't see the countless hours that go into correcting and improving form, and building up your fundamentals as a thrower so that you can execute the throws you want when you need to. You can always give little tips and tricks on how to be a better thrower, but none of it is useful if people don't actually get out and do the work.
EL: Aside from ultimate, work, and family, what's something else that you're especially interested in or passionate about?
JN: That’s a tough question since a lot of the things I'm passionate about are directly related to work and ultimate. It's technically related, but I'm going to count it anyway: one of the things that I'm really passionate about is coaching/teaching. I've coached ultimate for years and there's just something about the creative process of drill design and figuring out how to best phrase and organize things so that people learn them in the most efficient and effective way possible that gets me super excited. That whole feeling gets amplified when you actually see it paying off and just motivates me to keep pushing to find better ways of improving the systems I use.
EL: What’s one place in the world you've never been before that you hope to travel to sometime when we're on the other side of this pandemic?
JN: So many places are on this bucket list. Top of the list is probably Patagonia, though.
EL: Finally, what are you reading or watching at the moment? Could you recommend a book, tv show, and/or movie that you'd suggest others enjoy?
JN: Currently I'm watching quite a few things—as I assume a lot of America is at the moment—but at the top of the list of new things (to me!) I'm watching is Breaking Bad. It was a show I had seen a lot of episodes of, but had never actually devoted time to or watched sequentially. I can't believe that I waited this long to watch this series; it's been awesome so far. I'm currently reading a book called "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk which is all about how humans experience trauma, how it shapes them, and how it shows up in our lives. As far as books I'd recommend I'll just keep it simple and say anything by Malcom Gladwell (especially Outliers and Blink), but my list of book recommendations is almost as long as my list of books that I still want to read.