July 21, 2020
By Evan Lepler
It’s been 345 days since the last AUDL game.
On that particular Sunday, nearly 50 weeks ago now, the New York Empire capped their undefeated 2019 season with a thrilling triumph over the Dallas Roughnecks to earn their first championship. Both teams performed brilliantly throughout the final, but the Empire were better down the stretch, saving their best effort of the season for the moments where it mattered most. By the time the fourth quarter clock reached zeroes, New York reigned victorious, improving to 15-0 on the year, joining Dallas’s 2016 edition and the 2013 Toronto Rush as the only unblemished champs in AUDL history.
A year later, the table seemed well set for more drama, with both New York and Dallas improving their rosters, creating inevitable and juicy storylines for the future. Could the Empire go back-to-back and potentially be perfect again? Would the Roughnecks finally get over the hump after falling in the finals for two straight years?
And when might we get to see these tantalizing next chapters of the ultimate narrative unfold? Unfortunately, it’s that last question that feels most relevant at the moment, and it’s a discomforting feeling, one that lingers uneasily like an overly floaty huck with Jeff Babbitt and Beau Kittredge both patrolling the deep space defensively.
As many of our continent’s other professional sports attempt to return amidst confusing and uncertain circumstances, the magnificent sight of a tightly ripped backhand bomb, pursued ardently by a couple sprinting competitors, leading to spectacular dueling layouts and a packed crowd erupting, all feels devastatingly distant. The truth is no one knows when we will see new ultimate again, a reality that pales in comparison to the realities so many less fortunate are dealing with, sure, but one that still emits sadness from the many passionate players, coaches, and owners that love this sport so much.
Four weeks ago, the AUDL officially canceled its 2020 season, pulling the plug on the last possibility of a week-long tournament bubble format after extensive research, planning, consideration, and feedback. It was undoubtedly a difficult decision, just as it was also the correct one. While we would love to be actively preparing for a seven-day August ultimate extravaganza right now, that’s clearly not in the cards for America at the national level any time soon. So the ultimate drought which began mid-March will stretch further into the future, a murky and undetermined existence that players around the continent have been grappling with since the pandemic shutdown began.
“Finding out the season was canceled was a mix of relief and melancholy for me,” explained Brendan McCann, who was set to join the expansion Boston Glory in 2020 after competing previously with Minnesota and Detroit. “Relief, because the season had been hanging in limbo for so long, it was nice to have some closure. But melancholy for the obvious reason that we don’t get to play and I don’t have the support system of a team.”
In conversing with dozens of players from around the league over the past several weeks, I can report that McCann’s sentiments were largely representative of the contrasting emotions that players felt in the aftermath of the June 24 announcement. Many characterized it as appropriate, while many others declared it devastating. Obviously, both can also be true.
“When I learned that there would be no ultimate in 2020, I was pretty upset,” commented Pittsburgh’s Thomas Edmonds. “It was absolutely the right decision with everything going on, but it was upsetting nonetheless. I miss my friends and teammates. I miss playing. I miss that feeling of team building and camaraderie that comes with working out and practicing together on a weekly basis. I miss the competitive avenues that ultimate provides whether that is at a practice or in playing games against rival teams. Most of all, I miss building those friendships more and more every year, and I miss watching players grow and develop as the season goes on.”
Brandon “Muffin” Malecek launched the first pull in AUDL history back in April of 2012. He’ll turn 36 this September, and though he was eager and ready for his fifth season with the Dallas Roughnecks in 2020, he also knows the remaining time on his elite ultimate career is ticking.
“Feels like March was an eternity ago,” Malecek astutely observed. “The writing was on the wall when the NBA games started getting canceled. The initial feeling was disbelief, followed by the stress of the unknown and eventually despair, like the whole world of sports grinding to a stop.”
Though the season’s initial postponement created an ominous foundation for the future, so many around the league remained incredibly committed to the process of preparing for competition. Malecek’s Roughnecks were especially focused, embracing a team motto of “This is Our Year,” a not-so-subtle reminder of how close they have come while still falling short over the past few seasons. Determination and hope anchored their Zoom conversations and fueled individual workouts, keeping the motivational candle burning as the flame flickered and shrunk.
“And even after canceling practices and hearing worse and worse prognoses about the possibility of re-starting, there was this distant light at the end of the tunnel approach that we were going to play at least a couple of games,” said Malecek. “When it finally came down to the bubble bursting, perhaps [it was] more relief that a firm decision was made…It wasn’t until my oldest daughter started asking during car rides if we were going to a Roughnecks game and if she would see her friend Kira Wooldridge, [granddaughter of Dallas Co-Owner Kirk Wooldridge]. That’s the first moment when it really hit me. Isabel, who we had dragged to countless ultimate events, was asking to go to see her ultimate friends and play on the sidelines.
Malecek claims that he will never really retire from ultimate, a lifestyle that has shaped so much of his life over the past 20 years, from getting offered a spot on the University of Wisconsin “A” team as a senior at Madison Edgewood High School to competing in a dozen different major championship games since. (Last year’s AUDL finals would have been title game number 13 for Malecek, but he was not among the Roughnecks’ active 20-man roster, so he does not include it in his count.) He also acknowledges that his AUDL journey could now be over, terminated by a variety of factors outside of his control. Professional athletes often see their careers end on terms other than their own, but the pandemic has thrown a new, frustrating wrinkle that’s hard to live with
Malecek was far from the only player who has contemplated the possibility that it could be over. On the day the league officially announced the season’s cancellation, Los Angeles All-Star Sean McDougall shared his thoughts on Facebook, writing “Welp, there goes the last bit of hope for anything this year…Definitely makes me question the future of competitive play for myself, and if I might end up retiring. But as someone recently told me, that’s a problem for future Sean.”
Although McDougall—named First Team All-AUDL in 2018—just turned 30 this past February, he explained that playing through injuries has been the standard over the course of his Aviators career, and it’s unclear how much energy to endure remains in his tank.
“Unfortunately, it takes a ton of commitment to get into any sort of shape for a season like this, and I have been battling a health issue for the better part of the last five years,” shared McDougall. “By taking a year off, it will just make it that much harder to regain any sort of abilities or endurance that is required for the grueling grind. At some point, it just becomes downright draining to fight through and makes you question the point of it, at times, which is something that is hard to shake. But we will see. I am hopeful that [the year off] could be a rejuvenating time and I could continue to play for years.”
While the extended break from practice and competition can add to the isolation that many are feeling amidst the mandated social distancing that has redefined our lives, other players are embracing the healing power that can be achieved when not throwing your body into the ground in pursuit of plastic several times a week. Former Madison Radicals handler Ben Nelson turns 32 later this month, and while he won’t get to play for the defending champions in 2020—Nelson moved east and signed with the Empire this past offseason—he remains eager to continue competing.
“I definitely have a few more years of ultimate in me,” said Nelson, who played in 84 games (including the playoffs) over the past seven seasons with the Radicals, winning a title in 2018. “I haven’t had a summer off from ultimate in 15-plus years, and the longest I’d go between playing was usually a few weeks between club ending in October and indoor starting in November. This break has given me time to rehab chronic injuries or discomforts, so that I hope I’m ready to go better than ever next year.”
Before the pandemic shut down preseason training, Nelson attended a pair of Empire practices, his first experiences as a member of the defending champions beyond attending tryouts. He was immediately taken by the team’s malleability, a tribute to New York’s versatile superstars; even without Harper Garvey quarterbacking the offense, a result of a minor injury after Team USA tryouts, standouts like Grant Lindsley, Jack Williams, and Chris Kocher—the latter returning to the Empire in 2020 after a two-year absence—alternately slotted into handling roles and fit in seamlessly. Nelson, coming off a Radicals season that went anything but smoothly in the aftermath of a title, marveled as New York’s depth shined.
It was just March, but the Empire were on a mission to vigorously defend their title, even as circumstances outside of their control indicated that the season, and more importantly, the public health, was in trouble.
“We had our usual practice at Fosina Field [prior to the shutdown], and there was a sense that things were different,” remembered Empire GM and veteran player Matt Stevens. “At every practice, we have a spread of snacks, drinks, fruit, etc., and we took precautions so the items could be grabbed individually, and players washed their hands before and after practice. What I recall most though was on my way home saying that this was the best team we have ever had. That would be our last practice for the 2020 AUDL season. New York and the surrounding area were hit hard right off the bat, but with strong local leadership we have tackled the pandemic better than anywhere else in the country. I have been filled with a sense of pride for months as I drive through New Rochelle and everyone is wearing a mask.”
Without ultimate, the United States became something of a monastery, as Lindsley put it in his column “June”, penned earlier this month about how he’s handled the absence of such an integral aspect of his life. Considering how he once spent several months living in remote Thailand, sleeping on a wooden coffee table in a secluded cave, you might say he is uniquely qualified to handle this extended silence of our sport.
“Not playing definitely feels like a change—I was excited to play on Team USA this summer as well—but I guess with the ongoing pain and loss that so many in our country are going through, I can’t muster the energy to feel bad for myself,” Lindsley explained. “Also, if I can’t apply all the mental training I’ve done as an athlete, to accept that some things are out of my control, to be calm in the face of adversity or uncertainty, then what was the training for?”
In fact, many if not most players enthusiastically shared how their training has continued. Some have tweaked their typical routines, while others have ramped them up. And without the in-season practices and physical encounters that always lead to various bumps and bruises that can nag on the body forever, a common thread emerged.
“It’s funny, the unexpected season off definitely works both ways for me,” shared Raleigh Flyers veteran Noah Saul. “On the one hand, remembering what it’s like to have a real summer and actually having free weekends to spend doing whatever I like—even within the context of the pandemic—is really nice and has me pondering life after ultimate. On the other hand, my body right now feels better than it has in two years, and the absence of that competition and the joy I get from playing definitely has me jonesing to come back strong and play a few more years.”
Saul admitted that maintaining motivation without a specific season or team-oriented goal can be a challenge, but he’s tried to stay consistent with his workouts. A small group of Flyers has occasionally convened to play three on three over the past several months, an outlet that momentarily quenches the competitive desires while also inevitably leaving everyone wanting more.
“The thing I miss most is the team atmosphere,” said fellow Flyer Henry Fisher, who earned an all-star spot as an AUDL rookie in 2019 and was eager to build on that in his second season. “There’s nothing like being with the people you love and working toward a common goal. The little things like the joking, the hard work, and the pregame excitement felt by each member of the team are not things that I realized I would miss so much.”
It was easy and obvious to ask players what they missed most about not having ultimate in their lives on a regular basis, but the answers were still compelling. Many, like Chicago’s Pawel Janas, reflected how the sport has become so ingrained in their identity that it’s challenging to be involuntarily separated from it.
“Ultimate gives me the structure to live my life, so I miss everything about it,” declared Janas.
Perhaps a bit of that mentality rubbed off on Joe Cubitt at the 2019 All-Star Game, where the then 21-year-old Detroit Mechanix rookie competed alongside Janas on Team KPS.
“If you don’t already know, ultimate is my whole life,” asserted Cubitt, matter-of-factly. “I put it first before the majority of anything else, so having the thing I live for being taken away was very difficult and hard for my mental state.”
He’s certainly not alone, either in ultimate or in the world. The pandemic has unceremoniously seized so many of the major activities that we cherished. Throwing and catching a disc is one of those ventures that obviously feels near and dear to us, but it’s just part of a list of big things and little things that have changed in the recent many months.
“I miss seeing my friends,” said Madison’s Kevin Pettit-Scantling. “I miss the high-fives and butt-slaps. I miss laughing about silly things on the sidelines. I miss being frustrated and overcoming obstacles to be better; to grow as a unit. I miss gameday jitters and the feel of Breese Stevens’ turf below my bare feet during warmups. I even miss the bus rides home where you can’t sleep because the seats are not quite made for it.”
Much like Pettit-Scantling, Seattle’s Mark Burton was especially eager to help lead his organization’s improvement. Similarly to the Radicals, the Seattle Cascades had fallen short of their goals in 2019, but felt like offseason corrections and roster reinforcements would produce much better results in 2020. And while Burton acknowledges that he has contemplated retirement in the past, the 34-year-old always seems to return with even more energy and passion. He has frequently called himself the Peter Pan of ultimate; he does not want to ever grow up!
“Man, I miss it,” said Burton. “I was so excited with the vets, young pups, and our core who were coming back. I was so excited to play Dallas [thanks to divisional realignment moving the Texas teams into the West Division] and my second town Austin—I have been trying and teasing to play for them for some time now—and to take it to San Diego, who we always seem to have battles against.”
When asked how the season’s cancellation impacted his playing future, Burton predictably offered a Peter Pan response.
“All children, except one, grow up,” he said, quoting J.M. Barrie, the creator of the character. “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
The season may be canceled and the future may be uncertain, but the good news is ultimate has not said goodbye. The passion for competition continues to grow, especially in these dark times when individuals might have even more time to contemplate the why. Many players have understandably shifted to disc golf during the pandemic as a safer activity that still scratches a competitive itch, but no one I talked to intimated that individually rattling the chains brought anywhere close to the same level of satisfaction as celebrating a key second-half break inside a stadium. We cannot know exactly when that feeling will return, but return it shall. The togetherness and teamwork that our sport was founded upon a half-century ago remain as vibrant and necessary today. And when ultimate does come back, it is gonna be epic.
“Hot take: 2021 is going to be the hottest year ever for ultimate,” declared Pettit-Scantling. “Stronger players, more anxious fans, and a clean slate for a lot of teams.”
Let’s hope he’s right.
Filling The Time
Without practices, games, film sessions, and nonstop chatter on their team’s communication app of choice, it’s amazing how much more free time many ultimate players have discovered over the course of the past four months. Some have cherished the breather, while others have taken more targeted approaches to other activities. Here’s a scattershot of some of the things various AUDL players have done without having ultimate as their guiding north star.
Indianapolis’ Travis Carpenter: “I am too competitive and driven to simply fill all my time with laying around the house. All that time I would have used on practices and games for AUDL has now gone into golf. I have already played over 50 rounds this year and shot my personal best of 79! I really enjoy building that mental toughness that golf demands and getting myself outside to enjoy the weather as much as possible.”
New York’s Grant Lindsley: “In place of ultimate, I’m continuing to train simply because it makes me feel good. But I’m also going to protests, writing, hiking, and watering the tomato plants on my porch.”
Minnesota’s Brandon Matis: “I’ve spent the free time doing a handful of things. Work is busy as ever. I work in marketing for a cybersecurity company, and unfortunately, when things get weird in the world, the bad guys tend to use that to their advantage. We’ve been trying to continue the momentum in helping people there. Secondarily, George Floyd’s death and the increased visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement because of it sparked a lot of positive change for me. I have Native American ancestry. I’ve always had a ton of interest in reconnecting with that piece of my family’s history/heritage/culture, but never really spent a ton of dedicated time to do so. Recognizing that native people in the U.S. have faced/currently face very similar issues to our Black communities, I’ve taken quite a bit of time since to learn, connect, and participate in the culture, history, issues, etc. Good, bad, and ugly.”
Tampa Bay’s Andrew Roney: “I’ve been playing a lot of golf lately. A fair amount of the guys that I work with golf on the weekends or Friday afternoon, so I’ve been working on my game. I picked up disc golf and that’s been fun to play during the week in the evenings. The skills seem to translate pretty easily.”
Seattle’s Mark Burton: “Getting married, camping, video games, and disc golf. I am turning pro, haha just kidding, but I really might. I have been playing quite a bit while practicing social distancing. I actually got to play against Paul Ulibarri, who apparent is a big disc golfer pro. Fun story and filmed by him: He challenged [Alex] Duffel and I to a game at a smaller course and really skinny course called Mineral Springs. We use disc golf discs and he uses a Discraft Ultrastar 175g. We beat him! He thought he was going to win. Paul is a great person and I respect what he is doing with his videos, coaching, and playing, and it has been fun getting to know him and others around Seattle with the tons of other ultimate players playing.”
Detroit’s Joe Cubitt: “Once the quarantine started, me and my dad started to get into fishing. It definitely helps pass the time.”
Pittsburgh’s Thomas Edmonds: “Outside of ultimate, I recently purchased a soccer ball and have been going to the local park to try and get more talented with my feet. I played soccer for a bunch of years when I was younger and I decided that it would be fun to do and I have proven myself right. I’m not playing in any games because Covid-19, so I’m definitely still bad, but I’ve seen large improvements in my game just dribbling and kicking, especially with my left, non-dominant foot. Outside of sports, I am working on writing and reading more. I really enjoy writing and have started to work on an idea for a novel that I have had for a year or so, but finally have the time to sit down and write on the weekends.”
Boston’s Brendan McCann: “With the extra time, I have been surfing and biking a lot more. My roommate and I fashioned our own ‘at home gym’ with some carabiners, milk jugs filled with sand, and two by fours. I have tried to keep my workout frequency the same through quarantine, even without ultimate, and I have been pushed to get more creative with my workouts, which I have enjoyed…The season has definitely been a bummer but has also allowed me to reach out and expand my horizons, and that is definitely a positive. It’s easy to complain about this whole thing, but I think it’s important to focus on the growth coming from it.”
New York’s Ben Nelson: “Without ultimate, life is much less active. Instead of spring workouts and weightlifting, I’m doing yoga and light cardio workouts. It’s given me time to focus on other physical aspects like flexibility and stability instead of prioritizing speed and power. But just changing my workout regimen doesn’t replace the hours spent practicing, traveling to games, or playing games each week. As a computer programmer, I’ve naturally resorted to spending a lot of my time playing computer games. Covid-19 has forced a lot of people to the same situation, which opened up new avenues to socialize. For instance, I play a weekly game of Counter Strike: GO with my brother who lives in The Netherlands and other friends across the US as far away as Los Angeles. When I need a break from screens, I’ve been doing jigsaw puzzles, sudokus, crosswords, etc. with my girlfriend.”
Raleigh’s Noah Saul: “I’ll be honest, it has not been hard to fill the extra time. I am still working full-time and am actually quite busy right now, so I have been focusing on work and getting my own small business off the ground. I have also been doing a lot of work around our house and getting to several projects and repairs that I have been putting off for a while. Aside from that, been spending a lot of time with my wife and making a conscious effort to get to the beach more this year, since usually I don’t have much time for that in the summer.”
Dallas’ Brandon Malecek: “Once the quarantine really hit, we pivoted to disc golf pretty easily since the Tyler, Texas area [where I live] boasts about 8-10 courses within an hour drive. We must have played every day for a month straight since my daughters—two and four years old—were home with [my wife] Julie during the day and exhibiting endless energy. We culminated it with a disc golf trip to Emporia, Kansas during a two-week furlough to play in the Dynamic Discs Open, which is usually the course for Pro Worlds. It was fun to see Julie compete against the best in the world on one of the longest and toughest courses around, Emporia Country Club.”
Los Angeles’ Sean McDougall: “I have found myself becoming a bit of a bookworm again. Before I moved to LA, I use to read a ton of books of all variety, so it’s nice that there has been an increase of time to dive into that again. In addition to that, I have also been spending my days going on hikes, going to the beach, or playing video games. Nothing super exciting, I know, but it’s been a very long time since I have had so much free time and I have been enjoying it.”
Detroit’s Andrew Sjogren: “I actually broke my wrist at the end of June, so I have been unable to train for three weeks so far, with another three weeks or more to come. But the end of the 2020 season means the start of the 2021 season. Once I’m healthy, I’ll work to catch up to my healthy teammates who are already preparing for 2021.”