MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In 1968, a group of students took to the student parking lot at Columbia High School and began throwing around a plastic disc, combining some rules of both football and soccer. They worked to perfect their invention, and in the spring the first game of ultimate Frisbee was played between the CHS student council and the staff of “The Columbian,” the student newspaper. In the 50 years since that initial contest, ultimate Frisbee has grown to an estimated 7 million players worldwide. The CHS team is still going strong, with both the girls and boys recently winning state championships. Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca read a proclamation at the Nov. 7 Township Committee meeting declaring Nov. 22 and 23 “ultimate days” in Maplewood before the committee members tossed discs that had been given to them by the team.
Joe Barbanel, a member of the CHS Class of 1972 who played in that first game in the student parking lot and in the first interscholastic game against Millburn High School, spoke at the meeting.
“I played in that Millburn vs. Maplewood game all those years ago and I’ve been at every one of the varsity alumni games since the first,” Barbanel said at the meeting. “It’s wonderful that Maplewood has always been such a welcoming home to the game and the sport of ultimate. There are people all over the world who have made friends, who have kept fit and who have had a tremendously wonderful time because of the warm welcome that Maplewood gave all those years ago.”
The first collegiate game of ultimate Frisbee was played in 1972, pitting Rutgers University against Princeton University. Rutgers beat Princeton on the same field on which the first college football game was played in 1869, also against Princeton.
In 2015 the International Olympic Committee recognized ultimate Frisbee as a sport, making it eligible for IOC funding and able to compete for inclusion at the Olympics.
Ben Harris, a senior at CHS and a member of the varsity ultimate Frisbee team for the last three years, told the News-Record in a phone interview on Nov. 8 that when the team travels to tournaments, they are often thanked for the sport.
“A lot of people recognize us; we get a lot of respect and thank yous,” he said. “It’s cool to see and it’s cool that we’re well known. We’re also good this year, and last year we won a state championship.”
The team also received a shout-out on the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament on Nov. 9 when competitor Dan Oxman, a senior at CHS from South Orange, told host Alex Trebek that he plays on the CHS ultimate Frisbee team and is honored to be playing at the school where the sport was founded.
The CHS teams play in two different seasons — one in the fall and one in the spring. Ben Harris said the spring season is when they gear up for state tournaments and championships, and when traveling out of state becomes more frequent.
“We go to tournaments every weekend, out of state or at least an hour away,” he said. “It takes up the weekends, but it’s fun. It’s kind of like football and soccer. If you’ve got good hand-eye coordination you can play.”
Ben Harris started playing ultimate Frisbee when he was younger on a team in Virginia. When his family moved to Maplewood three years ago, his mother, Kristin Harris, said that he jumped at the chance to play for the school that invented the sport.
“He was on a team and loved it, and when we moved here my husband discovered there was team here,” Kristin Harris said in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 8. “All three of my kids are playing now. The parents are really involved because it’s a club sport. The kids are the captains and run the team, but they need the support from the parents.”
To raise money for travel, the ultimate Frisbee teams have candy sales and sell discs to the community. The anniversary celebration will continue over Thanksgiving weekend when the 49th annual alumni game will be played on Thursday, Nov. 22, at 8 p.m. at CHS, followed by a celebration at The Woodland on Friday, Nov. 23, at 5 p.m. For tickets to the celebration, visit https://chsvft.ticketleap.com/ultimate-frisbee-50th-celebration/.
“The community is cool, we have a good time,” Ben Harris said. “It’s fun to be really competitive and also have a good time. It’s the No. 1 sport at the school right now, so anyone who wants to play should give it a try.”
Photos Courtesy of Stacy Krakower and Kristin Harris