Spirit of the Game

Greg Clark is a botanist in the biology department at UT. He transacts most of his business wearing shorts and sandals and enjoys playing music before his lectures to help each class begin positively.
   Greg shares a home with his wife, Monica, an educator for AISD, and their 8-year-old daughter, Isabel, a burgeoning artist with a bedroom that can be accurately described as fairly princess-y. The yard of their Hyde Park home is filled with the plants Greg loves, and until a recent remodeling, a person could sit on the Clarks’ toilet and pass the time by reading Greg’s PhD, which hung on the wall nearby.
   During this same remodeling, Greg had to reconsider other of his decorating philosophies, including what to do with the discs covering a great deal of wall space in the Clark home. Each disc featured a picture or logo or the name and dates of a tournament, and collectively they represented a historical record in molded, round plastic of Greg’s years spent playing Ultimate.

Ultimate is played with such discs – objects that you and I would incorrectly group under the brand name Frisbee – and is a game that resulted from mixing the rules of basketball, soccer, and American football. Ultimate was first played in the late Sixties, and perhaps not surprisingly for a sport invented during that time period, it stresses sportsmanship and camaraderie over winning and losing. In fact, these notions are so intrinsic to the sport that no referees or umpires are used during a game. The players monitor their own behavior and are expected to call fouls with fairness and integrity. The object of the game is to win, but remembering the fun of the experience and keeping the game in perspective are higher goals to achieve. Players try never to forget “the spirit of the game,” a favorite phrase among Ultimate athletes.
   For all of its talk of sportsmanship, though, Ultimate remains a competitive sport, and not simply good-natured people in the park tossing a Frisbee around. Training at higher levels of play is an intense commitment. Even a pick-up game is a rigorous activity, and a good number of the Ultimate photos you’ll find online involve a player – wearing no protective gear – stretched out three feet above the ground, diving for a disc.
   It was this combination of athletic drive and camaraderie that first attracted Greg to the game. He first played Ultimate while a senior in high school and was drawn to its fast-paced, challenging nature. His interest continued in the Eighties while a student at UT, where he often played with a group of swimmers and divers, who used Ultimate as their off-day sport. In the years since then, Greg has played for various teams in various leagues. In November, his teamDoublewide, consistently high-ranked nationally – competed in the 2006 World Ultimate Club Championships in Perth, Australia, and placed a very respectable seventh.
   Though still young at heart, Greg is something of an elder statesman at this point, and his hair features more expressions of gray than that of the average Ultimate player. Greg himself admits that time has changed his approach to the game. Prior to leaving for Australia, he dedicated himself to losing a few of the middle-aged pounds that had gathered around his waistline. But even his more streamlined version is no longer capable of the athletic feats performed by some of his younger teammates. Age has fashioned him into a thrower, an offensive position that doesn’t require the physicality of some positions on defense. But the spirit of Ultimate has allowed Greg to stick around longer than he might have lasted in other sports. As it turns out, the game still has a place for Greg. And Greg still has a place for the game.
   During the remodeling of their home, Greg and Monica compromised, agreeing that a few of the more important discs could remain inside. Many of the discs still on the walls are from Greg’s early days of Ultimate. Others he chose for the memories attached to particular tournaments. His historical record has been pared back, but the discs that remain are especially meaningful, something more like a greatest hits collection than a comprehensive boxed set.
   With many of the discs packed away and with the remodeling complete, the Clarks’ house has a more adult vibe now. Besides, Isabel loves being 8 and needs no help filling the house with the joy of youth. Still, during a recent conversation with Greg, I couldn’t help but get nostalgic for days when the PhD still hung in the bathroom. (The degree is now displayed in the new office area.)
   “What made you hang it in the bathroom in the first place?”
   “To scientists, a PhD is a not an end point, but a starting point.”
   Score one for the spirit of the game.

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