I thought I knew how to throw a Frisbee. Throughout my childhood, a casual flick of the wrist would send a colored plastic disc lazily gliding toward a friend standing a few yards away, on a beach by the lake or in someone’s backyard. When I showed up in a middle school gym to learn how to play Guts, a Michigan original and one of the first sports to incorporate a Frisbee, I realized how little I really knew.
At first glance, the rules sound simple. Two teams of five players line up 14 meters from each other and play catch with a Frisbee. If your team catches a thrown Frisbee with one hand, you receive a point. If your team throws a Frisbee at the other team that cannot be caught, you receive a point. But with discs being thrown at upwards of 80 mph and changing direction like a heat seeking missile, the disc sport affectionately dubbed “the first extreme sport” is anything but easy.
To put things in perspective, Guts hall of famer Craig “Buck” Buchanan likens the reaction time needed to catch a Guts Frisbee to hitting a Justin Verlander fastball.
“One in ten people see this sport and think to themselves, hey, I want to do that. I want someone to throw an 80 mph Frisbee at my face,” Buchanan said. “Nine out of ten people think that one person is just crazy.”
As I line up with my teammates, all my age, I’m unsure which percentile to lump myself in with. I’m reassured slightly when I see that the man throwing the Frisbee from the other team looks like he might be in his 50s – until an orange blur streaks to the left of my face before I can even put my hands up to catch it.
In June of 1975, 10,000 spectators gathered in Marquette, MI to watch 65 teams play Guts in the International Frisbee Tournament (IFT). Those were the sport’s heydays; tournaments around the world would attract teams from as far away as Japan to compete.
Buchanan, who stopped playing in 2007 after a diving catch blew out his knee, is still working to advance the sport. Not much has changed since the 70s, he said.
Any conversation about Guts wouldn’t be complete without talking about the party atmosphere that the sport emerged from. Legend has it that the one-handed catch rule was invented so that players could still hold their beer in the other. Safety was addressed by the tongue-in-cheek rule 69-b which stated “To prevent injury, all players must play intoxicated.”
“When the game first started, it was like a big party,” said Dan Gannon, who now organizes practices for new and old players alike.
But in the late 80s and 90s, the sport rapidly declined in popularity. Gannon, who started playing the sport in 1980, says that the reason for the sports decline is that people began taking it too seriously.
“As teams disbanded, instead of getting new players, teams would combine with other teams. It just became too competitive.”
During its lowest lows, as few as four or five teams showed up to compete in the US nationals held in Marquette. The problem, Gannon said, was that players were focusing more on elevating their game than attracting new players. The few teams that existed were playing at such a high level that new players couldn’t compete, he said.
2007 marked the 50th anniversary of the IFT, the tournament started by the Healy brothers, who invented the sport of Guts at a family picnic. The focus that year was on getting old players to come out and play the sport again. It was also Dan Gannon’s son, Adam’s first game.
“It’s a hard sport to learn, but once you get decent, it’s so much fun. It really takes a person who’s willing to try something different,” Adam said.
Now, little by little, the sport has been revived by older players who are getting their kids involved. One recent team called the Decades consisted of a 60 year old, a 50 year old, a 40 year old and two players in their 20s.
“Guts is really a family sport,” Gannon said. He plays now both with and against his son, Adam. But, as Gannon said with a smirk, “It’s always better to play against him.”
Now, the tournament in Marquette is back up to an average 16 team roster. The numbers of Guts players swell with older and newer players alike bonding together to whip Frisbees at each other’s faces.
For older, retired players like “Buck” Buchanan, seeing the sport continue to pass down the generations is important.
“To see this sport grow from a little spot in the UP and go worldwide has been amazing. But we (Michiganders) invented the sport, and we have to fight to stay competitive.”
–James Dyer, Contributing Writer