Fueled by Shults's inventiveness, the sport has grown. According to Stalberger, four to five million footbags are now sold each year in the U.S. There are more than a dozen manufacturers and an estimated 20 million players. Participation in the World Footbag Championships has increased every summer. The consecutive-kicks record is now 51,155, held by Ted Martin of Park Ridge, Ill.
As tireless kids with "legs like fly rods," as Shults describes them, have entered the sport and competition has intensified, Shults has found it increasingly difficult to stay on top. The onetime Hacky Sack prodigy, who graduated in 1988 from the University of Oregon with a degree in advertising, even married a fellow foot-bagger. His wife, Kendall, is so devoted to both soccer and Hacky Sack that in 1984 she legally changed her surname to KIC. And the heir to the footbag throne is due in February. "I can tell already," she says, rubbing her midriff, "he's a kicker."
Because footbag is an ill-paying pastime—first prize for most events at this year's championships was less than $250—Shults has felt increasingly obliged to concentrate on his software-company job. "I used to practice every day, all day, eight, 10 hours at a stretch," he says. "Now I'm lucky if I can get in a couple of hours a week."
And in Montreal, for perhaps the first time in his career, Shults was not the favorite. Top net players such as the Quebec contingent of Sebastien Verdy and Emmanuel Bouchard had prepared for the worlds by competing in a local league two nights a week during the winter, and a few hours a day in the summer. Shults hadn't played a serious game of net since the previous world championships. Favored freestylists such as Rick Reese, of San Francisco, and Peter Irish, of Fort Collins, Colo., had spent hundreds of hours choreographing and refining their two-minute routines. Shults's plan was to get onstage and wing it.
Still, no one has lived footbag the way Shults has, and he breezed into the finals in three of the four events he had entered. There, though, he was stopped. In the net singles final, against Verdy, Shults sprinted and lunged and rainbow-kicked all over the playing area (which is the size of a badminton court), but he was eventually done in by the vicious serve of his opponent, who won a tight contest, two games to one.
The net doubles final was even closer, but once again Shults, playing alongside Randy Mulder, came up short. And in the freestyle final, held on the midway of Montreal's La Ronde amusement park, Shults's legs were so sore from his net matches that they had little oomph left for blending, barraging and blurring. Reese, performing a wild karatelike routine in which he often kicked two footbags at once, was named champion.
At the awards dinner Shults vowed to make a comeback next year, when the championships will be in Portland. Someone in the audience asked him why. After all his accomplishments, after amassing 44 world titles, what did he have left to prove?
He considered the question for a moment. "No matter how well I've kicked," he said, smiling but entirely earnest, "the bag eventually ends up on the floor. In the end, gravity always wins. That still frustrates me."