Of the millions of kids who have gathered in millions of circles to kick around all those little beanbags, virtually none know about Kenny Shults. They should. Although Shults didn't invent the sport of footbag—commonly known by the trademark name Hacky Sack—he is responsible, more than anyone else, for sparking its international popularity. Shults is the world's first and only Hacky Sack prodigy.
"I'm starting to feel ancient," he said as he surveyed the dreadlocks and tie-dyes and body piercings on the newcomers who had assembled to compete in the 17th annual World Footbag Championships, held in August in Montreal. "Footbag years, you know, are like dog years."
Though Shults is all of 30 in human years, his hair—cut Wall Street conservative—is starting to thin, and his wire-framed eyeglasses are distinctly unhip. Also, he lacks the cocksure demeanor of a dominant athlete. Shults is tall and lanky, 6'1" and 165 pounds, and he moves about with the uncertainty of an adolescent who has just experienced a growth spurt. He tucks his T-shirt into his shorts. He is polite almost to a fault. And because of his job as the marketing director of a software company in Clackamas, Ore., just outside his hometown of Portland, he had little time to practice for the championships.
But when someone kicks Shults a footbag, the transformation is akin to that of Clark Kent when he steps into a phone booth. His feet move with the precision and artistry of a tap dancer's. His geniality gives way to solemn intensity, his klutziness to sangfroid. And in the preliminary rounds of the championships' two major events, freestyle and net, the dreadlocks and the tie-dyes tumbled like tyros.
This is the way it has always been. The Portland area is the epicenter of footbag. The game's inventors, John Stalberger and Mike Marshall, both Portland residents, invented the sport in 1972 as a way of limbering up stiff knees. Stalberger called the little beanbag Hacky Sack, and in 1976 he started marketing it around Portland. (Sadly, Marshall died of a heart attack in 1975.) "I thought it was the coolest thing," recalls Shults, who was 10 when he saw his first Hacky Sack on TV. "I had to have one...immediately. I think I was hooked on it before I'd ever touched one."
Shults already had a reputation for athletic fanaticism. When he was in fourth grade his obsession was pogo sticking, and he made a serious attempt at the world record for continuous jumps. "I got to about 15,000," he says, "before I became too dizzy to continue. I had really wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, and when I found footbag, I thought that could be my way in."
Two years after he was given his first Hacky Sack, Shults attended one of the early footbag tournaments, where he saw someone set a world record for consecutive kicks. "The guy kicked it 2,705 times," he says, "and my best was about 400—not all that far off. So I started practicing like crazy." A year later the world record, 4,515, was Shults's. He was 13 years old.
He was also precisely the person the Hacky Sack company was looking for: someone who could spread the gospel of footbag. At 13 Shults was hired as a spokesperson, earning about $3,000 a summer, and sent around the world, demonstrating his skills in Alaska, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan and Mexico.
At the inaugural footbag world championships, held in Oregon in 1980, Shults won his first title, in the consecutive-kicks event. The premier event back then was footbag net, an exhausting volleyball-like game played entirely with the feet. Points are scored only on a player's serve, and 11 points wins the game until the semifinals, when games go to 15 points. Matches are best two out of three. Though Shults lost in net the first year (to Hacky Sack coinventor Stalberger), soon he so dominated the event, winning eight world titles in singles and nine in doubles, that in 1993 he took a couple of years off to let other competitors catch up.
During this sabbatical Shults helped to advance freestyle footbag, today's marquee event. Traditionally freestyle competitors performed four or five basic kicks without stylistic flourish. Shults began inserting spins and leaps and leg twists between kicks. Offstage, he developed a vocabulary to describe these movements, assigned a difficulty level (called an add) to each and helped to standardize judging. The names of high-add moves and variations evoke the break-dance pace of contemporary freestyle footbag: "blurry whirl," "spinning blender," "barraging torque," "backside symposium" and "inside-out dexterity."