The gyrating plot of the Coen brothers' circle-obsessed 1994 film. The Hudsucker Proxy, revolves around Norville Barnes, an idiot savant who invents the most popular ring-shaped toy of the mid-20th century, the hula hoop. It's intended, he says with a grin, "you know, for kids." Alas, success goes to this sweet rube's head, and he becomes self-satisfied, then corrupt, then suicidal. The movie ends with a happy, Capra-esque twist. Barnes redeems himself, becomes "rounded" again and announces his new stupid idea, the Frisbee.
We were reminded of Norville last week when we learned of the death of Ed Headrick, the Abner Doubleday and Ted Williams of Frisbees. Doubleday, because it was Headrick who designed the airworthy Pro Model we so love today. Williams, because the Splendid Spinner's dying wishes were even kinkier than the Splendid Splinter's. Headrick requested that his ashes be molded into a limited edition set of commemorative flying disks, most of which will be sold to raise cash for a Frisbee museum. According to his son Daniel, "He said he wanted to end up in a Frisbee that accidentally lands on someone's roof."
A true flying sorcerer, Headrick was among the first to envision Frisbee as a sport. What had, in the 1960s, seemed destined to be a fad toy like the pogo stick became our favorite game of catch. More Frisbees are supposedly sold each year than footballs, baseballs and basketballs combined, and the skies of suburban America are rent with games of Guts, Freestyle, Disk Golf and Catch & Fetch—a sport in which dogs have a paw up on humans.
The ultimate college game is still Ultimate, a free-form affair that weds the passing of football to the nonstop action of soccer. "Part of Ultimate's appeal on campuses is its simplicity—no refs and very few rules," says Wisconsin freshman Ross Mudrick. "There's a basic faith in the players, who police themselves and are expected to be honest and accountable." Plus, as generations of participant scholars can attest, Ultimate is about the only sport you can play well stoned.
Humankind's fling with the Frisbee dates to ancient Greece, and spin doctoral candidates trace its origin to the 450 B.C. statue of Discobolus, the discus thrower. (Look closely: He's attempting an overhand wrist flip.) The modern-day forerunner seems to have been the 10-inch tin plate that the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Conn., used in the late 1800s to hold Mother Frisbie's pies. Yale students would forfeit their five-cent deposits and toss the empty tins around the quad, shouting, "Frisbie!" while trying to decapitate their professors.
The first plastic prototype was created in 1948 by California carpenter Walter Frederick Morrison. In the mid-'50s he sold his wobbly Pluto Platter to Wham-O, the company that manufactured—you guessed it—hula hoops. Rechristened the Frisbee and assigned its own short-lived lingo ("If a wrimpleplat misses the sprovit, it is blort...."), the disk remained aero-dynamically unsound until 1964, when Wham-O's Headrick, a former welder, notched grooves in the center. Four years later he founded the International Frisbee Association, and a year after that some New Jersey high school students came up with Ultimate. The first intercollegiate match was played in '72 between Rutgers and Princeton, the same colleges that 103 years earlier had squared off in college football's first game. Both times Rutgers won by two points.
During the intervening decades Frisbee-chucking has evolved from languid pastime (love-ins; Grateful Dead shows) to something as serious as a slipped disk. Consider Dr. Stancil E. Johnson's seminal Frisbee: A Practitioner's Manual and Definitive Treatise; or the Flying Disk Congress, which began 17 years ago in Sweden; or that there are more than 30 Frisbee-dedicated publications. Sometimes, it seems, we forget that the Frisbee is just a toy. You know, for kids.