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Flying discs give pro athletes ultimate high

DEERFIELD – Deerfield graduate Kevin Kelly recalls a pep talk by a captain on his University of Kansas ultimate team that still resonates with him today.

“He said it is very rare in life when you get more back from something than what you put into it,” Kelly said of former Jayhawk captain Joe Nickels. “When you work so hard and devote so much of your time, mind, and body, and you still get more out of it, you know you have found something special. That is what ultimate is for so many players.

“We commit so much of our lives to the sport, but the internal satisfaction of making a big play on the field, of collectively achieving a goal as a team, and of being part of such an endearing community makes every sacrifice so very worth it.”

Kelly now plays for Chicago’s first professional ultimate team, the Windy City Wildfire. Ultimate, once called ultimate Frisbee, is a team sport using a flying disc. The object is to score points by passing the disc to a teammate in the opposing end zone. The game is often described as a hybrid of football, soccer and basketball.

The Wildfire filled its inaugural roster with a number of local players: Alex Gareis (Wilmette); Rob Greenberg (Northbrook); Kevin Yngve (Evanston); Jimmy Robin (Lake Zurich); Kelly (Deerfield); James Roush (Hinsdale); and Gary LeDonne (Western Springs).

Player-coach LeDonne has been playing ultimate for 19 years.

“I ran cross country and track in high school and started playing ultimate my sophomore year in college,” LeDonne said. “There is certainly something unique about the flight of the disc. I like the combination of speed, endurance and throwing skills that are necessary to be successful. Many teammates I’ve had over the years have remained as friends. So many good people are involved in this sport.”

Windy City, which belongs to the American Ultimate Disc League Midwestern Division, tops the standings at 12-2 following Saturday’s loss to the Madison Radicals. Majority owner Steve Gordon, a Chicago entrepreneur, said he hasn’t been disappointed by the sport or the team, which plays its home games at Lane Tech.

“It’s been a fantastic run,” Gordon said. “Eighteen months ago I didn’t even know the sport existed. I did my due diligence and ended up (buying the team). I’m so happy I did. The clincher for me is the spirit of the game. The set of values these players have is unlike anything I’ve seen in anything else. You see it in the way they act on and off the field. It’s absolutely what drew me to the game.”

Kelly, who was a captain his senior season at Kansas in 2009, was nominated for the Callahan Award as the best player in the nation. He first got a taste of the sport playing pick-up games with members of his Deerfield track and field team.

“I got hooked and I tried to learn more about the sport on my own,” Kelly said. “It was the pre-YouTube era, so the only videos I could find online were the live streams of College Nationals on CSTV. I watched them over and over and encouraged our pick-up games to become more formal and to include more rules. College is where most players really become attached to the sport, due to the level of competitiveness, and the camaraderie of being on a college team is lot like being a part of a fraternity from a social standpoint.

“The sport is addicting, exciting and so rewarding to play. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity (to play for the Wildfire) while I’m still young enough to compete on the field.”

One of Kelly’s teammates at Kansas is current Wildfire teammate Gareis.

 

“My older brother played in high school and made me throw with him all the time when I was in sixth grade,” Gareis said. “I first played ultimate at a camp in 2001. Since I started playing, the constant growth in popularity has been apparent, but I didn’t expect it to become a professional sport this early in my career. I think just about every little boy dreams of some day becoming a professional athlete, so when this opportunity came around, it was a dream come true.”

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