—by Davis Johnson—
Throwing is in my DNA—my first distance discs of choice according to my mother were Gerber baby food lids. It proceeded on to rocks, apples, crab shells, shingles, baseballs, any projectile my wrist could snap… So, when a Wham-O Pro appeared in the neighborhood in the spring of 1965 I was well primed to begin a life of plastic-projectivity. Still, in 1972 when I sent away for one of those mail
"Plastic arts" was in the stars
order astrology assessments I was miffed to see the stars predicted that “at some point of your life you will become attracted to plastic arts.” As a product of the 1960s' counterculture, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, I wanted nothing to do with plastic and all it represented. But now, after a lifetime of plastic projectile pursuits, I get it!
From the mid '60s through the early '70s, the Wham-O Pro was the disc of the day for distance and for anything else the famous “Play catch – invent games,” come on invitation, might incite the mind to create. I took to it quickly and it became a pattern when playing with a group of people that I would be on one end of the field; there’d be a group of receivers at the other end, and someone mid-field to relay the Frisbee back to me.
Classmates vying to snag an All American Pro thrown by the author in the spring of 1969 It’s hard to imagine now with so many disc companies and model choices available, that aside from assorted cheap knock-offs, the Frisbee was the be all and the end all in those days. Ed Headrick had improved on the Pluto Platter model with the express goal of spinning the flying disc from a casual beach/picnic must bring, into something regarded as a more serious sporting device. The Pro and its variations, the All American and the Moonlighter, became the instruments of my apprenticeship into the plastic arts.
They say to obtain mastery at something one must put in the obligatory 10,000 hours of practice. No doubt I spent at least 5,000 of these hours in the grassy quadrangle across the street from my dorm at Saint Louis University. (Studies—not so much.) From the start, my goal was simple—To…Throw…Far. Today, flying disc play attracts legions of elite athletes, but then, to put it mildly I was a very fringe devotee to a very fringe pastime. There was of course no internet, no tweeting, bleating, Instagramming and the instant messaging we take for granted today. As for Frisbee distance records, through whatever pre-internet grape vines existed back in the day, there came the vague buzz of a legendary Bob May of California, a member of the disc sport pioneering Berkeley Frisbee Group who had thrown a Wham-o Pro over 300 feet! I had the audacity to try to shuck my feet of clay and ascend to the heights of this Golden State icon.
Sea & SkiFastback Official Pro ModelFire Orange Master FrisbeeBlack My first ever Frisbee “tournament” was in the summer of 1973 at the Boston Common, a Sea and Ski promotion that featured a simple distance and accuracy competition. Out of the hordes of casual tossers emerged an intense, super toned hippy-freak brandishing a black Wham-o Master. This is how I met John Kirkland, he with the “bigger is better” black Master, or “lid” as they were nicknamed; me with a sleek, wrist snap friendly, red (fire orange) Pro. Such was the beginning of a friendly distance rivalry that goes on to this day. I would say I dominated for the many years we competed with the old plastic—but with the new, he’s had me “Innova my head” for decades now! Anyway, up until our Sea and Ski showdown, we each had never met anyone who could throw farther. (Spoiler alert: by the end of the distance competition that day, John had given up the Master for good as a distance disc, and taken up the Pro.)
Thus began years of practice together, first at the astroturfed Boston College football stadium, and then at M.I.T. where John was a sometime student. We spent endless hours in the quadrangle dominated by the famous dome, and in the spacious indoor gym perfecting our distance craft, working out torque and snap; hyzer/anhyzer release angles and all that goes into being human launch pads for the flying disc. At the end of the summer we both traveled to Marquette, Michigan, for the legendary I.F.T. tournament that had long been run on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This is arguably the event that initiated the modern era of flying disc play. It was a first meeting of the continent scattered tribes of Frisbeedom; representatives of the legendary Berkeley Frisbee Group mingling with east coasters for the first time; an entourage from Canada, and of course getting to know numerous mid-westerners of Guts teams who in epic Spartan battles comprised the main menu of I.F.T. competition.
IFA News v1n15Johnson's 335 foot throw But there was also a distance competition down a rather overgrown, unruly cow pasture. I gained my first mention ever, in the International Frisbee Association (I.F.A.) newsletter, for a post-competition long drive down that pasture. There followed what was for me, a magical introduction to Maximum Time Aloft where a mix of players from all over responding to the countdown of 3-2-1, rocketed our discs on high for stall and float back; the last one calling “catch” the winner of each round. Pure bliss on a late summer early eve on the U.P. of Michigan. Another vivid memory is of hitchhiking with Doug McCrae another local player who often practiced with John and me, all the way back to Boston, and being marooned for the entire Labor Day weekend on a highway interchange at the N.Y./MA border, thumbs stuck out in futility. In desperation we finally risked walking down to the MA Pike to catch a ride. Instead we caught the attention of a state trooper who warned us that if we were still down there on his next pass, he would bring us in. Prayers answered; no sooner had the Statie accelerated away when a car pulled over; the hospitable driver brought us to his home in Western Massachusetts and offered us very welcomed showers and food.
4th Annual U of M Frisbee Festival, 1977Davis "Dave" Johnson, defending distance champion In the early spring of 1974, John through M.I.T. Student Activities managed to get us partially sponsored for an indoor Frisbee Festival and distance Wall Banging competition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This was my first real tournament, an introduction to what seemed an improbably large group of frisbee freaks. By winning that wall banging competition I felt as comrade in arms among that stellar crew of frisbee pioneers who had gathered from far and near including Ed Headrick, Ken Westerfield, Jo Cahow, John Sappington, along with the very modest horde of Humbly Magnificent Champions of the Universe, the hosting Frisbee organization.
C.P.I. Saucer Tosser, All StarWorld record 378 feet (not actual world record disc) Late that spring occurred another significant event in the development of flying disc competition, the first Octad on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, organized by Dan “Stork” Roddick, Gary Seubert and Flash Kingsley. Here for the first time when it came to distance bragging rights, the Wham-O Pro was usurped by a formidable adversary, the C.P.I. All Star Saucer Tosser. The C.P.I. was in many players’ minds an improvement over the Pro in that it was a bit heavier, had a deeper profile, and was smooth on top unlike the many grooved Pro, the grooves being Wham-O’s claim for patent exclusivity. It did not take wind tunnel expertise to surmise that a smooth top surface would cut down on flight friction. In simple terms, the C.P.I. felt good in the hand, and it flew far! In a strong, chill northwest wind, one distance throw after another was launched using this non-Wham-O disc. Having just been introduced to it and not having one of my own, to Victor Malafronte’s eternal chagrin (though he has since forgiven me!) he let me borrow a purple one of his with which I set my first world’s distance record with a throw of 378 feet, just a few feet beyond the record he had set but a few minutes prior! It is reflective of Wham-O’s dominance of flying disc play that because mine had been set with a non-Frisbee, it was not officially recognized until some years later.
As would be expected of the company behind the legendary Frisbee, Wham-O did not take the usurper challenge lying down. An early response was the Super Pro that became popular, a wider diameter Frisbee to the Pro. But the best way to counter the competition is to absorb it. Wham-O bought C.P.I. and rights to the mold that made the All Star Saucer Tosser disc so many players were using. Ed Headrick and the Wham-O engineers went to work, and just prior to the second ever World Frisbee Championships (W.F.C.) introduced the World Class 119G Frisbee. I can still recall the excitement as an invitee to the 1975 W.F.C. receiving a box in the mail a few weeks prior, with colorful, Pepsi logoed 119 and 141G discs contained within. One field test and the C.P.I. was put aside, relegated with a brief nod and “thank you” to history. We couldn’t wait to bring these new weapons of play to the field of competition.
Wham-O’s W.F.C.s were Frisbee players’ dreams come true though in the rebellious spirit of the day not all the invitees showed that kind of appreciation. But imagine being an athlete in a fringe sport who has found a few others of like mind. Then imagine being invited to California for a week, airfare and all expenses paid, to meet and compete with the elite of other Frisbee afficionados from all over the U.S. and Canada with the added spice of players from Scandinavia…Japan… Pretty heady stuff! Imagine then being on a 747 heading west, full of Frisbee players tossing minis to each other in the generous spaces of the big airliner. I have vivid memories of ascending the stairs to the lounge area of the 747 in the bulbous nose (yes, the airlines didn’t stack you like sardines in those days). The lounge featured a small bar and what a feeling to be sipping a Mai Tai and looking out the window as we passed high over Grand Canyon country…
1975 Rose Bowl Winning Distance Disc The 1975 W.F.C. for the first time featured an indoor distance competition held at the cavernous Los Angeles Convention center. But though huge in space, the ceiling was rather low so some of the competitors’ best efforts went for naught with unfortunate ceiling interceptions. But I managed to get a throw off with the new World Class Pepsi logoed 119G of 290 feet according to the PDGA website, to establish the indoor distance record. Later that week I also won the outdoor distance event held in the storied Rose Bowl, pretty heady stuff for the striver from Boston. Then there was the legendary ending party for all competitors at a Middle Eastern restaurant featuring falafels with lots of delicious fillings for a sumptuous meal. Now what do falafels remind you of? Yes, Frisbees. An open bar…falafels…a restaurant full of exuberant Frisbee players… With players fueled with lots of brew, the falafels flew, propelling this party into the realm of legend!
In 1976, further development in flying disc competition, spearheaded by player demand and the efforts of Dan Roddick, now an employee of Wham-O, was initiated. This was the North American Series of tourneys occurring all over the country and in Canada. In Boston we wanted to be part of this so John Kirkland and I and other local players organized and scheduled a North American Series event to take place at M.I.T. in late July of 1976.
412 ft. World Record Disc Of course, one of the events was distance competition and I found myself on the warm windy afternoon of July 26, 1976, officiating this and growing ever more restless as one competitor after another launched their best efforts down field. Back then it was somewhat of a custom that if running a tournament, one would not compete, so I was not planning to step to the line for my five throws. But my fellow competitors egged me on and with all the pent-up energy of an afternoon watching all the rest unleash, I let loose; no warm-ups just a cathartic release of pure energy. Three of the five throws, low line drives down the wind, carried better than 400 feet, the farthest setting the new record of 412 feet. The long sought after 400 foot mark, the rough Frisbee equivalent of the 4-minute mile had been broken. (The romance of such quests is a little dampened these days with widespread use of the metric system!)
Towards the end of that summer’s W.F.C. competitions, Wham-O came up with a neat publicity stunt to celebrate the breaking of the 400-foot barrier. With the competitors all gathered in the Rose Bowl stands, a wheelbarrow containing 412 silver dollars was rolled out. I was encouraged by the photographers to give a good grovel through the glittery loot but my holier than thou, anti-commercial sensitivities kicked in and I balked, no doubt to their disappointment. I didn’t want to come across like some contestant on Dialing for Dollars or something. Today I’d have more fun and get more down and dirty with the whole thing. Of course, I always get asked the question, how did you get all those silver dollars back to Boston? Well, if they’d been real silver, I would have been happy to risk swayback and hoisted that sack of loot all the way home. But for a bunch of pretty coins made of zinc? Nope. I took the check.
Across the Charles Toss Back home, John and I, and others such as Daryl Elliott and Dan Habeeb of Reading, Massachusetts, were having fun working to grow the sport. Daryl and Dan gave disc exhibitions across the area. I was in the fortuitous position as the hippy-dippy weatherman for WCAS, an AM alternative radio station beaming out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The station came up with a catchy Frisbee promotion that took place in September of 1976—The Great Cambridge Frisbee Throw. The highlight of this Frisbee Festival attended by thousands and receiving lots of press coverage was John Kirkland and me competing to see if we could throw across the Charles River. The riverbank was crowded with spectators as John and I tried to span it on this beautiful September afternoon from precarious footing on the opposite shore. One of my World Class 119s was caught by a spectator reaching out over the water, so I suppose we met the challenge! I still have an FB3 Fastback with the station logo on it, given out to attendees. It is my go to flyer for M.T.A. competitions.
In sum, I held the World Record for distance in various manifestations from the spring of 1974 to the fall of 1978 when John tossed one 444 feet at a tournament in Texas. According to the PDGA, my record of 412 feet thrown with the 119G 40 mold stands unbeaten to this day in the Super Class category, no doubt because no one has tried too hard to best it. Would love to see today’s boomers give it a go using the old plastic, to see what they could do.
As for another distance record of mine (sort of), it was mostly due to the legwork of Martha Faye, John Pickerill’s sleek, swift Black Lab. In the summer of 1978 in Wilmette, Illinois, Martha sprinted 336 feet to catch my long toss—thanks, Martha! (Interesting post-script; John Pickerill arranged a halftime demo at a New England Patriots Monday night football game at old Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, with me to throw to Martha during halftime. It was a raw, rainy miserable night made that much more miserable due to the Patriots getting beat up bad by the visiting Denver Broncos. So, stiff and chilled without warm-up, I go out onto the field, worm-burn a throw that poor Martha hasn’t a ghost of a chance to catch up to, and the deafening boos of 40,000 or so beer besotted fans cascade around me. I half expected someone in a soggy toga to give me the dreaded thumbs down signal.)
So ends this account of my relentless quest to throw far, what I did and what I threw to go about getting into the record books. Some years later in the early 1980s at a beloved natural object disc golf course in picturesque Lars Anderson park in Brookline, Massachusetts, a friend pulls out a couple of new-fangled, hard-edged discs made by this company called Innova. “Those aren’t Frisbees!” I say in horror. But then I give them a few tosses. End, one chapter; beginning of the next…
About the Author:
Davis Johnson, born in Boston, came into the world wanting to throw and has spent his entire life scratching that itch. When Frisbees flew into his life, he simply wanted to throw them—far. That translated to farthest in the 1970s when he held multiple world distance titles, including becoming the first to throw over 400 feet. Dave is a published poet and songwriter and is “retired” after 30 years teaching writing, speech and journalism at a community college. He’s also worked as a radio weathercaster, and motivational speaker. Dave’s also an author, having written and published a children’s book, and he edited Victor Malafronte’s The Complete Book of Frisbee. When comes time to be sorted into the Cosmic Compost Bin, Dave prides himself on being 100% recyclable; his titanium hip replacements to the metal bin, teeth implants to the plastics. The rest he gives back to the stars.