Wildfire franchise out to make Ultimate a pro sport staple
A chemical engineer and father of four, John Hock of Naperville admits that he never dreamed he'd be a professional athlete at age 48. In addition to logging playing time with the Windy City Wildfire, Chicago's entry in the American Ultimate Disc League, Hock also serves as head coach for a team that features world-class athletes and a strong suburban presence.
His kids, ages 16 to 22, appreciate Hock's newfound celebrity in a game that started more than 40 years ago when Frisbees became popular.
Basic Rules of Ultimate
1. Field — 53.3 yards wide and 80 yards long with 20-yard-long end zones at each end
2. Format — Four 15-minute quarters with an overtime period of 5 minutes
3. Initiating Play — The seven starting players on each team line up in their respective end zones and the defense throws or "pulls" the disc to the offense for them to receive to start play
4. Play — Offensive players move the disc down the field by passing to one another. Players may not run with the disc and must establish a pivot foot as soon as they receive.
5. Possession — If the disc is thrown out of bounds, dropped, blocked, and hits the ground or is intercepted, the result is a turnover and the defensive team goes on the offense.
6. Scoring — A goal is scored when an offense player catches the disc in the end zone of attack. Players must signal readiness to play the next point 40 seconds after the score.
7. Substitutions — Player substitutions are allowed before a pull, after a point is scored, or if an injury occurs.
8. Infractions — Various fouls for both offense and defense may occur and result in yardage penalties.
9. Officiating — Four officials will be on field at all times to spot infractions and issue penalties.
"It used to be Dad's hobby," Hock says of the game. "Now, it's cool."
Once regarded as "the hippie game" mostly played by a cultlike collection of laid-back college kids, Ultimate now boasts 5 million players (more than rugby and lacrosse combined) in this country and has shown double-digit growth every year since 2009, notes Steve Gordon, 55, a Chicago entrepreneur who is the majority owner of the Wildfire and commissioner of the AUDL. Teams don't need pads or special equipment other than a flying disc that generally costs less than a movie ticket,
The game has elements of soccer, football, basketball and hockey. The disc is advanced by players throwing it to teammates. Once the disc is caught, the player cannot run, remaining on a pivot foot much like in basketball. Teams score when a player catches the disc in the end zone of the 80-yard field. If the disc is intercepted or hits the ground, the defensive team goes on the offensive.
The league started last year with eight teams, features 12 this season and will expand to 20 next year, says Gordon, who envisions the game carving out a solid share of a growing market for sports entertainment. The league, which broadcasts now on UXTVnetwork.com, is negotiating with well-known sports and entertainment companies, athletic apparel giants and sporting goods companies to expand the market for Ultimate, Gordon says.
Brodie Smith, 25, of Jacksonville, Fla., the best-known player on the Wildfire and in the league, might be the only athlete who can make a living off Ultimate. His trick-shot videos on YouTube have garnered more than 36 million views, and he also sells a line of Ultimate merchandise.
"When we have home games, he stays at my house in Warrenville," says Jonathan "Goose" Helton, who earned the league's Most Valuable Player Award last season while playing alongside Smith for the Indianapolis AlleyCats. The 6-foot, 200-pound Helton, who maintains a rigorous workout schedule designed to improve strength, endurance and explosive quickness, looks as if he could be a pro athlete in a number of sports. He might be the league's best defender, but he makes his living as a financial planner.
Helton also serves as an Ultimate coach at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, which has perhaps the largest Ultimate program in the country with more than 200 boys and girls playing the sport.
During his days at Naperville North High School, Wildfire's Brett Kolinek started playing Ultimate with his soccer teammates for fun in the off-season. At Colorado State University, he was a captain for the university's Ultimate squad. In 2011, he played on a team that won a gold medal at the World Championship of Beach Ultimate in Italy. The 30-year-old, who makes his living running a jewelry trade show company, says the game is building a loyal following.
"I walked into the bagel shop in Naperville and a kid goes, 'Oh, that's an Ultimate shirt,'" Kolinek says.
Many of the players help with youth leagues. Jimmy Robin, 26, of Hawthorn Woods, coaches a club based in Lake Zurich and started a larger league this season. He says Ultimate was a natural extension of his years playing sports at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein.
"Baseball and soccer play into what I like about Ultimate," says Robin, who works for Allstate Insurance. Playing shortstop taught him how to catch with either hand, judge balls in the air and dive to make catches. Soccer gave him endurance and the ability to make sharp cuts.
"These guys work out like crazy," says coach Hock, who grew up playing all kinds of sports, including football at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. He saw Ultimate played for the first time as a college student in 1984.
"I had heard of the sport, but there was no Internet back then," Hock remembers. Finding other serious players was tricky at first, but Hock has built a reputation during the past quarter century playing for national teams.
"It's love of the game," says Hock, who, like almost everyone who plays, praises Ultimate's "Spirit of the Game" mantra that stresses fairness, sportsmanship and a dignified integrity. "You don't want to play with a bunch of jerks."
Traditionally played on an honor system without referees, the pro version does feature four officials to spot infractions and issue penalties. The game has its own lingo (flick, hammer, scoober, or huck) and detailed strategies.
"We've got a playbook I couldn't get a staple through," Robin says.
As manager of the Lombard office of Civil & Environmental Consultants, Hock says Ultimate continues to attract more of a college-educated, professional crowd than most sports.
"It's a bit of a geek sport," he says. "I once played on a team with three physicists."
The Wildfire play a 16-game regular season schedule and host the Cincinnati Revolution at 3 p.m. today at the team's home stadium at Lane Tech High School, 2501 W. Addison St. in Chicago. Tickets are $6.95 for kids younger than 18 and seniors, $9.95 for adults and $29.95 for families of up to six.
"It's addictive," says Gary LeDonne, 38, a player and assistant coach from Western Springs. He notes that the highlights (available at wc-wildfire.com) almost always feature miraculous catches and length-of-the-field passes that end in scores.
The team also features Warrenville native Ron Kubalanza, 30, a legend in Ultimate circles. Other suburban members include Hinsdale native James Roush, Oswego's Jonathan Hatcher, Deerfield's Kevin Kelly, Rob Greenberg of Northbrook, Kevin Yngve of Evanston, Alex Gareis of Wilmette and Bill Finn of Riverside.
The teams provide jerseys, travel to away games, food and hotels when needed and a small paycheck per game. While some dream of a day when professional Ultimate players make a living playing the game, Hock says players are thrilled at the opportunity to play for the Wildfire instead of having to shell out thousands of dollars in league fees, travel and other expenses for club teams.
"We're happy," Hock says. "All of us are used to paying to play the game we love."
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