On a hot, crowded Saturday at Venice Beach, Pat King, 19, spots two guys kicking around a Hacky Sack. Hoping to play, too, he whispers the secret password recognized at hack circles around the world: "Mind if I join in?"
The Olympics claim to promote peace and unity, but any hacker will tell you the true goodwill game is Hacky Sack. It has kept warrior guards awake in ancient China, warmed up the legs of soccer players, and helped treat sports injuries by stretching muscles and tendons. In its latest incarnation, though, it's the ultimate neo-hippie sport--the athletic equivalent of tie-dyed clothing or listening to the Grateful Dead.
Officially known as footbag, the game is ubiquitous at rock concerts, on college campuses, in such enclaves as Haight-Ashbury and Harvard Square and anywhere else the laid-back liberal counterculture congregates.
"A friend of mine once asked me, 'Why do you play Hacky Sack? You can't score and you can't win,' " says Matt Jakubowski, 20, a junior at Villanova University. " 'Exactly,' I said."
The modern footbag, a pellet-filled cloth pouch about the size of a plum, was created in 1972 by John Stalberger, an Oregon athlete, to help rehabilitate his injured knee. He coined the term hacky sack , which became synonymous with the game.
Stalberger hawked his invention store-to-store, and it gained momentum when coaches adopted it for training. In 1983, Wham-O, the maker of Frisbees and Hula-Hoops, bought the marketing rights for $1.5 million, and the game spread. (Mattel Inc. bought Wham-O last year, and currently owns the name Hacky Sack.) Now, more than 2 million footbags are sold every year, guesses Bruce Guettich, president of the 12-year-old World Footbag Assn.
The sport, in which any number of players pass the bag through the air using any body part except arms and hands, can be played "everywhere except in line at the bank," says King, who likes to play at Venice Beach, on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and in his Mar Vista living room.
Players do not need pads or gloves or a hard body. All they need is a sack, which can be had for as little as $4--or as much as $49. To the uninitiated, the game often feels awkward, like shooting hoops with a golf ball, but regulars say it quickly becomes second nature.
The WFA oversees the competitive side of the sport, running tournaments and publishing a biannual magazine. But even Guettich admits that the average hacker does not know of the existence of games like footbag golf or footbag net, a distant cousin of volleyball.
Instead, most hackers enjoy the communal spirit the sport offers rather than the competition. Even though it had not been invented in the '60s, Hacky Sack borrows from hippie culture: Many people play barefoot, which is more difficult; the sack comes in colorful, psychedelic patterns; homemade sacks use such natural fillers as peas, rice and corn in lieu of plastic pellets. ("They don't last as long," says Guettich.)
Hacky Sack's reputation as a game of peace, love and understanding may have begun during a 1987 American-Soviet peace walk protesting the arms race. As hack circles developed along the road from Leningrad to Moscow, people joked that summit meetings weren't the answer; the secret to lasting peace among nations lay in the game of Hacky Sack.
The game's dynamics reinforce that image. Everyone is equal in a hack circle.
"You're not working against each other, but working together" to keep the sack in the air, says Berkeley hacker Nancy Hurwitz.
And the more players the merrier. "Anywhere you see a hack circle, if you want to get in, you ask and they let you," says King.
The friendly spirit also manifests itself in the two main rules. The first prohibits self-serves; when putting the sack in play, a player courteously tosses it to someone else for the first kick. The other rule disallows apologies.
In other sports--doubles tennis, for example--a faulty shot is followed by the obligatory "Sorry." But since an aborted hack can always be traced to player error, the apology is both implicit and unnecessary. The other hackers know the landing of the sack on the neighbor's roof was unintentional.
In a break from decorum, some players have been known to throw the sack at anyone who utters the "s-word." "The more pacifist hippies don't go for this, though," says John Tully, a regular at the hemp legalization stand on Venice Beach.
Despite the emphasis on sharing and cooperation, the game still attracts plenty of showoffs displaying their so-called circus tricks: "jesters," "fliers," "clippers" and "stalls," among other showy kicks.
"A lot of 'hacksturbation' goes on," says San Francisco hacker Ben Herzog.
For many, the most attractive aspect of Hacky Sack is apparently its conduciveness to other activities, say Joe Gaddy and Rick Garvey, who help run the Venice Beach hemp stand.
"You can play it with a beer in your hand," says Garvey.
"And a joint in your mouth," adds Gaddy.