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It’s Still Kicking Around

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 23rd Annual World Footbag Championships opened here this week with good vibes and scant fanfare, despite the fact that they coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Hacky Sack this year. Yes, there is a world championship featuring that little beanbag kicking game that Deadheads used to play in circles. “Hunh,” a middle-aged bureaucrat marveled outside one of the heats at the UC San Francisco student union. “People actually still do that?”

“Actually, the way it’s done now has a kind of X-games feel,” offered a 29-year-old software tester named Tuan Vu, to whom the question was repeated. Vu, a local known in footbag circles as “the Disco Ninja,” was bare-chested and sweat-soaked from the tip of his soul patch to his Adidas Rod Lavers. Around him, the gymnasium was a hive of hopping, spinning, flitting, perspiring footbaggers, kicking their plum-sized beanbags to the beat of rap and heavy metal. Some moved like acrobats, some like ponies, some like marionettes, their spines, arms and legs as curved as commas. One kid, romping to AC/DC, was punctuating his footwork with air guitar windmills. In a far corner, a circle of white-haired teens from the Czech Republic had been bouncing nonstop for more than two hours. The scene was somewhere between Burning Man and Big Top. “I’ve spent over $1,000 on physical therapy, just rehabbing my ankles,” the Disco Ninja said.

The road from backyard hobby to international athletic phenomenon has become a well-traveled thoroughfare in the past couple of decades. From skateboards to ice dancing, one generation’s kid stuff is another’s segment on ESPN.

Few aspiring sports, however, have had as much difficulty selling themselves as footbagging. (The colloquial name, Hacky Sack, is actually a brand name, like Frisbee.) The pursuit has players’ organizations, training videos, Web sites and subspecialties, such as footbag golf and “net” footbag, a kind of high-flying volleyball played with no hands. Its most ambitious supporters have Olympic aspirations. A footbag demonstration is scheduled for the X Games in Philadelphia next week. But the public, it seems, can see neither the celebrity wattage nor the smackdown potential of a hobby it associates with old hippies. (“Stars?” the producer of this year’s 23rd annual games shrugged when asked about big names. “You never heard of ‘em. I never heard of ‘em either.”) Even the most accomplished players must support themselves Clark Kent-like with day jobs.

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And the subculture doesn’t help much: Trash talk is nonexistent, rivals high-five each other, and, at one point during the preliminaries, several contestants burst into tears at the buoyant grace of one of the Czech kids. One of the entrants, a bike messenger from Chicago, kept offering sports massages to his rivals. (“That’s Constantine the Energy Guy--major bliss,” one contestant confided.) Another, a tattooed Canadian, appeared to be compulsively juggling other people’s footbags. So much peace and love, promoters say, make footbagging that much harder to pitch as a “real” competition, with real backing and--more to the point--real endorsements.

“This is not a silly game,” stressed Steve Goldberg, executive director of the International Footbag Players’ Assn. “This is a serious athletic discipline. We just got our [nonprofit] designation and we want to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee. But we keep coming up against this whole hippie thing.”

Footbagging, as its players know it, dates to 1972, when an injured soccer player in Oregon named John Stalberger met a local character named Mike Marshall. Stalberger had just had knee surgery and was trying to regain his flexibility when he encountered Marshall kicking around a handmade beanbag. Stalberger joined in for the exercise, the two became friends and went on to create a game called Hack the Sack that they eventually decided to market. They named their product--a small, ball-shaped beanbag--the Hacky Sack.

Marshall, the hippie, died three years later of a heart attack at the age of 28. But Stalberger, the athlete, went on to promote their product and game. Eventually, he sold the rights to the Hacky Sack to the then-owners of Wham-O Inc., which also made the Frisbee, among other products. Though a few “hackers,” as players are called, saw the novelty’s competitive potential almost from the beginning, it mainly caught on as a communal game. The idea was to keep the Hacky Sack aloft for as long as possible by lobbing it from one foot to another. “Your responsibility was to the circle,” explained one early player.

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Friendly, peaceful and free of winners or losers, it was--and in most places, still is-- known mainly as a resolutely anti-competitive endeavor. Some groups even had rules against having to say you were sorry if you let the footbag hit dirt, and positive reinforcement was encouraged. “I used to go to Dead concerts and play around and the people there would be like, ‘I am not worthy!’ ” laughed Sam Conlon, a women’s freestyle champion who makes and sells art in Missouri and who wasn’t competing this year because she “needed to get home for a big street fair.”

But it also takes a certain sort of personality to spend hours every day mastering the art of foot-flipping a 2-inch beanbag, and that sort of drive usually comes with a non-communal will to win. As time has passed, fans say, that take on the sport has slowly gained momentum. And spectators are beginning to appreciate the effort that goes into mastering it. “People just don’t understand the discipline and artistry until I take them to tournaments and shove it in their faces, and they go, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ” said Goldberg, a laid-off tech executive who, when he was flush, poured tens of thousands of dollars into the promotion of footbagging. Even this year--despite the fact that he had to take out a second mortgage to pay his taxes--he helped underwrite the Czech team’s airfare and is putting the four members up in the guest room of his house in Redwood City.

“In the past few years, with the availability of video on the Internet, this freestyle stuff has just exploded,” observed Kenny Shults, a former footbag child prodigy who was also watching from the sidelines. Shults, 35, is a marketer for a health care company in Pennsylvania, but among footbaggers, he is known as the creator of hundreds of now-standard freestyle tricks. “I just wanted to liven things up when I started doing tricks,” he recalled as the Czech kids bobbed and weaved around him, eavesdropping and translating the great man’s wisdom. “But now, for better or worse, a lot of these younger athletes have followed. And now kids are coming out of nowhere, doing just amazing stuff.”

Some of it was, in fact, amazing--Montreal gymnasts leaping and kicking to Cirque du Soleil-style music; hackers executing “shooting mirages” and the “blurry whirling swirls”; the blond, ponytailed Conlon offering a short demonstration that was part ballet and part hippie jig.

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Orange County’s Ryan Mulroney, the reigning freestyle world champion, was greeted with cheers and whistles even when he fumbled his footbag. Vasek Klouda, who, at 15, was the youngest and smallest member of the Czech team, seemed to be juggling with his feet as he leaped and floated. The performance was so flawless--and the boy’s otherwise taciturn face so momentarily joyful--that it left most of the audience and several of the judges weeping. If there were rivalries, it was hard to detect them amid all the hugging and high-fiving. More apparent were the competitors who were especially close.

“Look at those legs--40 years old, and after a baby!” enthused the shirtless Scott Davidson, a Chicago-area champion, ogling his wife, Valeria, who was competing in the women’s division. Davidson, who runs a family print business in his off-hours, pointed out another couple who--he swears--he saw fall in love as she carried a pair of sneakers across a gym floor.

“I met my wife through these people, and we have a beautiful son now,” said Vu. “I even got my job because of a footbagger who turned me on to the opening.”

Never mind that, in a “real” sport, the room full of hopping friends would be otherwise known as “the competition.”

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“This,” the Disco Ninja said smiling, “is my community.”


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