Sand Sack: Footbag might be more popular in Afghanistan than in Washington.
Sand Sack: Footbag might be more popular in Afghanistan than in Washington. Credit: AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

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For better or worse, D.C. was once a Hacky Sack hotbed.

The pastime sprouted out of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970s. John Stalberger, who invented the game earlier in the decade, says the name came from “hack the sack,” a phrase he and his buddies in Oregon City, Ore., coined to describe their time-killing routine of kicking a beanbag to each other.

By 1983, the game had hit D.C.

Advertisements in the Washington Post for the Pants Corral, a long-dead clothing store chain owned by Giant Food, offered “a free hacky sack from Levi’s!” to anybody who bought two pairs of jeans or corduroys. A year later, Wham-O, which by then owned the official Hacky Sack trademarks, held the first National Footbag Festival on the Mall to promote communal beanbag kicking.

The promotions worked. For a time here, no big green space at area high schools or college campuses or public parks ever went too long without a kicking circle. It wasn’t just for warmer months, either: For years, the Old Post Office Pavilion was the site of an annual wintry footbag meetup called the Christmas Jam.

And wherever there was tie-dye, there was Hacky Sack. At any hippieish concert in this market, you couldn’t swing a string of nitrous oxide-filled balloons without hitting some footbaggers.

Our area also used to host large regional and national footbag tournaments, for those whose competitive needs weren’t filled by kicking for kicking’s sake.

By the mid-1990s, only San Francisco and Vancouver had more fertile footbag scenes than D.C.

But it’s been years since I’ve seen even a small kicking circle pop up around here. So I call up Vince Bradley, a leading footbag enthusiast back in the heyday, and ask if the local Hacky Sack scene really is as dead as the Pants Corral.

“Yeah,” says Bradley.

Bradley lived in what he describes as a hippie house while going to school in College Park throughout the 1990s, and back then he spent essentially every weekend at a tournament (usually serving as organizer and competitor) or down at the Mall kicking all day long with the best freestylers in the area.

He was named to the Footbag Hall of Fame last year for his efforts promoting the game.

“I got 27 of 29 votes [for induction], is my understanding,” says Bradley.

But the hippie house broke up years ago. And he’s cut back on organizing and cut out playing. Bradley’s former kicking circle, called the D.C. All Stars, hasn’t met on the Mall in years.

And Peter Irish, a former world champion footbagger who had organized his own club out of Silver Spring (“Welcome universal citizens to the third temple,” was the salutation on the club’s Web page), has since moved to San Francisco and now makes his living as a juggler.

“The players are still around [D.C.], including some world-class players,” Bradley says. “But you don’t see them any more, because there’s nobody getting it together, no organization at all.”

Bradley, in fact, tells me in recent years he’s only aware of one regular kicking circle in the D.C. area. That was at the University of Maryland, where astronomy professor Derek Richardson long brought his graduate students out to the lawn to hack the sack while mulling the cosmos.

As it turns out, even Richardson’s kick clique is gone.

“We don’t kick much around here any more,” says the prof. “That’s mostly my fault—I’m spending more and more time telecommuting, so when I am in the department I’m usually pretty busy and don’t get a chance to round up a group to go outside. Which is too bad, [because] we used to go out almost daily.”

So what happened?

Bradley says that just as he deserves credit for building up the local scene, its demise can be put on him, also.

“I’m not evangelizing any more,” he says. “I got burned out, and nobody picked up my slack. I know the players are still out there, but without me out there promoting, there’s no organization, and since it’s just not seen as much, no new blood.”

Founding footbagger Stalberger says Bradley’s not bragging: “Vince spent so much time and energy and his own money to promote this, and other than blessings from God he never got paid,” he says. “And nobody’s replaced him there. When you don’t have local leadership that’s being refurbished or re-energized, you’ll see a drop-off, and I assume that’s what you’re seeing.”

With all due respect to Bradley’s contributions to the game, I see the disappearance of the Hacky Sack circle from our local landscape as a symptom of something larger. The game’s demise has corresponded with the disappearance of the slacker culture that the footbag was so closely identified with.

Bradley confessed that at the height of his footbag promotion, his house was not only the center of the local Hacky Sack universe, it was also a place where tenants and guests spent their days “listening to LPs and playing music and juggling, guys playing Nintendo all night while they got high.”

That’s the market the suits were after. After all, Mattel acquired Wham-O and thus the rights to Hacky Sack in 1994, and the toy giant used footbag in an attempt to make Bohemianism part of its brand. Mattel made a deal to release a licensed Grateful Dead Magic footbag aimed at Deadheads just before Jerry Garcia joined the lower-case dead. Garcia’s old band broke up when he passed, but the toy company went ahead with the Magic bag.

“Mattel really messed it up,” says Stalberger, “just like I knew they would.”

Mattel’s counterculturist plan, however, had some successes, for sure: A 1996 New York Times story about generic jam band scenes found “barefoot pilgrims” kicking around a bag “beneath a haze of marijuana smoke.”

But the target marketing didn’t count on a local economy getting so good that even slackers joined the rat race. Eventually, Hacky Sack was too closely aligned with the counterculture for recovering bohemians to take the game with them to the corporate realm.

So Hacky Sack went from cool to anachronism pretty quick. If the game gets referenced in pop culture these days, it’s likely to be as a punch line.

Footbag, for example, gets kicked around metaphorically throughout Adam Sandler’s 2008 comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. The opening scene shows Sandler ending a footbag freestyling routine by landing the beanbag in the crack of his ass.

Not exactly Breaking Away for the sack set.

Something called the Bad Fads Museum gives Hacky Sack an entry alongside “Talking to plants” and “Fallout shelters.”

Stalberger says that if the game is down in D.C., it’s not out. Hacky Sack is thriving overseas, he says. And to cure any domestic woes, Stalberger says, he’s personally coming out of retirement to lead a grassroots effort to push all things footbag to American kids. He’s named his campaign “Mr. Hacky Sack Tours.”

“I’m going to the schools to talk to classes and do assemblies,” he says. “This is a great game, and it’s not going to go away. We want to do this right. There’s not going to be anybody talking about, ‘Whoa! This is a hippie sport!’ I won’t be part of that.”

Then again, even if Stalberger’s plan doesn’t work, a Hacky Sack revival might still break out.

Phish’s reunion tour starts in two weeks.