College Park spent last weekend at the center of the small, loosely knit but tightly wound universe of competitive beanbag kicking, hosting the 1997 East Coast Footbag Championships. And if the dozens of participants who came here from across the U.S. and Canada possessed a common goal, it would be to stop the masses from mislabeling the obscure sport/diversion/obsession they so adore.
“It’s very uncool to say that what we do is Hacky Sack,” said Vince Bradley, a compulsive kicker from Silver Spring and tourney organizer. “One of the quickest ways to get me off my game is to hear somebody say, ‘Hey, he’s playing Hacky Sack!’ It’s footbag. It’s footbag!”
The misnomer, as well as the events featured at the two-day College Park competition, are traceable back to the early-’70s travails of two Portland, Ore., residentsMike Marshall and John Stahlbergerwho cooked up an ingeniously mundane way to both kill time and get exercise. The pair simply began counting how many times they could kick a beanbag, consecutively, without it touching the ground. And kept trying to outdo each other.
Shortly after Stahlberger’s death in 1975, Marshall decided to spread the word about their game and make a buck at the same time. He became a beanbag marketer, and he dubbed his trademarked productyou guessed itthe Hacky Sack.
Soon enough, much to Marshall’s amusement and profit, little kicking circles popped up all over the Pacific Northwest and on down the West Coast. And then at public parks and college campuses everywhere else. As the kickers’ level of expertise grew, counting mere strikes became a tedious endeavortoo many guys could keep a Hacky Sack airborne for too long.
Thus, footbag freestyle was born. The sport involves throwing as many leg and body movements as possible into the space between kicks, the quirkier and more difficult the move, the better the grade. For all the right reasons, freestyle isn’t much of a spectator sport: Because accomplished kickers move their legs so fast and in so many directions while waiting for gravity to bring the sack back down, nothing other than the path of the bag can be easily discerned without the help of instant replay.
Listen to Tu Vu, a high-school student from Fairfax and a rising freestyle star, attempt a play-by-play of the show-stopping move he installed in his two-minute routine, something he calls the “Flurry”: “You start by catching the bag on the side of your foot while your foot is behind your back, then you make one of your legs go around the bag twice, while you make the other foot go in the other direction and then….Oh well, I don’t think I can explain it. You have to see it.” Seeing it didn’t help much, either.
Skills-intensive as the game may be, some quarters of the footbag crowd judged freestyle far too subjective an endeavor. And so in 1982, footbag net came to pass.
In a nutshell, footbag net is volleyball played with a beanbag by one- or two-man teams on a badminton-size court with a 5-foot-high net, with only foot touches allowed. Scoring is possible only during serve. Games are to 11. Three out of five games takes a match.
Unlike freestyle, footbag net makes for good viewing even for lay kickers. But using an over-the-head wheel kick several feet over the net to spike the bag can’t possibly be as effortless as Emmanuel Bouchard, a Montreal kicker, made it seem all weekend long at College Park on his way to the singles and doubles championships.
“When you first try to play net is when you find out how hard this game is,” says Ann Lasken, a 22-year-old Rockvillian and one of the top (and few) female footbaggers in the world. “Not just the flashy spikes, either. Things that don’t look so hard, like bag control and setting the bag, really take a lot of practice to get good at.”
“That’s why all the world champions are waiters or do odd jobs to make just enough to live on. They spend all their time kicking,” adds Bradley, who is both a freestyler and net player.
Bradley, now 25, knows all about shirking real-world responsibilities in the name of the game. Were it not for footbag, he says, he wouldn’t have ended up on the seven-year plan at the University of Maryland. Since getting his diploma last semester, he’s worked part-time at the school and takes occasional shifts at a local juggling store to pay the bills. (Lasken is an honors student who will be enrolling at Harvard this fall, making her a footbag anomaly for reasons other than just gender.)
The D.C. area, for all its anal-retentiveness, stands as a footbag hotbedtopped only by San Francisco and Vancouver in terms of player numbers and quality of scene. This town’s rep is in no small part due to Bradley’s efforts. He has served as volunteer organizer for the past three East Coast championships, meaning he’s responsible for getting sponsorship money to defray the costs of holding the annual kicking party in College Park. This year, Bradley sweet-talked six different bag makersincluding Hacky Sackinto kicking in.
But even more importantly, Bradley makes all the calls to bring other kickers out to the Mall to showcase their beloved game every Saturday and Sunday. From a little after noon until a little after the sun goes down, Bradley and as many as a dozen others boot a bag across the nets they set up in the shadows of the museums and national monuments.
A lot of passers-by on the Mall give a shot to joining his kicking clique, says Bradley, but very few stay with the game for more than a few minutes.
“What you need to succeed in this is somebody who, along with great athletic skills and a lot of free time, is also willing to be addicted to something as ridiculous as keeping a beanbag off the ground,” he says. “That’s not everybody.”
Anybody desiring to try out his or her kicking skills on Bradley is quite welcome to show up just outside the Smithsonian Metro stop this weekend. Those not wanting to get booted off the playing field, remember not to say, “Hacky Sack, anyone?” It’s footbag. Footbag!Dave McKenna