June 9, 2014

The Ultimate Professional

For a Division III school, Brandeis alumni have had more than their fair share of athletic success. Nelson Figueroa ’98 pitched for a half-dozen MLB teams in a nine-year career, while Tim Morehouse ’00 earned a silver medal in fencing at the 2008 Olympics. Numerous baseball and basketball players have been drafted, and several more have played professionally overseas.

But Gabe Colton ’13 might be the first Judge to earn a professional contract without ever competing for a Brandeis varsity team. Colton was a two-year captain of Tron, Brandeis’ men’s ultimate frisbee club. Earlier this year, he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Spinners, a semi-professional ultimate team.

Colton had never played organized ultimate before coming to Brandeis – he was a four-year soccer player in high school. He was unable to walk on to the Brandeis soccer team, and instead decided to try his hand at ultimate. By the end of the first tournament, he was hooked.

“The athleticism and finesse that it took to play roped me in,” he said. “I loved the social atmosphere and the tournament setup of college ultimate.”

Colton was a team captain his junior and senior seasons. His junior year, Tron finished one win away from qualifying for the USA Ultimate College Division III Championships. The team made it to nationals for the first time in program history his senior year. The tournament was held in Milwaukee, Wisc., just a few miles from where Colton grew up. It was also on the same weekend as his Brandeis commencement. He chose the flying disc over the cap and gown.

Colton moved to Philadelphia for work after graduating, which led him to the Spinners. He attended an open tryout in early January, and was invited back to practice with the team for the month of February. “Most of our tryouts were done inside because the weather wouldn’t cooperate,” Spinners coach Billy Maroon said. “When we got outside, you could really see his speed and defensive ability. He was on our potential cut list, but once we got outside, it was clear that he had to be on the team.”

Colton plays defense, guarding the opposition’s “handler,” or designated thrower. It did not take long for him to prove that he deserved the roster spot.

“We looked at film of the first game, and we rotated a lot of guys on Alan Kolick [of the Washington DC Current], who is probably going to be the league MVP this year,” Maroon said. “He played Alan better than anyone else. Kolick usually gets the disc whenever he wants, but Gabe was able to hold him in check.

“It was really obvious that Gabe needed to start by the end of the third week. We’re giving him the toughest defensive assignment each week. We find his assignment, and then we don’t have to worry about that guy dominating the game.”

The Spinners play in the Eastern Conference of Major League Ultimate, which is now in its second season. The salaries for MLU players are $25 – 50 per game, depending on travel arrangements. The team pays for uniforms, equipment, and travel expenses, as well as both training and coaching sessions, but none of the players are in it for the money.

In other words, Colton has not yet quit his day job. He is a research specialist in a neuroscience lab at the University of Pennsylvania, which is probably not typical work for a professional athlete.

“When I told my boss at UPenn [about making the Spinners], he laughed and asked if I was going to quit this job for the big bucks,” Colton said.

Then again, frisbee is not a typical professional sport. Colton’s teammates include an emergency room doctor, a man in the Army Corps of Engineers, and several tech whizzes. For many, an ultimate disc brings memories of a lazy afternoon in college or a day of catch and hacky sack at a local park, not pro teams. But MLU players are people like Colton – strong, athletic, and with a background in competitive sports.

The rate of both the sport’s growth and acceptance has been startling. A recent study found that more Americans play ultimate than hockey and lacrosse combined. Disc highlights have earned millions of YouTube views and now routinely appear on the ESPN Sports Center top 10 plays of the day. The Spinners play in front of an average of 1000 paying fans per game, and all of their matches are broadcast live on YouTube.

Still, many in the ultimate community are wary of the MLU and the American Ultimate Disc League (the other semi-pro ultimate league). Ultimate matches are usually self-officiated at even the highest levels, but four referees police MLU games. That distinction is important, as ultimate players take great pride in sportsmanship and the honor system. The sport even has a name for it: the Spirit of the Game. Other differences between club and professional teams include the size of the field and rules on penalties and substitutions.

Colton is no stranger to the club game - after graduating, he joined a coed club team based in Boston. The team, Wildcard, qualified for club nationals, where it finished fourth. That was good for a spot at the world championships, which will be held in Italy this August. Colton has been saving up vacation time at UPenn so that he can travel and compete.

No matter what direction the sport takes, Colton plans on staying in the middle of it. He talks about trying out for Philly AMP, another coed club team, during the MLU offseason. Or maybe a men’s club team. He still has friends in Boston, and he’s gotten used to commuting to Beantown on weekends for Wildcard tournaments.

“Pretty much all I do is work and frisbee,” Colton said. “He paused for a second, then added, “it’s awesome.”

 

- Jeffrey Boxer '13