Inside the Hardcore World of Guts, the Toughest Frisbee Sport of All

Guts started out as a game meant to be played while drinking beer. Now it's ruled by badasses who can fire a frisbee at 90 miles per hour.

May 22 2015, 5:26pm

The first thing you notice is the whistle, the sound made by the spinning plastic disc as it zips past your head. The disc is a day-glow orange blur, 9.5 inches in diameter, launched from a mere 46 feet away, curling and diving toward you. You have less than a half-second to react—not to dodge the disc sizzling your way at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, but to catch it.

Oh, and you have to use one hand.

Why would anybody subject themselves to such lunacy? Well, it's the only way to play Guts, the aptly-named Frisbee sport from which all others—ultimate, freestyle, and disc golf—originate.

"You've got to be a little crazy to play," says Guts legend and historian Dennis "Wally" Walikainen, 58, who played the game from 1974 until 2010. "It takes a special kind of cat to toe the line."

Let's set the ground rules for this extreme form of catch. There are two teams, each with five on a side (though a three-man version is popular in Albuquerque, NM). Players stand 14 meters apart. They fire a single Frisbee at each other, one tosser at a time.

Scoring is simple: an illegal throw—that is, one short of the opposing team's line, over a defensive player's outstretched hand, outside the team's width, or not right-side up—is a point for the defense. An uncaught legal throw is a point for the offense. If the Frisbee is caught, no team scores.

Play is to 21 points, and a team must win by two.

As in any sport, there's a strategy behind this madness. On offense, "We usually look at the team we're playing against to determine who we'd rather have throwing back at us," says the Appleton Assassins' Alex Tews, 22. A student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Tews has played since the age of 15, and his Assassins have won the Guts US Nationals for four years running. "I look for the weaker throwers that we know we can catch for sure. So it's basically figuring out who's the weakest guy on the team and going after him."

Does that mean aiming at the veteran players who can be over 60 years old?

"Oh yeah. Ohhhh yeah," Tews says with a nod. "And they love it. They don't mind being picked on. Even the young ones, as some tournaments will have players who are 12 or 13, they stand on the line. We obviously don't whip 'em as hard at the kids because we don't want to scare them off, but we don't just toss it, either."

Though the speed of the disc stands out—Tews held the Guts record "for about 10 hours" when one of his throws topped 88 mph—it's defense that triumphs in the sport. There, the five players line up fingertip-to-fingertip to create the width of the field. Out-of-bounds is dictated by the far-right and far-left players' outside hand, meaning a shorter team will have a more compact area to defend. All they have to do is catch the disc prior to it whizzing past. To do so, only one-handed grabs are allowed—no against-the-body traps. Any number of tips and bobbles (by any body part) are legal as long as the Frisbee is caught prior to hitting the ground.

Again, there's a surprising amount of strategy involved.

"On a 5-man line, depending on where the shot goes, everyone has a role to play," says Michael Banghart, 27, who plays for a Lansing, Michigan-based team named Boomtown Saints that won the USGPA/USA Guts World's Championships held in Sterling Heights, Michigan in 2012 and 2013. "Different shots require different adjustments. Like a forehand has a counterclockwise spin, so if I'm playing on the right side of the line, and the throw is not at me, I can go aggressively towards the left side because that's where the spin is going to naturally take it. Knowing what shot is coming plays a lot into positioning and reaction."

Because the force generated by speeding Frisbees can dislocate or even break fingers, gloves are allowed, but only a certain type. Think along the lines of a golfer's glove: they can only be thin leather and cannot be coated with anything sticky that will leave a residue on the disc. Banghart uses National Football League wide receiver gloves. If someone tries to add protective padding or double their gloves, he says, "You can just give them a look, saying 'What are you doing? C'mon, this is a man's sport.'" A dirty look may be required because there are no referees. All Guts rules are enforced in a "spirit of the game" fashion, hashed out by both teams' players on the spot.

This all may sound a bit foolish, but remember: professional basketball began as a gym class game in which two teams attempted to throw a soccer ball into a peach basket. A ladder was required to fetch the ball after every score. Not an auspicious start for a future multi-billion dollar sport.

Like basketball, Guts has an origin story. The sport was born at the Healy family picnic held in Escanaba, Michigan on July 4, 1958. As a lark, Jake Healy brought a "Pluto Platter" disc to the gathering. Healy and his brothers—Bob, Tim, and Pete—started Guts as a drinking game, which is why players to this day can only use one hand to catch the Frisbee.

The other hand was supposed to be holding a beer.

Thanks to the ingenuity and tongue-in-cheek public relations efforts of the four brothers—who embellished on press releases regarding their annual, self-proclaimed "International Frisbee Tournament" (IFT) and even claimed dignitaries such as President Kennedy, Soviet Premier Khrushchev, and the Pope would attend—Guts spread from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to the rest of the nation. During its 1970's heyday, Guts was featured in Sports Illustrated, Time, and the New York Times. It made an appearance on ABC's "Wide World of Sports." And as part of the World Frisbee Championship organized by then-Frisbee manufacturer Wham-O, some 40,000 people piled into the Rose Bowl to watch Guts.

According to USA Guts president Steve Taylor, who played in the 70's and continues to do so today, "It is now a truly international sport with established teams in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and somewhat more casually in Ireland, Finland, Colombia, and a few others."

Taylor, who sits on the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) board of directors as the Guts Committee Chairman, wants to make Guts an Olympic event. The sport has international tournaments and a World Championship, and a United States team featuring Banghart won the latter in 2008 and finished as world runner-up in 2012. The next World Championship will take place in London in 2016. "It may not be the Olympics, but it's our Olympics," says Tews, who hopes to make the national team. "It's as big as it gets for us."

Guts players also aspire for enshrinement into the International Frisbee and USA Guts Hall of Fame and Museum, which is: (a) located in Calumet, Michigan; (b) real. According to curator "Wally" Walikainen, the guidelines for Guts immortality might be stricter than those in other, more popular sports. "Playing ability first and foremost," Walikaninen says, "but stuff like longevity, sportsmanship, leadership, being a good teammate, and a good opponent; that comes into play." Because of the lack of officiating, a player's attitude is very important. A 1980s-era IFT final match suffered a 30-45 minute interruption due to an argument over a single point. The incident made local TV news while infuriating longtime Guts stalwarts.

Unlike the Professional Football Hall of Fame, individuals with arrest records are not welcome. Nor are players with trouble-making reputations. "There are some guys, frankly, that were incredibly talented but were not good characters," Walikaninen says. "Hall of Famers have to be reflections of their sport, too. And it would be tough for some guys to get into the Hall of Fame because of the way they acted. We wrestle with that every other year when we have inductions. We try to toe the line when it comes to how this player represented Guts."

Taylor cares about how Guts is viewed. He wants to build the sport back to its 1970's zenith. Believe it or not, the sponsorships and prize money which poured into Guts in the 1980's helped destroy it. Winning became all-encompassing, leading to the formation of "super teams" only seeking cash. That mindset—and the hard-partying ways of some—drove both spectators and players away from the sports. During the 1990s, Guts nearly disappeared entirely.

"The idea [today] is to create clubs, not more tournaments," Taylor says. "Too many potential players are afraid to compete in tournaments. Just play the sport. Learn it. Then tournament play won't seem so daunting."

Can Guts recapture its heyday? The sport has two things going for it: it requires little more than a $4 Frisbee and an open field (or gymnasium) to play. And it's fun. Even if you're not holding a beer. Sure, a Frisbee hitting you in the ribs at nearly 90 mph can hurt, but there's good reason to risk a few bruises. "The adrenaline rush," Tews says. "It's such a rush knowing that there's a guy like Mike Banghart on the other side and he's going to throw it as hard as he can and I've got to try and catch it cleanly with one hand. And when you do that... it's just great. You just broke their heart because they threw it with all they had, but it wasn't enough."