The Most Fun Wins

Ultimate, the field sport played with a flying disc, was born of 1960s college-campus counterculture. It has since matured into a highly competitive sport where nice guys almost never win anymore. But you can see the game played at its spiritual roots in mixed-gender events like Bozofest. A tourney steeped in tradition and lore, the event sees its 20th anniversary this Memorial Day weekend when it is held once again on the fields of Montana State University. At stake is the privilege of drinking from a hollow ceramic clown head we call Larry.

“It’s famous for bad weather, great parties, and occasional violence. Part of the charm is the elements, and you have to be dressed for combat,” says veteran disc player and tournament organizer Kelly Dean Wiseman, who manages the Community Food Co-Op. “It’s amazing we made it this far. We’ve had a tough relationship with the university.”

Over the years, Bozofest has evolved into one of Bozeman’s longest-running athletic events, rivaling some of Bozeman’s signature events such as the Pinhead Classic and the Ridge Run in staying power. (Although Bozofest will certainly outlive the likes of Ice Bog and Midget Mania, it can never hope to compete with the broad appeal offered by the spectacle of little people duking it out.)

Ultimate may be an activity most Americans associate with the dog-and-disc performances during halftime of NFL games, but the game is a true field sport in which seven-member teams vie for real estate. The offense advances the disc in an effort to reach the end zone through an unbroken series of completed throws. Conversely, possession changes when the defense forces the disc to hit the ground, or intercepts it.

It is a real test of anaerobic performance, high-finesse throwing skills, and raw athletic ability associated with speed and jumping. I squandered much of my youth on Ultimate, with little to show for it but a separated shoulder and prematurely arthritic joints in the fingers of my throwing hand. The sport did bring me together with the Bozeman lady I married, the incomparable Karen Sclafani. The Doodle Queen is gone now, but her spirit infuses Bozofest.

Under Karen’s rules, Ultimate prowess is judged not only by feats on the field of play, but also on the creativity of beer-drinking games and the jeers composed for opponents. One game that was invented at a Seattle tournament but perfected at Bozofest has been dubbed “MTA shotgun.” The object of this game (adult supervision is strongly recommended) is to throw a disc high into the air, then slug a can of beer before catching your own throw. (MTA is a reference to a truly lame event at freestyle Frisbee tournaments known as “maximum time aloft.”)

All this talk of beer drinking highlights the perception (completely false, of course) that Ultimate is just an excuse to party. Indeed, Bozofest is really a party first, sandwiched between two days of disc competition.

The event started back in 1985 when MSU intramural players began inviting their out-of-town brethren and sistren to play in Bozeman, according to Wiseman, who has organized the tourney many times. At first it was players just from Idaho and Montana who showed up, but in 1986 the Canadians arrived and left their stain on the tournament. For a few years the Calgary team won both tournament and party. Back then, the party consisted of a pig on a spit and an endless stream of beer at Bogert Park. By around 1990, Bozofest went uptown with live music at the Springhill Pavilion before the lovely canyon retreat below Ross Peak became a hotspot on the wedding circuit. Priced out of the Springhill market it helped create, Bozofest moved its party to Norris Hot Springs in 1994. Three days before the tournament, the owners had to drain the pool after a muskrat infiltrated it and bit a boy. What seemed like a trifling mishap, the Muskrat Incident threatened to leave the party high and dry.

“They said there were health concerns and they couldn’t fill the pool,” Wiseman says. The party was a huge hit anyway, inspiring Wiseman to bring the party back in 1997. This time the Curse of the Muskrat was in effect. During the night, some upstanding citizens of Madison County played demolition derby in the parking lot.

Bozofest holds what is likely one of the original traveling trophies of Ultimate: Larry. The ceramic bust is the creation of a one-time MSU art student named Larry Harmon. The trophy was first awarded in 1988, a year Calgary won. “We figured we would never see Larry again, but they brought him back and he’s been all over the country since,” Wiseman says.

Since 1999, Larry’s home has been with the indomitable Trigger Hippy, a team of all-stars (less charitably called “whores”) based more or less in Missoula. The first year the Hippies won, defeating my Salt Lake crew in a fiercely contested final, the trophy was stolen and spent a year in captivity with the ever-deviant Canadians, who sent photos showing Larry in various poses of defilement. Needless to say, Larry had to be re-enameled following his return. Otherwise, who would ever drink from him again?