WORK IN PROGRESS
UNEDITED / UNPUBLISHED
The year 1977 saw the first two footbag tournaments organized by the National Hacky Sack® Association (NHSA). The First Annual Kick-A-Thon was held in Portland, Oregon on August 201 and Ted Huff brought his marketing background and organizational skills to the table. He coordinated the event not only as a competition, but also as a fundraising vehicle for Easter Seals,2 a non-profit providing disability services. Participants raised pledge donations for every hour they kicked and many hours were logged. Scott “Mag” Hughes recalled kicking for five hours straight on that day; he also recalled the resulting leg cramps that made his bike ride home a particular challenge.3
Aside from the fundraising pledges, the focus of that first competition centered on consecutive kicks. In these early days of the sport’s evolution, tricks and maneuvers hadn’t yet been conceived. There were no choreographed freestyle routines or even attempts to stall or roll the bag. It was all about the greatest number of kicks without a drop. As players pushed themselves and competition intensified, consecutive kick records were quickly established and just as quickly broken. This meant that competitive performances grew longer and longer. Leg cramps were becoming the norm.
By December of 1977, a second tournament was held. It also focused on consecutive kicks, but the world of footbag was about to change. As it happened, the venue for this tournament housed an upper gymnasium with a volleyball net.4 Access to that upper gym allowed what footbag.org calls the first public “experiment” kicking a footbag over an eight-foot net. In one day, a new sport was budding: players put together five-member teams and decided on a maximum of five kicks per side.
This was the first public experiment kicking footbag over a net because a private one had already occurred: “One day in early 1973, as we were playing outside, our sack went flying over a short fence and Mike jumped over it to retrieve it. As he threw it back over the fence to me we began kicking back and forth using the four foot fence as a net.”5 Clearly, this was an inevitable direction toward which footbag would evolve.
The addition of a net game to the footbag repertoire brought welcome relief from the ardor of hours-long attempts to break consecutive kick records. It was a watershed moment and this expansion in the way footbag skills could be expressed broke the sport wide open.
“It was 1978 the first time I saw net play,” wrote Lori Jean (Tarr) Conover for the Footbag Hall of Fame website. “Dave Hill encouraged me to come to Oak Grove gym to kick. He said a group of folks had reserved the gym every week to kick. As I walked into the gym, Mag and Billy Hayne were playing over the net and there were several of the top players there including Garwin Bruce, Ted Huff and Robert Conover (who later became my husband). They all encouraged me to attend and play in a tournament at Portland State that weekend. At the tournament, Bill Hayne worked with me and recruited me to play in mixed with him. That was it…I was hooked.”6
Eventually, net height was standardized to five feet and by November of 1979, the Roseburg Net Tournament had incorporated that parameter. The court dimensions were also officially defined as twenty feet wide by forty-four feet long.7 These were the same parameters used in the game of badminton, which isn’t surprising as the flight distance of a footbag is somewhat comparable to its much earlier predecessor, the shuttlecock.
The court was split down the center to define serving quadrants and serves were required to land in the diagonal opposing quadrant. Games had to be won by at least two points and matches were played as the best of three.8 Eventually the game of footbag net and its corresponding rules would be governed by the International Footbag Players’ Association (IFPA), an organization incorporated in the state of California in 1994.9
Originally, the maximum number of kicks in a doubles match was five per side. In a Singles Advanced game, three kicks were allowed per side but a separate game, Singles Ultra, limited that number to two to increase the challenge level. Eventually, all singles matches comported to the Ultra rules and today only two kicks are allowed per side.10
Upper body fouls in the net game’s early days were defined as contact with any area of the body above the groin. This meant that knees and upper thighs were usable parts of the body and as spiking became more common, players would often tame a spike on top of the thigh. In order to increase the challenge of the game, upper body fouls were redefined (when?), further restricting contact to below the knee.11 This change completely altered net game strategy. In the early days, as some players have since described, the goal was just to get the bag over the net. In order to do that, players would often attempt to set up the bag toward the back of the court for the volley return. This was more easily done by initially stopping the incoming bag with the thigh. Today, without that option, the game is played more like volleyball where the bag is set towards the net for a downward spike. Many players say that restricting contact below the knee has made the game more aggresively offensive and competitive.
The footbag used for net games evolved to be much harder and rounder than the original softer bags used for consecutive kicks. The softer bags often created irregular flying patterns through the air. They didn’t launch as far, nor did they lend themselves to the type of explosive kicks increasingly used in the game of net. Harder bags required more control but gave players more zing in the serve and faster, more precise volleys. They also allowed for more aggressive spikes and smashes, and allowed players to put some spin on the bag. Higher speeds created more demanding play and the goal was to serve or spike bags at speeds they couldn’t be returned.
Aim also played a huge part in net strategy. A powerful serve that came in low or directly at a player was difficult to return using the front of the body. Players quickly learned to let the serve zing past them, but then “pick up” the bag behind the body on the outside of the shoe with the legendary back kick. The back kick became a staple feature of footbag and really separated it from the game of soccer.
As skills improved, the net game serve also evolved from a simple toss down to the foot that was lobbed over the net. Eventually, skilled servers were tossing footbags up and connecting for the serve at the height of the shoulder. This change brought increased speed, more precise aim, and a downward trajectory into the opposing court.
But development of the net game didn’t mean consecutive kicks had disappeared. Consecutive kick records were still being pursued, with the first world record for consecutive kicks being set in 1979 by Jack Schoolcraft with 2,705 kicks at the First Annual MDA/Hacky Sack® Challenge in Portland, Oregon.12 It was at this tournament in 1979 that future superstar Ken Shults would emerge on the scene at the young age of twelve. The tourney was a benefit for Muscular Dystrophy and Shults recalled paying fifteen dollars for fifteen attempts to set a consecutive kick record. He won the under-16 division with his best rally of 456 kicks.13
As he tells the story, that was just the beginning. Shults went home from that tournament and didn’t put his footbag down until he was consistently breaking Schoolcraft’s record in his basement. At the first national event, The Mike Marshall Memorial Tournament, held the following year in Oregon City, Shults officially broke Schoolcraft’s record with a rally of 4,096 kicks.14
Another early standout in consecutive kicks was Tricia (Sullivan George)…. (details/stats)
Andy Linder, who broke his first world record at the age of 18 (details/stats).15 Linder’s strategy involved using the toe of his left foot and the inside of his right foot in a back and forth motion. Consecutive kicking rules allow contact with the knee and eventually Linder was able to increase his speed by directing the bag off his foot directly to the knee. This eliminated any movement upward, increasing his speed.
As consecutive kickers developed better control, some began moving with the footbag in more of a dance, turning or spinning the body while the bag was in the air, and incorporating stalls and rolls. It wasn’t just about the number of kicks anymore. Now it was about how the bag was kicked and the concept of freestyle was beginning to coalesce.
Early kicking techniques only made contact with the inside of the foot or the toe, which is how all beginners start, but before long, players were using all sides of the foot including the heel, the tip of the toe, the outer edge, and even the sole. Toe stalls or “delays” emerged and bags were now being kicked in other directions than just straight up. One of the first breakout moves was called a rainbow where the footbag was kicked over the head. Moves like this were often discovered accidentally or perhaps serendipitously, and once a new move was “discovered,” kickers would try to replicate and then perfect these moves.
Another early move was the flying clipper, in which the bag was tossed and the kicker jumped to meet it with the foot of a bent leg behind a straighter leg. This move led to the standing clipper stall, where one leg bends behind the other and catches the bag on the inside of the foot.
The stinger was a double sole kick, blind and behind the back, that resembled the stinger of a scorpion. A move around the world meant the foot would stall the bag, set it up in the air, and then circle around it before stalling it again. “We knew people would someday do around-the-world three times,” Allan Petersen recalled. “But not four.” Today, however, a small few are doing four times around an airborne footbag. Like the four-minute mile, human achievements often break forward in spurts into these newer realms of possibility.
Today, freestyle is focused primarily on speed and ever higher numbers of tricks packed into a routine, but freestylers back in the day were known for gaining air, especially performing the flying clipper. Old school moves involved jumps easily six feet in the air and head-high kicks. It’s hard to imagine anyone back then doing well at footbag, either in freestyle or net, without also being able to do the splits.
A 13-yo Brit named Daniel Green of Eaton, Norwich invented “footbag cricket” in 1985, though that iteration of footbag never really took off. According to Footbag Fever, the newsletter of the British Hacky Sack Association, Green’s game “is played as a team game with nine outfielders, a bowler, a wicket keeper, plus the two kicking batsmen of the opposing team.” Though this game didn’t catch on, Daniel won five pounds for his idea.
Pursuing consecutive kicks records, however, was running headlong into a sort of conflict with the expansion of these newer games. Because early tournaments had been holding consecutive kicks events first, players attempting to break those records were kicking for hours on the first day of competition. This left many players cramping, their leg muscles spent before other events like freestyle and golf or net even began. Ordering consecutive kicks first in the line-up was a tournament killer for a lot of people and left them unable to participate in top form in other events.
In the late 1980s, the World Footbag Association decided to change the way consecutive kick competition was handled. They shifted the focus onto speed of consecutive kicks. (when?) and limited the amount of time spent kicking to five minutes. Rules included the use of alternating feet and records quickly averaged about three kicks per second. But the change allowed consecutive kickers to also be able to compete in other events since their muscles weren’t spent chasing those longer records. Andy Linder is still the only kicker to have broken a thousand kicks in five minutes with a total of 1,019.16
The 1982 Nationals introduced two new events: footbag freestyle and footbag golf.17 Footbag golf involved… (details).
1. ”The History of Footbag Net” http://www.footbag.org/reference/-/The_History_of_Footbag_Net
2. Huff, Ted. “Footbag Hall of Fame: 1997 Inductees” http://footbag.org/reference/-?title=Groups:HOF/1997&redirect=no
3. Hughes, Scott. “The Mag Hughes Story”
4. ”The History of Footbag Net”
5. Stalberger, John. Email dated January 12, 2021.
6. Conover, Lori Jean. ”Footbag Hall of Fame: 1997 Inductees”
7. ”Footbag Net Rules” http://footbag.org/reference/-/Footbag_Net_Rules
9. ”IFPA Articles of Incorporation” http://www.footbag.org/ifpa/ifpa-articles.html
10. ”Footbag Net Rules” http://footbag.org/reference/-/Footbag_Net_Rules
11. ”Footbag Net Rules” http://footbag.org/reference/-/Footbag_Net_Rules
12. ”Interview with Footbag Hall of Fame Member Ken “Kenny” Shults, Star of Tricks of the Trade 1 and 2” World Footbag website http://worldfootbag.com/interview-with-footbag-hall-of-fame-member-ken-kenny-shults-star-of-tricks-of-the-trade-1-and-2/
14. ”Interview with… Ken “Kenny” Shults”
15. Sather, Daniel (producer). ”Andy Linder – Footbag World Record Holder” https://vimeo.com/215036389 (2018)
16. ”Official Footbag Hall of Fame Consecutive Kicks World Records” https://footbaghalloffame.net/footbag-history/
17. Worlds magazine (1989) p.5.