Forefathers of footbag

Jan. 9, 2012, 3:02 a.m.
Forefathers of footbag
The hacky sack players often spotted in White Plaza are a diverse group of "footbaggers" from across the globe. (Serenity Nguyen/The Stanford Daily)


Passing through White Plaza on a Tuesday afternoon, you are likely to spot a couple of guys playing hacky sack to dance music on the stage of the small amphitheater. You might assume that these men are pursuing a casual hobby or simply messing around between classes. The thought that they are practicing a serious aerobic sport would probably never cross your mind.


“Footbag,” commonly referred to as “hacky sack,” is a more than 30-year-old competitive sport, according to Steve Goldberg M.S. ’88, the club’s organizer. Over 350 clubs across the world are registered with the International Footbag Players’ Association (IPFA), which Goldberg co-founded (its website’s main server is run from his house).


Although the Stanford Footbag Club is affiliated with Stanford University and plays on campus, only a few players are actually Stanford students or alumni. Moreover, Goldberg, an engineering manager at Google, sponsors most of the club’s activities; the University does not provide any funding.


Despite the University’s lack of involvement, Goldberg maintained that footbag is still a Stanford institution. He said that the Stanford club, which was founded on campus in 1989, is the longest-running footbag club in the entire world. Moreover, the club has hosted the Western Regional Footbag Championships 10 times in the organization’s 22-year history.


At practice in White Plaza, Goldberg gestured to the four players around him.


“These are some of the top players in the world, by the way,” he said.


Alex Dworetzky, a 20-year-old Belmont resident, has been in the club since 2007. He has participated in a number of tournaments, including the 2009 and 2011 IFPA World Footbag Championships in Prague and Helsinki, respectively. Despite Dworetzky’s dedication to the sport, he was quick to note that this is only an after-work pastime, not his primary occupation.


Brian Sherrill, another frequent footbagger, is a 25-year-old Bay Area resident who also competed in Helsinki as well as many other footbagging events in the United States. Sherrill is one of the world’s best “stitchers,” according to Goldberg, meaning that he makes and sells high-quality footbags for players around the world.


The club is open to players of all skill levels.


And if they don’t know how to footbag?


“We can teach them to play,” Sherrill said with a grin.


Amotz Ziv Av, a native Israeli and postdoctoral scholar at the School of Medicine, joined only recently and is still learning all the basics.


In addition to novices, the Stanford Footbag Club attracts professionals from across the world, including Kim Mortensen of Denmark. Mortensen, another postdoctoral scholar at the School of Medicine, is one of the best freestyle footbag players from Copenhagen, Goldberg said. Although there are other players who join pick-up games every now and again, Goldberg said that these four athletes were the most regular.


The footbaggers prepare for competitions “sort of like how break dancers practice,” Goldberg said. “We go in a circle, and each person does as many tricks as they can without dropping the footbag. When they drop it, they pass it to the next player.”


In a competition, the players choreograph two-minute routines to music. They perform these routines in front of a panel of judges, trying to link together as many tricks as possible.


Although the Stanford club specializes in freestyle footbag, other clubs in the area play another style of footbag, called “footbag net.” Unlike freestyle footbag, which showcases an individual player’s skill, footbag net is played by kicking a footbag over a five-foot tall net, and is very much a team sport.


“Players spike the footbag,” Goldberg said. “It’s like volleyball with your feet.”


No matter the style, Goldberg and his group hope that the up-and-coming sport will continue to grow in popularity, not just on Stanford’s campus but across the world.

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