Stewart goes farm to field in ultimate frisbee

Sustainable Agriculture and AP Environmental Science teacher Joe Stewart spends most of his school day helping students understand concepts of ecological farming on the “SustAg” farm or in the classroom. But after school, he partakes in a different activity, one involving just a disk and a patch of grass.

On Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, Stewart, along with a group of friends,  plays pickup games of ultimate frisbee. The sport was started in the early 1970s, but has recently gained popularity around the world. The Ultimate Players Association, the governing body for ultimate frisbee in the United States, now has nearly 30,000 members, a 168% increase since 2003.

Stewart is a seasoned veteran in the game, who began playing ultimate frisbee right after college and has been playing for 25 years. But when one of his former colleagues first told him about the sport, Stewart said he was a little hesitant to give it a try.

“One of my fellow teachers was really into ultimate. I kind of thought it was a silly sport, but I had been an athlete in college and was looking for something to do, so he got me to come out and it was actually just super fun,” Stewart said.

When he arrived at Redwood, Stewart brought his love for the game with him.

“A few of [my ultimate frisbee friends] and I started this Marin pickup game [at Redwood] in the mid-90s and it pretty much has been going ever since. It’s had a couple iterations, but we still get out here twice a week depending on the season,” Stewart said.

The Marin pickup game that takes place on the South Lawn isn’t one of a kind. Since ultimate frisbee has increased significantly in popularity, it is now played in more than 80 countries consisting of an estimated seven million active participants, according to USA Ultimate. Also, hundreds of pickup games have sprouted up across the country and world. Using sites such as pickupultimate.com, players can look for local pickup games and email or text the creator of the game, like Stewart, and ask to play. Sites like these have built a rich community of passionate players around the game of ultimate frisbee.

Not only does Stewart enjoy spending time and playing pickup games with his friends, he also plays at the competitive level.

“I also play for an over-40 club team that competes at the national level (in the World Flying Disc Federation Masters Division),” Stewart said. “We have practices and go to tournaments. We were in the national championships over the summer and came in fourth, and we also just got a bid to go to the world championships in Canada in the summer of 2018.” 

Passing to his teammate, teacher Joe Stewart has been playing ultimate frisbee for 25 years.

Passing to his teammate, teacher Joe Stewart has been playing ultimate frisbee for 25 years.

Stewart’s fiery enthusiasm for the game has inspired students to play along with him as well. Redwood graduates Jeremy Morrell, who had Stewart as a Sustainable Agriculture teacher while at Redwood, and Juan Miguel Hojilla learned about the game from Stewart and now often play in the Marin pickup games.

“There are a lot of parallels between [Stewart] in the classroom and out here on the field,” Morrell said. “He’s passionate about everything he does. Every time he’s on the field, he’s willing to sell out and dive to make a catch for his team and he’ll never back away from a challenge. In the classroom, he literally wrote the curriculum for his SustAg class. If that’s not passion and putting everything you have into it, I don’t know what else is.”

Hojilla, who did not have Stewart as a teacher, learned the game from him in a different way.

“I was walking around on club day and saw the ultimate frisbee club and decided to sign up. I started going to practices and that really got me into the sport,” Hojilla said.

Stewart was the adviser of the ultimate frisbee club at Redwood and used to coach Redwood’s competitive team that spurred many students’ interest in the sport, like Morrell and Hojilla. Redwood still has an ultimate frisbee club, but does not have an active team because many former members have graduated and Stewart’s schedule has become more crowded with work.

Although Stewart can no longer coach, he makes time to play with his friends whenever he can.

“Ultimate is just a way to get exercise and have fun and be with a community of people that I really like. I made a lot of my friends through ultimate so it’s just a great way to go out and meet great people while staying active and playing a great sport,” Stewart said.

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