By KEITH McMILLAN
Footbag players probably wouldn’t be stunned to hear that many sports fans have never even heard of their game.
”It’s kind of a periphery sport,” said Mark Daniels, 50, a longtime player who now lives just north of Dale City. ”It’s like juggling, hacky-sack or ultimate Frisbee. They’re a little bit counter-culture — hippie — sports.”
Chris Siebert, a Manassas resident and half of the reigning world doubles championship team, says that imagining a game of beach volleyball might help one visualize how a footbag match would look.
”It is basically volleyball played using only the feet, over a five-foot high net,” he said. ”Players set and spike a small ball using various acrobatic jump-kicks.”
Footbag players trace their origin to two Oregonians, John Stalberger and Mike Marshall. The two created the sport in 1972, Siebert said, but kicking sports have been around for thousands of years.
Marshall and Stalberger’s creation was eventually marketed as a hacky-sack. The sport of footbag later attracted a worldwide following, splitting into two competitive games. The net game is played only with the feet, and resembles other net sports like tennis or volleyball. The freestyle version of footbag is more performance- and trick-oriented, and competitions are judged the way gymnastics or figure skating are. Freestyle is considered the more popular of the game’s two versions.
A footbag net ball resembles a hacky sack, but most of the 32-panel balls are firmer and a bit larger. Competitive games are played on a regulation badminton court, with springed posts instead of spikes keeping the net in the ground. The firm ball allows for better-controlled shots, and the springs prevent spike-related injuries when a player runs into the net.
Footbag is kept alive today by clubs around the world. North America’s mecca for footbag is Montreal, but U.S. clubs are active on both coasts and in between.
More than 200 players from 19 countries registered for the 2003 World Footbag Championships in Prague, Czech Republic. Web site www.footbag.org lists more than 1,200 independent clubs in nearly 50 countries. Competitive events are overseen by the International Footbag Players Association, a non-profit organization which governs the sport. It may someday become an Olympic sport.
Though the sport is growing rapidly, it has a long way to go before it is considered a popular American sport. Daniels says it’s the difficulty of the game that has slowed its growth, not the nature of the people playing it.
”Everybody’s dedicated, always trying to get new people playing,” he said.
To help it grow, Jeff Bowling of the D.C. All-Stars club says sponsorships, the footbag Web site and grass-roots promotion are some keys to helping the sport grow. Bowling himself discovered it when future teammate Vince Bradley and two friends did a demo at Charles County (Md.) Community College. Daniels says demos at local high schools may get teenagers interested.
Footbag players say they enjoy the way the game forces players to use both feet to make difficult shots.
”I think people are intimidated by it,” said Daniels. ”They don’t realize that your feet have the same neurological pathways as your hands.”
On the net: www.footbag.org; www.mrfootbag.com; groups.yahoo.com/group/DCfootbag