Publication Date: Wednesday Oct 12, 1994

No longer just for kicks

Goal for these athletes is to go to the Olympics--or at least get on Letterman
by Jason L. Ables

Six years ago, when Hung Chang and his friends would play Hacky-Sack, or footbag, in the hallways of Leland High School in San Jose, if a teacher saw them, she would threaten to take a key and rip a hole in the bag. "They hated it," he said. The game has an image problem, derided as a hippie sport played with a toy. But on a recent Saturday at Greer Park in Palo Alto, Chang and his friends, footbag players from the Bay Area Footbag League, hit upon a possible image builder: "We need to get on Letterman," they agreed with a laugh.

The members of the league, known as BAFL, meet every Tuesday and Wednesday and every other Saturday in Palo Alto to play and teach footbag. Headquartered in the home of world doubles champions Brent and Jody Welch of Mountain View, BAFL grew out of a group of footbag clubs centered on Bay Area college campuses. With its high number of colleges, the Bay Area has been a hotbed of footbag playing for more than ten years.

While getting on Letterman might be quite a coup, the BAFL members have their sights set even higher. They want to see footbag in the Olympics.

BAFL is trying to "get people to see (footbag) as a serious sport, instead of just a silly game," said Steve Goldberg, producer of the 15th World Footbag Championships, held in Menlo Park in July. The championships drew 2,000 spectators and more than 100 competitors from as far away as Denmark. A Stanford graduate who works for Apple, Goldberg spends virtually all his free time and money playing and promoting footbag.

To most people, footbag is a group of people standing in a circle, trying to keep the bag up in the air. For these players that might be fun, but it also elementary.

The most popular game is a serious sport called "net," a kind of volleyball for the feet, played over a five-foot net. Players jump and volley, twist and dig, and set and spike, as in volleyball, only they do it from the knees down.

The man who is generally credited with shaping the game as it is known today is John Stalberger of Oregon. He started the Hacky-Sack company after being introduced to an American Indian version of bag-kick by his friend Mike Marshall. Together they dreamed of bringing the sport into the Olympics.

Goldberg and BAFL are trying to make that aspiration a reality. "The whole goal of (BAFL) was to bring the sport of footbag into the mainstream," he said. "It is a lofty goal. We will probably never succeed, but we are going to give it our damnedest."

The only thing that would seem to be hindering that success is a lack of respect--that image thing. "There may be a lot of 'hippies,'" said Stalberger, who attended the July world championships, but "there are a lot of professional athletes in (footbag) that say they are just as good as Barry Bonds or Mickey Mantle. I will tell you one thing, the dedication is every bit there."

Part of that dedication is nurturing new players. Interested people are always welcome to show up to any of BAFL's gatherings, called "kicks." For information about footbag, call BAFL at 968-6846 or Goldberg at (408) 773-9110.

Locally, BAFL meets at Stanford by the post office every Tuesday from 3 to 6 p.m., and at Greer Park every Wednesday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and every other Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.