Question & Answer Series: Dan "Stork" Roddick

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dan "Stork" Roddick is PDGA member number #003. Beginning in 1975, he was the Director of the International Frisbee Association and later, the President of the World Flying Disc Federation. He is currently a consultant, serving as the Director of Special Projects for the PDGA. His competitive and organizational career in disc sports has been broad. He is a member of the Disc Golf, Freestyle, Ultimate, and Frisbee Halls of Fame. 

1 - You are officially titled the Director of Special Projects with the PDGA. That sounds like an important job. What's that like? 

As we know, most jobs that sound important seem to be filled by self-important people. Hoping that’s not the case here, but it’s always hard to clearly see ourselves. I started doing this for the PDGA in 1999, I think. Jim Challas was President of the Board and he hosted a Board Summit here in the LA area. He was nice enough to ask me to sit in. I was available, because I had just left the Mattel Sports job (OK, OK... they FIRED me). But, I had left without security escort, at least. 

Anyway... I had some time... I sat in and during the meeting, Mark “Lizard Lawyer” Ellis, who was on the Board, proposed that I come on as an advisor to the Board and staff. I thought it over for a bit and then agreed to give it a try. I do remember saying that I would only do it as long as it was civil. I said that because some of the interaction prior to that time had been pretty adversarial and I wanted no part of that. In fact, I was hoping that I would be able to help facilitate a more productive interaction between the board, staff and membership. Although the job has morphed considerably over the years, I think that still remains my main goal. Because the board members are elected and staff are hired, I do also feel like I provide some thread of continuity through transitional periods. At least, that's my aspiration. At this point, I've served a good many Boards and administrators. I guess we have to ask them if my participation has been productive. 

From my side, I've felt really very fortunate to work with the many folks who've been chosen to serve on the board and the staff members. They have been talented, dedicated people. In almost all cases those men and women have become my longtime friends and there's nothing much better than to be able to work with your friends on projects that you love. In that way I've been amazingly lucky because for many years I had the dream job first with the International Frisbee Association (IFA) and then Sports Promotion for the Frisbee brand (Wham-O, Kransco, Mattel) and that was incredibly gratifying. When I look back on the things we had the opportunity to do I feel uniquely blessed. Again, the number of friendships I’ve gained is virtually uncountable. 

I do have one gripe with the PDGA. For most of the last year, before they recently furloughed me, I have been trying to get a promotion to Director of Very Special Projects. Joe (executive director of the PDGA) never said, but I suspect that if I had gotten that title I may have escaped my current unemployment. For those keeping track, I now have been run off from my last two jobs. Of course I only ever had two jobs so... 

I did manage to trick the PDGA into keeping me around by volunteering to continue working for them despite the fact that they laid me off. You can’t get rid of me that easily. 

Now, one thing that I should say, because there might be people reading this who don’t know me. I have a tendency to say things very seriously that are completely in jest. And, when I say things very seriously people tend to believe me. After one session of Nate’s first PDGA board meeting, he was starting to get wise to me and made a special request that I turn my hat around when I was actually being serious. That still makes me laugh. 

I will say that I approach my consulting work the same way that I did my college lecturing and that is that I do try to keep things light and hopefully enjoyable, but I almost always have a very specific purpose to what I am saying even if it might seem frivolous. I also try to keep my finger off the scale as much as I can. I’d rather see the Board and staff sort out their preferences before I weigh in. If all goes well, I don’t have to say much at all. Again, others will have to decide on whether or not that has been successful. 

2 - You have been around disc sports for a long time. Like forever. How did you initially find disc golf? 

Hmmm. How long do you have? It's interesting because one of the first games that my dad and I played in our backyard from about 1954 on was what we called "the space game.” It probably was the space game because Jack (later to become PDGA #295) was an astronomer. We would navigate around the backyard trying to see how many throws it would take us to land at the base of a sequence of trees, which one of us had chosen. At the time, dad was a pretty decent bolfer. In fact, he once shot a 69 on one of our local bolf courses (Incidentally, I coined that silly term just to mess with stuffy golfers. I love golf.) Anyway... it would've been logical for us to think of our game as Frisbee golf. I would love to say that was the case, but I really don't think we ever put the word Frisbee and golf together when we were doing any of that. It's embarrassing really. It's like someone who was making thin tomato pies with cheese on top for years and then they were later surprised to discover pizza. But anyway, it was fun and started to build a useful set of skills for us. 

I guess the first time that I heard about Frisbee golf would've been through the IFA Newsletter or Goldie Norton's book that came out in 1972, which had a brief mention of “Frisbee golf” buried under the heading of "the obstacle course.” By 1974 I was in grad school at Rutgers and publishing Flying Disc World Magazine, which discussed disc golf as if it had been around for a long time so somehow during those years I finally figured out the obvious. My first tournament was the 1974 Octad at Rutgers that included disc golf as one of the eight events. The course that we set up for that event used trees as the objects. Later that year, Jim Palmeri and the Rochester Frisbee Club hosted the AFDO. Disc golf (using ground boxes) was one of the two events and DDC (double disc court) was the other. The top scorer in the two events combined was to win a brand new car so that got the attention of pretty much everyone who was serious about Frisbee at that time. I prepared very diligently for that event, probably practicing more than I have for any golf tournament since. To my amazement I won the golf portion by about 15 strokes and finished second or third in DDC. That combined to win the car, by just one point over the formidable John Kirkland, a much superior athlete in almost every way. It was the most amazing experience in my career. It never really even crossed my mind that I could possibly win the car, but I had the keys in my hand. The true champion of that event however was Jim Palmeri who, at great personal sacrifice and effort, showed us the future of the game. He definitely changed my life forever. 

What was the question again? 

3 - Your PDGA number is #003. If Ed Headrick is the father of disc golf, what are you? 

Well, without Ed's invitation to come out and run the International Frisbee Association, I would now be a retired department chair from some university sociology department who spends most of his time playing pickleball. So, in answer to your question I would say that Ed is the father of Frisbee and I am the adopted son. Now, it is worth noting that Ed’s really strong suit was that he knew a good thing when he saw it. When Jim ran the AFDO in 1974, Ed was still a bit skeptical about disc golf. But the more he saw of the competitive play the more he was convinced that it was one of the most promising activities. He also gets full credit for helping us solve the problem of how to finish the hole. We moved on from objects to boxes to wire baskets on the ground, but Ed and his son Kenny's construction of the first disc pole hole was an absolute game changer and that put us on the path to where we are today. When Ed left Wham-0, not long after he brought me on, he had lots of possibilities of things that he wanted to get going but out of all those he chose to promote disc golf. And, in retrospect that looks like a really smart decision. But it's worth remembering that at that time we had no standard target and there wasn't a single permanent course on the planet. 

It’s difficult to believe that there will ever be anyone who will replace Ed as the most significant promoter of disc golf ever. 

4 - Stork...where did that nickname come from? Does your wife call you Stork? 

That is actually a wonderful story, but I feel like I have already rambled on pretty long here and I'm only at question number four. Let's see if I can tell a compact version of this: 

Man, this is going be difficult. Okay... it's the first intercollegiate Ultimate game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1972, 103 years to the day from the first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton on the same piece of ground at Rutgers. Because of really clever promotion by my Rutgers teammates, primarily Geoff West and Irv Kalb, there was an amazingly big crowd at the game. The entire field was surrounded by fans about ten deep and they were super into it. Every pull they would raise a giant roar while the disc was in the air and this drew even more people. 

Every newspaper in the region was there, including the New York papers and Jim Bouton who was on assignment. Anyway... scoring went back-and-forth. We were playing on asphalt so a lot of the goals for high floaters and at 6’6”, I was the tallest player and a pretty fair leaper at the time. I was also blessed with teammates, especially Irv, who could throw beautifully-tailored passes designed to maximize my advantage. I was scoring a lot. At some point mid-game, I went to the sidelines for a rest. After a while, a chant started up of, “Stork, Stork, Stork...” Of course, we had no idea what that meant. I certainly didn't think it had anything to do with me. But, when I went back in, a cheer went up, “Yeah, the Stork returns!” Apparently, I was the Stork. The game was epic and just like that first football game Rutgers ended up winning by two. All the local papers and television stations covered the game and virtually all of them mentioned me by the name of “Stork.” After that, all my Frisbee friends began calling me by that name. I was the Stork. 

But, I said this is a long story. Hard to believe that it's not over. Over the next couple of years, Irv and I became freestyle partners. During the 1975 season we won the Freestyle Triple Crown: The Canadian Open, The American Flying Disc Open, and then finally The World Freestyle for Pairs championship in the Rose Bowl. The next year, we began doing commercial demos. One of them was for the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum. We did the halftime demo and when we came off we went into the locker room and the Sixer’s PR guy greeted us. He said a few complementary things about how well the gig had gone and gave us our check. And then he said, “Hey, Stork, do know how you got your nickname?” I was puzzled, but said that it came out of the first college ultimate game. And he said, “No, I mean do you know exactly how you got that name?” I was then pretty intrigued and I said, “I guess not... tell me.” 

He then said, "Well I went to Rutgers and our fraternity house was on the street beside where you played the first game. All of the brothers were out on the balcony yelling and cheering for you guys. At some point, I said, “Hey, you know, our really tall guy looks like a stork." And, everyone agreed. Then, they took you out. After a bit, we wanted to see you back again so we started chanting, 'Stork, Stork, Stork,’ and the crowd picked up on it too. So... I’m the guy who named you the Stork!” I was absolutely floored that this story had come back around. He finished by saying," I'm sure you must've seen our balcony. In the second half we used my bedsheet to make that sign that read, ‘The Hell With McGovern... STORK for President!’ ” 

And that’s how I got my name...
No... Janet calls me Dan.

5 - What is the first disc you remember throwing? 

In my baby book it notes that I got a “Flying’ Disc" for my 5th Christmas (1953). It was a Pipco Flyin’ Saucer. Soon after, my go to disc was a Wham-O Pluto Platter and then a red Flying Saucer on which I spray painted two racing stripes. I still have it. 

6 - How often do you still get to play nowadays? 

Well, much less DV (during virus). BV, I played pretty often; golf, some ddc, run and gun freestyle, gollum with my son, Tyler. I was working pretty hard on cleaning up my throwing technique, which was full of quirky limitations. Now I’m setting up a net in the backyard to try to stay on that. Making progress on learning how to throw. It’s only been 65 years... 

7 - What is your favorite course in the United States? 

Aspen 

8 - What advice would you give to a newer player just now starting to play the sport? 

Wow... It really depends on their long and short-run goals. I once wrote an article titled, “Why I Still Play.” In it, I emphasized the importance of enjoying each shot as an experience that stands on its own. The total number of those experiences is only one narrow measure of the game. Turns out that’s become a real important measure. So... my advice probably wouldn’t be the best for those who want to win titles. However, it’s still useful, even for the best players to realize that each shot is its own world, especially when it comes to leaving the bad ones behind. 

So... I guess my advice is to savor each shot and let someone else add them up. If you can truly do that, you’ll get a few trophies as well. 

9 - The PDGA is currently dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, which is really unprecedented. Events have ground to a halt around the world, the tour has stopped, baskets are being pulled, etc. In your time with the PDGA, has the organization ever faced this kind of crisis? 

Nope. There’s never been anything like this. Even in world wars in the Great Depression, most aspects of life continued pretty normally. I remember my dad saying that the depression was only something that they heard about on the radio and it didn't affect them too much since they were mostly off the grid, providing for their own livelihood. It's just been amazing to me to see how this situation has completely transformed nearly every aspect of human life on the planet. There's really no roadmap. It seems to me that getting out of this will require continual reassessment and adjustment to try to find what will be an evolving series of solutions. Obviously, the advancements on the medical side will be key to complete recovery, but by all accounts that is quite a while off. 

Frankly, despite its tragic implications, I feel very fortunate to get a chance to be part of this tremendous challenge to civilization. I'm hoping that we can use it as an opportunity to come out of it better than when we went in. I think that this stress test has shown that we simply must do a much better job making sure that we have taken better care of each other. It's not just a matter of getting back to “normal.” In my mind, normal isn't nearly good enough. I hope we're going to be able to use this global and personal reset as an opportunity to find a much more productive and equitable normal. I also think that disc sports can be an important part of that better world. In many ways we are more sustainable and sustaining than other, more conventional sports. I hope we'll have that opportunity to contribute to our recovery. 

10 - What is the greatest single threat the sport of disc golf faces? 

Well, before all this (BV), I would have said that our biggest risk would be the potential of a very well-publicized injury related to the sport and that potential remains. But given the current crisis I suspect that considerations related to recovery from the pandemic overwhelm almost everything else. It's difficult to even conceive all the challenges that will flow from this situation. Of course, there will be the health issues and it seems certain that we will lose some individuals in the sport. It also seems likely that this will have a substantial impact on sponsorship organizations at all levels and the ability of players to commit fully to the game. BV, there were many businesses that were just managing to get by. The same was true for families and individuals. We know that lots of people are living paycheck to paycheck or worse and it seems impossible to think the government can print enough money to fix that for too long. So, depending on how long this runs, it could be extremely difficult to recover. It would not be surprising if we found ourselves in the situation where it was no longer possible to sustain some of our current activities. How difficult will it be to travel between regions and countries? This is unknown and unpredictable. In many ways we might be in a situation of turning back our history and rebuilding again from local play. However... as I wrote earlier, it may be one of our biggest strengths that we can provide opportunities to play with relatively little cost. Rejuvenation of the game may go much more quickly because this time we know where we're going. Activities that rely on much more complex arrangements might take quite a long time to renew. How long until we think we can again safely fill a stadium for a Super Bowl? It seems to me that we will be ready to play disc sports much more quickly than that. We’ll see... 

11 - One of the most common questions we receive is, "Why is disc golf not on ESPN? Why is disc golf not getting national sponsors?" You have been around the sport since its inception, has disc golf ever been closer to a breakthrough in this regard, or do we have a long ways to go still? 

Wow. All bets are off AV. Hard to imagine that companies will have much money to throw around anytime soon. But... I could be wrong. If I’m right about us being able to restart more easily than the bigger sports, maybe we’ll fill some of any vacuum that develops. Maybe this levels the playing field. Starting from scratch, I like the chances of disc golf vs bolf, ultimate vs football, ddc vs tennis, discathon vs cross country, Kan Jam vs cornhole, etc., etc. 

I may be prejudiced on this, but now I’ve turned my hat around... 

12 - Some people call Ledgestone TD Nate Heinold a sarcastic "fill in the blank". You have gotten to know Nate over the last 3 years through his work on the PDGA Board of Directors. What say you? 

I can’t believe he’s so young. Not sure how you become that guy at that age. What was I doing then? Can’t remember, but I’m impressed. I had the most bully pulpit ever for all my efforts. Nate’s built his empire from scratch. That’s impressive. And, apparently he’s not a bad golfer. 

13 - There has been a lot of talk the last few years about safety and sustainability as it relates to the sport of disc golf. Is disc golf a safer sport than other sports to play? Is it safer for spectators than baseball, golf, etc? 

Hmmm. Well, it must be safer than I feared. I thought we’d have a celebrated incident that would severely test us years ago. Bolf injuries are pretty significant, numbering about 40 thousand per year seeking emergency treatment for injuries from errant balls or flying clubs (yikes). Cerebral hemorrhage is the biggest risk of death. Disc golf injuries tend to be more lacerating (and scary ugly) but probably are less likely to produce brain bleeding. That’s probably why we’ve been fortunate despite millions of throws each day (BV). That said, I continue to think that it’s critically important for us to make efforts on all fronts to have disc golf be as safe as possible. Key elements are: 

- Courses carefully designed to minimize risk. Best practices must be followed. Same with our events. Ultimately, we need our own space.

- Players being aware that they are using equipment that can be harmful if used irresponsibly. I hope for a player mentality that is similar to that of archery. No throwing when you could conceivably hit someone. This is the single most important consideration. Follow The Code. If there is any doubt at all, do not throw.

- Use of equipment that conforms to the established design standards.

If we manage our game carefully, there’s no reason that it can’t be quite safe for all involved. But... it will take collective resolve and discipline to get there. 

Disc Golfers Code

Thank you to Stork for sharing his knowledge and wisdom with us and thank you to everyone for reading along with this Q & A series. Stay tuned for more content from the Ledgestone team!

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