Of the millions of kids who have gathered in millions of circles
to kick around all those little beanbags, virtually none know
about Kenny Shults. They should. Although Shults didn't invent
the sport of footbag--commonly known by the trademark name Hacky
Sack--he is responsible, more than anyone else, for sparking its
international popularity. Shults is the world's first and only
Hacky Sack prodigy.
"I'm starting to feel ancient," he said as he surveyed the
dreadlocks and tie-dyes and body piercings on the newcomers who
had assembled to compete in the 17th annual World Footbag
Championships, held in August in Montreal. "Footbag years, you
know, are like dog years."
Though Shults is all of 30 in human years, his hair--cut Wall
Street conservative--is starting to thin, and his wire-framed
eyeglasses are distinctly unhip. Also, he lacks the cocksure
demeanor of a dominant athlete. Shults is tall and lanky, 6'1"
and 165 pounds, and he moves about with the uncertainty of an
adolescent who has just experienced a growth spurt. He tucks his
T-shirt into his shorts. He is polite almost to a fault. And
because of his job as the marketing director of a software
company in Clackamas, Ore., just outside his hometown of
Portland, he had little time to practice for the championships.
But when someone kicks Shults a footbag, the transformation is
akin to that of Clark Kent when he steps into a phone booth. His
feet move with the precision and artistry of a tap dancer's. His
geniality gives way to solemn intensity, his klutziness to
sangfroid. And in the preliminary rounds of the championships'
two major events, freestyle and net, the dreadlocks and the
tie-dyes tumbled like tyros.
This is the way it has always been. The Portland area is the
epicenter of footbag. The game's inventors, John Stalberger and
Mike Marshall, both Portland residents, invented the sport in
1972 as a way of limbering up stiff knees. Stalberger called the
little beanbag Hacky Sack, and in 1976 he started marketing it
around Portland. (Sadly, Marshall died of a heart attack in
1975.) "I thought it was the coolest thing," recalls Shults, who
was 10 when he saw his first Hacky Sack on TV. "I had to have
one...immediately. I think I was hooked on it before I'd ever
Shults already had a reputation for athletic fanaticism. When he
was in fourth grade his obsession was pogo sticking, and he made
a serious attempt at the world record for continuous jumps. "I
got to about 15,000," he says, "before I became too dizzy to
continue. I had really wanted to be in the Guinness Book of
World Records, and when I found footbag, I thought that could be
my way in."
Two years after he was given his first Hacky Sack, Shults
attended one of the early footbag tournaments, where he saw
someone set a world record for consecutive kicks. "The guy
kicked it 2,705 times," he says, "and my best was about 400--not
all that far off. So I started practicing like crazy." A year
later the world record, 4,515, was Shults's. He was 13 years old.
He was also precisely the person the Hacky Sack company was
looking for: someone who could spread the gospel of footbag. At
13 Shults was hired as a spokesperson, earning about $3,000 a
summer, and sent around the world, demonstrating his skills in
Alaska, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan and Mexico.
At the inaugural footbag world championships, held in Oregon in
1980, Shults won his first title, in the consecutive-kicks
event. The premier event back then was footbag net, an
exhausting volleyball-like game played entirely with the feet.
Points are scored only on a player's serve, and 11 points wins
the game until the semifinals, when games go to 15 points.
Matches are best two out of three. Though Shults lost in net the
first year (to Hacky Sack coinventor Stalberger), soon he so
dominated the event, winning eight world titles in singles and
nine in doubles, that in 1993 he took a couple of years off to
let other competitors catch up.
During this sabbatical Shults helped to advance freestyle
footbag, today's marquee event. Traditionally freestyle
competitors performed four or five basic kicks without stylistic
flourish. Shults began inserting spins and leaps and leg twists
between kicks. Offstage, he developed a vocabulary to describe
these movements, assigned a difficulty level (called an add) to
each and helped to standardize judging. The names of high-add
moves and variations evoke the break-dance pace of contemporary
freestyle footbag: "blurry whirl," "spinning blender,"
"barraging torque," "backside symposium" and "inside-out
Fueled by Shults's inventiveness, the sport has grown. According
to Stalberger, four to five million footbags are now sold each
year in the U.S. There are more than a dozen manufacturers and
an estimated 20 million players. Participation in the World
Footbag Championships has increased every summer. The
consecutive-kicks record is now 51,155, held by Ted Martin of
Park Ridge, Ill.
As tireless kids with "legs like fly rods," as Shults describes
them, have entered the sport and competition has intensified,
Shults has found it increasingly difficult to stay on top. The
onetime Hacky Sack prodigy, who graduated in 1988 from the
University of Oregon with a degree in advertising, even married
a fellow footbagger. His wife, Kendall, is so devoted to both
soccer and Hacky Sack that in 1984 she legally changed her
surname to KIC. And the heir to the footbag throne is due in
February. "I can tell already," she says, rubbing her midriff,
"he's a kicker."
Because footbag is an ill-paying pastime--first prize for most
events at this year's championships was less than $250--Shults
has felt increasingly obliged to concentrate on his
software-company job. "I used to practice every day, all day,
eight, 10 hours at a stretch," he says. "Now I'm lucky if I can
get in a couple of hours a week."
And in Montreal, for perhaps the first time in his career,
Shults was not the favorite. Top net players such as the Quebec
contingent of Sebastien Verdy and Emmanuel Bouchard had prepared
for the worlds by competing in a local league two nights a week
during the winter, and a few hours a day in the summer. Shults
hadn't played a serious game of net since the previous world
championships. Favored freestylists such as Rick Reese, of San
Francisco, and Peter Irish, of Fort Collins, Colo., had spent
hundreds of hours choreographing and refining their two-minute
routines. Shults's plan was to get onstage and wing it.
Still, no one has lived footbag the way Shults has, and he
breezed into the finals in three of the four events he had
entered. There, though, he was stopped. In the net singles
final, against Verdy, Shults sprinted and lunged and
rainbow-kicked all over the playing area (which is the size of a
badminton court), but he was eventually done in by the vicious
serve of his opponent, who won a tight contest, two games to one.
The net doubles final was even closer, but once again Shults,
playing alongside Randy Mulder, came up short. And in the
freestyle final, held on the midway of Montreal's La Ronde
amusement park, Shults's legs were so sore from his net matches
that they had little oomph left for blending, barraging and
blurring. Reese, performing a wild karatelike routine in which
he often kicked two footbags at once, was named champion.
At the awards dinner Shults vowed to make a comeback next year,
when the championships will be in Portland. Someone in the
audience asked him why. After all his accomplishments, after
amassing 44 world titles, what did he have left to prove?
He considered the question for a moment. "No matter how well
I've kicked," he said, smiling but entirely earnest, "the bag
eventually ends up on the floor. In the end, gravity always
wins. That still frustrates me."
When Montana-based freelancer Michael Finkel plays footbag, he
hits nothing but net.