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Inmates at Pueblo's Youthful Offender System participate in an ultimate disc game during a clinic led by the Colorado Summit professional team in February. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Aaron Alvarado, a 21-year-old inmate with a tiny, Cindy Lou Who-style ponytail on his head, got the hang of it pretty quickly, even though it was his first go at ultimate disc.

“All you have to do is run fast and jump high,” said Alvarado, who played baseball and football in high school back in San Antonio and was also on the track team. “If you mess up, you got to turn the page back and keep moving. Instead of getting mad over one little thing that you messed up at, just leave that in the past and try again.”

So yeah, kinda like life.

That was the intended takeaway after a few hours of ultimate disc in the yard of Colorado’s Youthful Offender System, a middle-tier prison for young people who committed their crimes before their 20th birthday. The 190 young men and women in the program all received sentences from two to seven years for violent crimes, and were sent to Pueblo, instead of a regular Colorado Department of Corrections Prison, in the hopes of rehabilitation.  

Aaron Alvarado, with the disc, and other young people in the Youthful Offender System play a round of ultimate on the prison grounds in Pueblo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Aaron Alvarado reacts after a score. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

On a sunny winter day, two groups of about 30 young people in the program met on dry grass for a lesson in ultimate disc, a growing, but still little-known sport that’s so far been mostly for white kids in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. The game on prison turf was part rehabilitation for young offenders, part outreach from Colorado’s newest professional sports team — the Colorado Summit.

The Summit, announced in December as the latest ultimate disc expansion team to go pro, will compete in the American Ultimate Disc League, playing 24 other teams in the United States and Canada. Its first home game as a professional team is set for May 28 at the University of Denver. 

The 7-versus-7 sport is a bit like football, though there is no quarterback. The offense receives a kickoff, called a “pull,” players complete passes to move the disc toward their end zones for one point per score, and the defense tries to force a turnover by intercepting or knocking down the disc. Any of the seven players on a team can catch and throw, and a player with the disc in their hands has until a count of 10 to throw it or it’s an automatic turnover. Tackling isn’t allowed. 

And there are no referees outside the pro league, which means the players have to call their own fouls and sort out any disagreements — including whether someone fast-counted to 10. 

That conflict resolution is what players call the “spirit of the game.” Every game is an exercise in communication, honesty, and sometimes, anger management. 

If a defender hits a player in the arm instead of the disc, for example, the thrower can call a foul. If both players agree on the foul, there’s a re-do on the play. And when they don’t, well, there’s a longer conversation. Players tend to “mature” into the culture the more years they’ve had in the game.

During a clinic led by Colorado Summit members, Joe “Smash” Anderson, in center, and Felix Pronove, second from back left, teach a throwing and running drill to inmates at the Youthful Offender System prison in February. The new professional ultimate Frisbee team, based in Denver, hopes to return to the prison to build relationships with the young people. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Several of the 35 players on the pro team’s roster, including Joe “Smash” Anderson, gave up their phones and wallets to go inside the prison gates and teach ultimate disc to a group of young people that had never played before. Anderson, a mortgage lender in Louisville, is a cutter, which is sort of like a wide receiver. He learned to play ultimate disc thanks to a benefactor at his New York City high school, and, as one of the few Black people playing the game, has since realized that was a “bougie” circumstance. 

“It’s a white sport,” Anderson said. “Think about Frisbee, think about golf.” 

The visit to the youthful offender program, as well as a series of P.E. classes at Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, were part of an effort to “give back” — but also an attempt to give kids of color and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds a chance to learn about a new sport, said Anderson, who is on the team’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. 

The young offenders were athletic, fast and looked like they regularly lift weights, Anderson noted. “If some of them were playing, maybe some of us wouldn’t be playing,” he said, laughing. 

And only a handful of them had ever heard of ultimate disc as a “real” sport, let alone played the game. As Alvarado put it, “I threw a Frisbee around before, but I never knew there was a whole league and stuff.” When he gets out in hopefully about two years, he intends to look for a club, he said.

Inmates watch from indoors as the first round of an ultimate clinic takes place on the prison grounds. The Youthful Offender System has good behavior rankings so young people can earn recreation privileges. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Opposing teams jump for the disc during a game of ultimate at the prison in February. With no referees, players rely on the “spirit of the game” sportsmanship principles to ensure integrity and honesty when it comes to foul calls. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The sport has grown in popularity in recent years, and now Colorado has 48 boys high school teams and 16 girls teams, mostly in Boulder and Denver, with a couple in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. Ultimate players have no plans to book trips to high schools or communities that already have teams; that’s why the youthful offender program was on their list. 

“It’s just putting Frisbees into kids’ hands, at this point,” Anderson said. “We just want to give you a Frisbee and see how you feel about it. It’s the connection of ‘Hey, this is something else to do.’”

Ryan Segal, one of three Colorado Summit coaches, said one goal is to “encourage growth in the high school scene,” bringing up a new generation of ultimate disc players. Players are planning to visit high schools, middle schools and other correctional facilities, likely in the Division of Youth Services, which has multiple facilities for kids 10 and older.

“When we looked at our mission of trying to create growth in ultimate across the state, we really looked at places where we thought we could make an impact in the community,” Segal said. “In the prison, it was new for them. Several of those folks said, ‘I’m going to be out in a few months and I’m going to be in Denver. Can you connect me with playing opportunities?’ Getting into a sport and having a different community, changing your friend group that was maybe how you ended up incarcerated, is a big deal.” 

The team is dedicating part of its budget to give out free discs — they call the sport ultimate disc because Frisbee is a trademark — as well as cones, and eventually, cleats. The hope is that kids who have the equipment will start pick-up games at their neighborhood parks, even if their schools don’t offer the sport. 

The community outreach comes as the pro-team announcement is boosting enthusiasm, especially for high school kids who dream of playing professionally, Segal said. 

Colorado Summit coach and general manager, Ryan Segal, with the disc, discusses the game of ultimate in a huddle during a timeout. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Colorado Summit player, Felix Pronove, at right, interacts with a young person in the Youthful Offender System following a game of ultimate. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The American Ultimate Disc League has existed for about 10 years, most recently bringing in Colorado Summit, Portland Nitro and the Salt Lake Shred as pro teams. For years, Colorado has had a strong ultimate disc community, with a club scene consisting mostly of adults who fund themselves to play in tournaments across the country. About 130 men showed up for an open tryout for the professional team. Segal, 38, is on the master’s club team, for players 33 and up, which will compete in June at world championships in Ireland. 

Warden Richard Persons, who has run the youthful offender program since 2019, watched as the young people who signed up to play ultimate disc learned the rules of the game. He was struck, he said, by the way players learn to “negotiate and communicate with each other.” 

“At the end of the day, you have to work as a team,” Persons said later in an interview. “This population is very energetic. There were a lot of athletic folks out there and it was interesting to watch.”

The program, one of a handful of prisons on the grounds of the state mental hospital, works to connect young people to the community while they’re locked up, because the whole point is to get them ready to succeed on the outside, Persons said. They’re in the Youthful Offender System because a judge wanted to keep them out of adult prison, although that’s where they end up if they don’t successfully complete their sentence. Out of about 200 inmates, only 10 are women.

The youthful offender program has three phases, and each offender’s plan is developed after medical, mental and educational assessments during the first 30 days. In phase one, they might take substance abuse and therapy courses, work toward their GEDs and enroll in career and technical classes. The program has business classes, welding, cosmetology and a partnership with the local steel union. 

Youthful Offender System inmates listen to members of Colorado Summit near the end of the clinic in February. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In phase two, they prepare for job interviews, and many have jobs lined up before they leave the prison walls. Phase three, which lasts six to 12 months, is community supervision, similar to parole. 

“They come in pretty young,” the warden said. “It’s really nice to have members of the public come in. It gives the population purpose and hope that whatever they did to be incarcerated doesn’t need to be their defining moment in life.”

“The hope is to be able to catch these guys and girls early enough to give them an opportunity to change that behavior, to show them that when they get out, there are better things for them,” he said. “Sometimes that light bulb goes off and they figure out, ‘This isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...