Ken was one of the best—1977

I’ve posted earlier a number of stories, pictures and videos about the flying disc and some of the first expert players who also promoted the sport. Now here is another story sent to me by Audra Gonsalves, the wife of one of those pioneers, Ken Westerfield. It’s amazing how much of a difference just a few people can make in changing our culture and bringing the pleasures of a sport to millions of people.

In fact I just learned that nearly 300 million Frisbees have been sold since their introduction, and according to Mattel, which now owns the manufacturing rights, 90% of Americans have played with this flying toy at one time or another. And Frisbee is just one brand of many flying discs!

The frisbee’s origins actually go back to a bakery called the Frisbie Pie Company of New Haven, Connecticut, established by William Russell Frisbie after the Civil War. The bakery stayed in operation until 1958, and during this period, the tossing of the company’s pie tins, first by company drivers and later by Ivy League college students (some say it was cookie tin lids), led to frisbie becoming a well known term describing flying disc play in the Northeast…Now here is Audra’s intro and Ken’s story in two parts:

I wrote this story with Ken’s referencing help. With the advancement and popularity of disc sports, Ken thought it important to make an accurate account of his history.

From the early Frisbee days in New York, Ken knew everyone from the time of Gerry Lynas, Kerry, Krae and his father Ken, Peter Bloeme, Mark Danna, Jeff Felberbaum, Mountain, and many more. Ken played in Washington Square, Sheeps Meadow and at the Band Shell, back in the late 70’s while visiting with Krae and his father.

Ken retired in the mid 80’s, but is just starting to re-connect with some of the old players at west coast tournaments. He and I have been together for 15 years and now live in Bisbee AZ, where he restores old motorcycles and builds engines for muscle cars…

Ken Westerfield (born 1947) and childhood friend Jim Kenner began playing Frisbee in High School, impressing the other students with a variety of controlled throws and trick catches. Graduating in 1965 from Franklin High School (Livonia, Michigan), and leaning towards the counterculture, they spent their days on the beach and at music festivals honing their skills. One day in 1969, spotting a little ad in a local alternative newspaper, they took their Frisbees and a VW Bug and went to a concert near Bethel, NY, called Woodstock, which later became the music event of the century. While at the concert, they would throw the Frisbee over the crowd. Westerfield later stated “it was an interesting crowd to play for.”

Early Years in Canada

In 1970 Westerfield and Kenner moved to Toronto, setting up their disc playing headquarters in Queen’s Park (Toronto). Playing Frisbee freestyle and Object Disc Golf, became a daily event at the park. In 1971 with a hundred dollars each, they started hitch hiking across Canada, stopping to do Frisbee street performance at popular annual events: the Klondike Days in Edmonton, Calgary Stampede in Alberta and in Vancouver’s historic Gastown area in front of a railroad car-turned-restaurant, oddly enough called Frisby’s. One night, while performing at Frisby’s, they decided they would try to collect money like street musicians. It was a success, and they embarked on a new career.

Returning to Toronto they lived in Rochdale College while performing nightly in the Yonge Street Mall. Night after night, thousands of tourists and Torontonians would enjoy nightly displays of their Frisbee expertise. Wanting to advance their professional legitimacy, they approached Irwin Toy, the distributor of Frisbee’s in Canada, and proposed their show to promote the Frisbee. Their first professional performance was a Basketball half-time show at Jarvis Collegiate Institute in Toronto. The students loved it; Westerfield and Kenner were paid twenty dollars each for the show, but more importantly they had proven that their show would be beneficial to help promote the Frisbee. In 1972 they were retained by Irwin Toy to perform at Special Community and Sporting Events across Canada, making Westerfield and Kenner full-time Professional Frisbee Players.

First Frisbee Freestyle Competition 1974

Long before Frisbee was ever considered a sport, Ken and Jim were two of a handful of players to achieve the equivalent of what would be considered a professional freestyle Frisbee athlete. Without the incentives of scholarships, signing bonuses, contracts or even awards, Westerfield and Kenner had the status of being members of the first of the best in Frisbee freestyle, with no other reward than the pure pleasure of doing the activity they loved. Some of today’s techniques as well as competitive formats came from these pioneers.

In 1974, Westerfield and Kenner teamed up with Jeff Otis, event coordinator for the Canadian National Exhibition, to produce the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships. It was at this Tournament that Ken and Jim introduced an event called Freestyle and won it.

Excerpt from The Decade Awards 1970-75 Ken Westerfield/Jim Kenner Top Routine:

“Considered the greatest speedflow game of all time. Ken and Jim put on a clinic to cap off a blistering hot final by all of the teams. They featured a rhythmic and dynamic style with concise catch and throw combinations. These two gentlemen are credited with creating formal flying disc freestyle competition. The 1973 Canadian Open did not have freestyle as an event. They were able to finally convince the tournament director to go forward with their plan. The end result made history”.

This was the first Frisbee Freestyle Competition ever. A year later the AFDO (American Flying Disc Open) Rochester, New York, and the 1975 World Frisbee Championships, held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, adopted Ken and Jims Freestyle competition format as one of their events. Today that same Freestyle event is accepted as one of the premier events in flying disc tournaments worldwide.

Also in 1974, Ken and Jim approached Molson Breweries with the Idea of performing at Basketball Half-times in Canadian universities as the Molson Frisbee Team. Always looking for unique ways to get into the university market, Molson accepted their proposal and was more than impressed with the results. The next year, Molson upped the promotional fee and used the duo’s Frisbee show exclusively to introduce a new brand of beer called Molson Diamond.

In 1975 Ken and Jim, with Molson’s sponsorship, moved the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, from the Canadian National Exhibition to Toronto Islands. Molson’s would remain sponsors of Westerfield and Kenner for several years, helping to successfully promote their product, as well as offering Ken and Jim the ability to promote their new sport everywhere. (TO BE CONTINUED)