In the bag

Hacky-sack family puts their best foot forward

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By DEB QUANTOCK McCAREY

On a recent break at Rehm Park, a group of teenage lifeguards gathered two at a time to gawk at Scott Davidson, 41, and his wife Valeria, 46. The resident hacky-sack dude and dudette were "shredding until you drop," which is lingo for keeping their bean bag-like ball airborne with endurance and jaw-dropping freestyle tricks sans hands.

Other days at Rehm-and elsewhere when onlookers ask-Valeria, a 2007 U.S. Mixed Doubles Freestyle Footbag champion, reaches into her pocket to peddle a cachet of high quality footbags and her stat card-a promotional tool for the certified footbag instructor and a signpost for Footbag WorldWide Information Service, or www.footbag.org.

Yes, indeed, hacky-sack-or footbag, as serious players call it-is back and gaining popularity. This retooled approach is also allowing some players to stretch beyond the stereotypical high school "slacker" stigma, thanks in part to the continued ambassadorial efforts of the Davidsons and a core group of about 30 other fanatical footbag-playing friends nationwide.

Married since 1991, the energetic Oak Parkers also use the sport to grab quality family time with their 9-year-old son, Alex.

"Actually, I play every time I see a footbag circle, or wherever my parents are playing," Alex says.

Seeing the Davidsons in a "hack circle" almost anytime anywhere isn't unusual. Locally, they have circled up and done tricks at A Day in our Village and Oak Park's July 4th Parade. The trio also makes an effort to kick the bag around at summer festivals and at Oak Street Beach in Chicago, as well as running or being involved in events such as the recent 24th Annual Midwest Regional Footbag Championships at Taste of Chicago and Mayor Richard M. Daley's Holiday Sports Festival at the McCormick Place Convention Center. Additionally, they have flown in for special footbag gigs in New York City's Central Park, and in 1996, they conducted an exhibition at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, which they hope to reprise if Chicago is selected as the site for the 2016 Olympic Games.

"Scott and I are the only middle-aged married couple in the entire city who do this together, and we know almost everyone who competes and plays the sport," says Valeria, originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. "But if there are any secret hacky-sack societies out there hiding away, we will find them. That is our mission as a sport ... to grow."

The kickoff

Creating a game involving kicking feet and a soft, sand or bean-filled bag isn't exclusively American or new. The venerable foot game actually has roots in ancient China (sources say they used a shuttlecock with feathers and called it jianzi). Variations of it flourished in other Asian countries, and can even be traced to the Native Americans, where they kicked around a feathered, pellet-filled animal hide for fun.

But the sport of footbag, according to various Internet sources, really began in America in 1972 when Oregonian athletes John Stallberger and Mike Marshall revised its play into "Hack the Sack." They later trademarked the brand name "Hacky Sack." It was, and still is sold under the Wham-O label. They also coined the moniker footbag.

Poking fun at hacky-sack playing via pop culture isn't new either. In 1955 Alfred Hitchcock took his shot with a brief scene in the film, To Catch a Thief. The French goons, who were supposed to be conducting surveillance on Cary Grant, allowed him and Grace Kelly to slip away because the guys were absorbed in a game resembling hacky-sack. Fox Television's The Simpsons satirized it when the bullies Jimbo, Dolph, Kearney and Nelson are seen by Bart playing hacky-sack in a circle with a frog. In the new Adam Sandler flick, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, film critic Roger Ebert describes a scene that involves a savage game of hacky-sack using not a hacky-sack bag but a living cat. Go figure.

Going international

Anyway, in spite of, or because of, these humorous jabs, the sport of footbag has evolved into an alternative sport governed by the International Footbag Players' Association, Inc. (IFPA). The non-profit, charitable, volunteer-run group funds the World Footbag Championships, publishes the Rules of Footbag Sports, and sanctions 20-30 major footbag competitions around the world every year.

The most popular derivations so far are Footbag Net, a singles or doubles court game, like tennis or volleyball; Freestyle Footbag, where players stand in a circle, doing tricks and passing the bag around the circle; and Advanced Freestyle competition, which is Scott's niche. It is a judged, choreographed and musical routine, much like competitive figure skating, but instead of blades on ice, it measures the accuracy and art of a bag connecting with an athlete's fast and fluid moving shins, head and feet. Newest on the footbag scene is Footbag Four Square for kids and adults, a variation of the beloved schoolyard game.

Learning the sport

Like most serious hacky-sack players, Scott Davidson, who works for Apple, Inc., began playing hacky-sack in high school during lunch. He and his buds would "kick the sack" in the Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) mall (East Avenue). One day while recovering on the sidelines from an Ultimate Frisbee injury, Davidson did a double kick, tapping the footbag with the outside of his foot and recovering the bag with the inside of his foot. From that point on he decided to focus on perfecting an array of simple and advanced freestyle moves and began reaching out to expand his chosen sport's community. That year he traveled to compete in his first regional footbag tournament, and at age 17, attended his first World Footbag Championship in Golden, Colo. Since then, the locale of the "Worlds" event has traveled about. This summer, the 29th annual IFPA World Footbag Championships are in Prague, Czech Republic.

Scott, who also enjoys triathlons, became the 1999 World Champion in Singles Freestyle competition, and in 2006 he was inducted into the Footbag Hall of Fame. Many of his career highlights can be viewed via YouTube and other Internet sites.

Kicking the sack

The first step to figuring out footbag is standing in a circle with friends and kicking the hacky-sack 10-20 times, says Scott, a certified footbag instructor who is currently forming a not-for-profit group geared toward kids and adults: kickforhealth.org.

Scott works out an average of 45 minutes solo, every day, and always has shoes and bags ready to go for spontaneous family fun on weekend outings.

The trick to not getting too frustrated, say Valeria and Scott, is setting small, achievable goals like 5-10 kicks in a row. After that, sights should be set on 1,000 kicks a day ... but not necessarily in a row.

"This means that somewhere in the course of your day taking the time to kick 1,000 kicks, whether you do 10 kicks, 15, 100-eventually, you will get past that 1,000 kicks mark," Valeria says. "That is what motivated me. When I heard this I said, 'OK, I can do this.'"

"When you get into advanced freestyle competition," Scott notes, "the objective is to 'shred until you drop,' which means you exert yourself to whatever level you are at."

Alex Davidson, who currently attends Longfellow Elementary School, started practicing footbag as a preschooler when he simply put the bag on his toe and pushed it up. Getting better hasn't been easy, he says, but his dad continues to inspire him. His personal record to date is 12 kicks in a row. But by the end of the summer the determined fourth-grader plans to break 20 consecutive kicks.

"I look at this as a lot of fun, and a great workout," says Scott, the pro-bono education director for IFPA who is known as the "Enlightener" by a group of elite peers. "Once in a while I feel like I don't want to get out there and kick. But then I think about a kick I'm working on, and I have to get out there and try it. "What is missing is the estrogen in the sport. There are a lot of guys, but not a lot of women yet."

Getting started

Almost any pair of solid tennis shoes will do, says Valeria Davidson. Locally, hacky-sacks cost $4.99 or $9.99 at Sports Authority in North Riverside, 366-6600. To purchase higher quality freestyle and novelty bags (some glow in the dark), try online: www.freedomfootbags.com or www.footbagshop.com.

"This is not a very expensive sport-like hockey, for example-where you have to spend thousands of dollars for equipment," says Valeria. "It's the sport that fits in your pocket. All you need is a $5 or $10 footbag, and a pair of good, solid tennis shoes, and you're good to go."

Yes, there are world records

Scott Davidson's personal record for consecutive kicks is 4,200ish (because he says he got bored and lost count). But that feat, he says, isn't worthy of being included in the Guiness Book of World Records. These are:

Constance Constable, who tallied 24,713 consecutive kicks in 4 hrs. 9 mins. 27 secs. on April 18, 1998

Ted Martin, who endured 8 hours, 50 minutes and 42 seconds to complete 63,326 consecutive kicks on June 14, 1997.

Andy Linder, who gathered 945 of his friends into a hacky-sack circle (946 players) on July 6, 2001. This beat the previous record of 933 set by St. Patrick H.S. of Chicago in May of 1996.

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