In the span of just two years in the late 1980s, the round, mostly flat plastic object known as a Frisbee went from being something to stuff in a beach bag to a ticket around the world for Hampton Bays native Dennis Warsen.
Warsen, a 1985 graduate of Hampton Bays High School, found his way into the sport—once known as Ultimate Frisbee, now known simply as Ultimate—by happenstance. Walking home across the State University of New York at Purchase college campus after practice with the school’s basketball team in the spring of 1986, with a basketball under his arm, Warsen said he was invited to give the game a try by a group of fellow students who were playing outside that day.
“One of them yelled to me, ‘Hey, come on over and put down that sphere—try this flatball!’” Warsen, who now lives in Berkeley, California, recalled in an interview last month. “So I did.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Warsen was inducted into the USA Ultimate Hall of Fame on January 7 as a member of its 2012 class. In his bio on usaultimate.org, Warsen is described as being considered, by many, to be “the best player ever on the best team ever.” The write-up added: “He was known as a hard-nosed defender who laid out his long body for blocks with the agility of a gymnast, [and] he struck fear in the hearts of opponents by going deep and scoring at will after a defensive block. Early in his career, he intimidated opponents by pulling down hanging throws that were sitting at 11 feet.”
Standing at nearly 6 feet 5 inches, and blessed with speed and athleticism, Warsen turned out to be a natural in the sport. He quickly joined the Purchase team after that initial chance invitation, and helped it to win the 1987 college national championship. His next break in the sport followed quickly after that, when he joined the powerful club team based in New York City, known simply as New York, in 1987. New York was one of the top club teams in the country but was having trouble beating a squad from Boston that possessed two very good and very tall future Hall of Famers. Warsen’s Purchase teammate Skip Kuhn was a member of the New York team and suggested that Warsen could be the missing link.
Warsen joined the team one month before the end of the regular season, and that fall New York not only upset the Boston team but also won the national club championship. By winning nationals, New York earned a spot in the world championships, representing the United States in Belgium in the summer of 1988, and came home with the world title. Warsen, with barely two years of experience in the sport at the age of 21, was an integral member of the team.
At that point, Ultimate became a way of life for Warsen.
He continued to play with his college team, helping Purchase advance to two more national finals before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1990. From 1987 to 1994, Warsen was a member of the New York team that became a dynasty, winning five world championships and six national titles. Warsen won his last world title playing with a co-ed team in the mixed division in the latter stages of his career in 2000.
During his heyday with New York, Warsen described himself as “a young, tall, explosive weapon on a team full of talented and hard-working players.” Warsen credited two players on that team in particular, Pat King and Kenny Dobyns—whom he calls two of the best Ultimate players of all time—with teaching him the game, and he also gives a lot of credit to Purchase and New York teammate Kuhn. “We’re lifelong friends,” Warsen said. “I owe them and the entire team so much. It was like I had 20 older brothers.”
Warsen made a name for himself on the national and international stage in a short time and at a young age, but he had a reputation not only as a pure talent but as a good steward of a game that prides itself on fairness and mutual respect. David Barkan, a talented player on powerful teams from the San Francisco area during the same time period, was often an opponent of Warsen’s, but the two became friends. He said he was struck by Warsen’s ability to be an intense competitor on the field but a good friend to all off the field. He was also struck, he said, by Warsen’s talent.
“The first time I saw him playing was when he was still in college, probably 1990,” Barkan recalled. “He was definitely the most dominant player on the field, and he looked like he was about 17, even though he was probably 21 or 22 at the time. His skills and abilities were just above and beyond. The sport was just made for his abilities.”