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Feature

Spin Doctor

Ed Headrick

Autumn Whitehurst

Posted 12/25/2002

"When we die we don't go to purgatory," "Steady" Eddie Headrick was fond of saying. "We just land up on the roof and lay there." Fitting sentiments from the father of the modern Frisbee and the sport of Disc Golf. Headrick, 78, died from the complications of multiple strokes in his Le Selva Beach, Calif., home on Aug. 12. He is now figuratively--and perhaps literally--resting on a rooftop. For as per his wishes, the jovial, white-whiskered inventor's ashes have been incorporated into memorial flying discs sold by the Disc Golf Association he founded in 1976. An appropriate end for the self-styled "Frisbyterian" whose life became inexorably wrapped around the diminutive plastic discs.

While Headrick did much for the Frisbee, he didn't really invent it. The Frisbee's flight began in 1948, when the first plastic, hand-launched "flying saucer" was fashioned by a California building inspector named Walter Morrison. Morrison later sold the idea to the Wham-O toy company (whose colorful co-founder, Arthur "Spud" Melin, also passed away this year). They initially sent it to store shelves as the "Pluto Platter" in 1957, then tweaked its design and rechristened it the Frisbee in 1958 (purportedly as a nod to the Connecticut-based Frisbie Pie Company, whose empty pie tins Yale students had been chucking around for decades). But Frisbee's moment in the sun would have to wait. Another curvilinear Wham-O novelty rolled out that year: the Hula Hoop.

Meanwhile, Pasadena, Calif.,-born Headrick, following army infantry service in World War II, was carving out a comfortable life in the Los Angeles suburbs. By the early 1960s, he was a father of four and vice president of a burgeoning water-heater business. The self-described "adult kid" and innate tinkerer was also bored, an intellectual ennui that led him to Wham-O's door in 1964. Headrick intended to interest them in a hydrofoil water-ski he had developed, but sold them on something bigger--himself. Determined to escape the humdrum hot-water biz, he offered to take over Wham-O's research and development arm for a three-month trial run--for free. Wham-O agreed to the unorthodox offer, and Headrick's brain got busy.

The Hula Hoop fad had crashed and burned, but from its ashes the company's newest hit arose. One of Headrick's first challenges was to find a use for a warehouse full of surplus Hula Hoop plastic--and he turned to the humble Frisbee. He reengineered the erstwhile Pluto Platter for better flight, most notably adding a series of concentric ridges that dramatically improved aerodynamics (working like the dimples on a golf ball, the ridges cut in-flight drag). Dubbed the "pro model," the more flingable Frisbee cast off its child's-toy image and took flight with the young-adult market. Discs careened above college campuses, and "Frisbeeing" caught on with era's swelling counter-culture crowd (read: hippies). Headrick called his disc "an antidote to organized sport," though officialdom of a sort arrived in 1967, when he founded the International Frisbee Association. His 1972 renting of the Rose Bowl for a "World's Frisbee Championship" was but one of the plucky promotional schemes Headrick conceived.

Raised lettering on the bottom of early Frisbees instructed folks to "invent games" for the discs. (Ultimate, Frisbee's answer to football, was one many games to develop.) Ad hoc versions of disc golf--with players hurling Frisbees at sundry targets--emerged in the 1960s. But the pastime wasn't formalized until 1976, when Headrick patented a "flying disc entrapment device"--essentially, a metal basket beneath a parabola of suspended chains. Headrick used his "disc pole hole" to erect the first disc golf course in La Canada, Calif., that same year, and went on to design hundreds of such courses around the world. Headrick ultimately left Wham-O, where he'd risen to CEO, in the '80s to promote and play disc golf full-time. Indeed, he suffered his first stroke this past July while attending a disc golf championship in Florida--and though rendered partially paralyzed, he cheerfully signed well-wishers' Frisbees from his hospital bed.

And so the Frisbee flies on. Wham-O, back in private hands after a stint under the Mattel toy conglomerate, continues to stamp out Frisbees--over 200 million to date. The Disc Golf Association now sports more than 18,000 members. And from some above-the-eaves perch, "Steady" Eddie is likely grinning ear-to-ear.

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