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[whitespace] Man throwing frisbee
Robert Scheer

Every Friday, some of the valley's top entrepreneurs ditch the office for a long-running game of Ultimate Frisbee--where the biggest scores are made off the field.

By Lauren Barack

'Middle! MIDDLE!" yells C.J. Shapiro, 23, a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, as Del Cornali, 44, an independent contractor, forces a guy he's guarding to throw a Frisbee toward the middle of the field. The disk sails into the hands of a player on Shapiro's team, who quickly shoots it toward the dark shirts' goal. Shapiro runs toward the orange cones marking the goal. "Get it ... get it!" Shapiro stops on the sidelines. But his teammate misses the Frisbee. And the goal.

It's 12:45pm on an overcast Friday as 14 men and women race across a damp grass field in Palo Alto playing Ultimate Frisbee, a game that resembles football and lacrosse but is played with the plastic disc most commonly associated with the beach. But this is not a friendly game of toss. While there are no referees, injuries are common, such as a separated shoulder while diving to catch a hammer--game parlance for an upside-down Frisbee. This, for example, is Shapiro's first game at the park in a month since being elbowed in the jaw.

The game at Greer Park started about 10 years ago--not with the same players or on the same field, but with the same competitive spirit that lured employees from Raynet, a now defunct fiberoptics company in Menlo Park. "The company ... disappeared," says Mike Santullo, 36, who was Raynet's engineering manager and the co-founder of Internet Yellow Pages Four11, which sold to Yahoo! last year for $94 million. "But four or five of us still play."

Although the game is scheduled to start at noon, most people arrive at about a quarter after, pulling up in their shiny BMWs, Lexuses and Saturns that mark them as members of Silicon Valley's elite--company founders, venture capitalists, software engineers and a few stragglers from Stanford University. Up to 28 can show up for their ultimate fix--enough for two games--every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The group has all the ingredients of a high-tech start-up, and some have founded companies. Goals are made on this field--and not just in Ultimate.

Santullo and Larry Drebes, Four11's co-founders, signed the paperwork for their first round of financing after an Ultimate game with venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson from Draper Fisher Jurvetson. He's been playing ever since, along with Warren Packard, also from his firm.

By 1pm everyone is sweating hard, and they've finally started keeping score--dark shirts are winning 5-2. For the first half-hour, the teams just play for fun, but now they're playing "more aggressive to the disk," says Gudrun Enger, 28, a product manager at Silicon Graphics who's been playing Ultimate for five years. While she and the others are serious about the game, Enger describes this group as mid-level.

"They have a lot of strength and speed," she said, "but they don't necessarily know all the rules." Which may explain why some players "got their butts kicked," Enger says, in a tournament the weekend before.

The group sometimes calls itself "Podesta"--the last name of the White House deputy chief of staff who was subpoenaed by Starr to testify in the Monica Lewinsky saga. Others play on teams named "Huck and Pray" and "Ebb and Flow." But people seem less interested in tournaments than in having a place to escape their cell phones, voicemail and Palm Pilots. Lunch here can be a Power Bar and a bottle of water.

"No one schedules lunch meetings on Ultimate days," Santullo says before heading back onto the field after Shapiro dives to catch a hammer and a few bruises--and score a goal.

While twisted ankles and bruises are common pitfalls, the biggest obstacles on the field are six soccer goals cemented into the grass. It's a symbol of what Matt Flanzer, 27, calls "soccer fascism." The goals used to be just chained to the field until Flanzer, a software engineer at Sven Technologies, asked the city if the group could move them for games. "But they said that was a liability," he says. So are the goal posts, placed where Little Leaguers might run into them--to say nothing of Ultimate players looking to let off steam after hours of writing code.

By 1:30, darks have won 7-2, and the team begins to peel away. They start up their shiny cars and head off to meet with hopeful CEOs or program software that ensures their stock options.

"The competitiveness of the team effort gets me to push myself more," muses venture capitalist Jurvetson. "I like hanging out with folks from the high-tech industry. And who knows, they might all become entrepreneurs someday."

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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