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Ultimate talk with Vault's Neeley Brothers

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Ultimate talk with Vault's Neeley Brothers
Photo by Steve Helvin


When it comes to ultimate-playing siblings, the Neeley Brothers are some of the best-known names in the game. Matthew and Jonathan helped start and now play for Vault (whose Team Marketplace just wrapped up), and they previously played on the DC Breeze. Jonathan also helped start Virginia Squires back in the day and has played with Truck Stop for years. You've probably also read his words in Skyd Magazine and Ultiworld. Savage Sales Jedi Austin Bartenstein asked the brothers a few more than seven questions. Here's what they had to say.


Savage: What are your favorite ultimate snacks?

MN: I love cured meats. If I have any say in the team snack cooler, there will always be some prosciutto or salami in there.

JM: I’m not a huge snacker. Give me a full meal. To that end, I like getting a can lentil soup and an avocado. Easy way to stay full on the cheap. Frozen fruit is also fantastic when it’s hot.

Savage: What skill have you practiced most in frisbee?

MN: This may be silly, but probably just talking. On the field communication, sideline help, chair heckling. I've been told I can be loud effectively, and I don't shy away from projecting my voice.

JN: Probably throwing.

Savage: Can you tell us about the most meaningful moment in your respective ultimate careers?

MN: I'm not sure if anything tops winning a YCC tournament back in 2009 with Seattle. Taking a gold medal (or crappy piece of plastic) home, and having your name in the UPA Archives is pretty sweet. I've also won the Moscow Indoor Tournament twice in my career, which not a ton of people can say that they have done.

JN: That’s a really hard one—the game has been so good to me! There were a few years where I helped run clinics in Panama for a 2-week stretch in January, and the time when we were starting up, a woman came up to me beaming, talking about how what she had learned the previous year had been paying off ever since and how it had made playing so much more fun for her. Seeing her gain that confidence meant a whole lot. On the field, making Nationals my last year at Virginia and semis my last year on Truck are two big ones.

Savage: Ultimate seems to be at an important crossroads right now. What direction do you expect it to go, and what would you hope for ultimate's future?

JN: I used to think the ultimate world was this thing I could fully grasp—like as long as I kept an eye on things and talked to lots of people, I could understand all of its angles. These days, it’s clear to me how ridiculous that thought has always been. I think frisbee will keep going in all kinds of ways for all kinds of people, and there’s only a big narrative to the extent that people imagine one. I recently played in a local beach league where $5 got you two games and lunch afterward. And the ocean was the sideline.  

I guess what I’m saying is that one place my mind goes here is what might essentially be described as ultimate "going corporate," and how at first pass I don’t love that notion. But that isn't a new phenomenon—Jose Cuervo was sponsoring tournaments in the '90s. And on the personal level, my entire career has happened in the context of people wanting to take ultimate beyond just being a game and being this thing to consume. I was into 5 Ultimate stretchy shorts in college, and pro ultimate gave me some of my fondest memories. And yet I still think of the frisbee world as pretty welcoming and quirky and all that. 

I guess I just hope ultimate continues to be fun, becomes more welcoming for more people, and does for more people what it has done for me, which is serve as a forum for stopping to think about how sports and community and personal stake and responsibility all overlap.

MN: I don't know if I'm the one to call all the shots here, but there was a club player coalition meeting in DC where we discussed the ultimate community and making things more accessible and accepting for everyone. Things like that certainly need to keep happening, and I believe we as players are going in the right direction.

I guess what I'll say is that in 2011 we went to college sectionals for a bid fee of $150 and it was hosted by a dude that was quite involved in the ultimate community. The fields were good, the weather was fantastic, there was a keg on site and a party in Missoula that night with food and beer provided. This coming season, our club sectionals bid fee is $600 and it's being ran by a for-profit company. I would appreciate an explanation for this, cuz it just ain't right.

Savage: You both have ties to Seattle and Virginia/DC ultimate. Do you have any observations about how those ultimate communities compare?

MN: I'll start by saying that both communities are really awesome, and there are a lot of very cool people involved in both cities. One thing I've noticed is that in Seattle, there seem to be more folks that are ALL IN on frisbee. Like, at every skill level, there are people that go to every dang tournament they can. Like 35 tournaments a year. I don't know if I just don't see as much of that in DC, so that could just be a perception. People in Seattle also play a ton of goaltimate. I miss goaltimate. 

I think the DC community is more team-oriented. There are a number of teams that do a lot within their own team structure. Maybe that's just me getting older and less social though, because I know things are going on, but half the time I would prefer sitting at home with the pup!

JN: I agree with Matthew: they’re both great places to play ultimate. I think he’s onto something about Seattle having more people who are straight-up ultimate-obsessed, which I think comes from the overall culture just being different. Here in DC, there’s just a stronger magnet that pulls people into the mainstream, whereas in the Northwest, I think it’s just more common to have people who really march to the beat of their own drum, and so you naturally have ultimate players who take more unique paths. And I think all of that has led to Seattle being an innovator with ultimate, from on-field stuff to using the sport to make cultural gains. There’s just a little more “what angle can I come at this sport from?” and more willingness to go all-in on that angle. That’s what I see, anyway.

Savage: Both of you guys have been playing for a long time. Any words of wisdom for other ultimate siblings out there?

MN: I feel like we have a rather unique situation, since we have lived on opposite sides of the country for the majority of our ultimate careers. I would say to take every chance you have to play with each other. If you aren't on the same team, or in the same city, get workouts in during holidays and go to pickup games together. Talk to each other about ultimate and life. It's the 21st century, so we're both blessed and cursed with the gift of communication!

JN: Yep to all of that. Even with the teammates you’re closest with, it’s rare that any of them don’t know you primarily as an ultimate player. That’s not the case with a sibling, which is something to relish. 

Savage: Any ultimate heroes or heroines?

MN: Hero: I find it hard to put ultimate players on a pedestal for idolization, but I definitely used to get pretty hyped about some of those mid-2000 Sockeye teams. Ryan Winkelmann comes to mind as a dude that worked hard, and was just really cool on and off the field. Jonathan and I got the chance to work with him at the camps out in Seattle, and he's a hilarious dude that is down to teach you a thing or two if you ask.

JN: Coming up in the game, I idolized Ben Wiggins pretty hard. I liked how good he was at throwing and how he talked about the game in a way that always seemed to say "I know the conventional wisdom says to do that, but have you thought about it like this?" I really like the way he thinks, at least publicly. 

Savage: What's the most memorable game you've witnessed or been a part of? Set the scene for us. 

MN: College Regionals 2013. We were playing UW (gross) in the last game of pool play. We had gone down 2-6 or something like that and I sort of just turned it on. Ended up getting involved in every point and playing one of the best games of my college career. Brought the score to 11-11 with us receiving, when one of my friends, Jeff Landrie, promptly turfed the centering pass off the pull. Naturally, UW punched it in for the break and promptly broke us again to win 13-11, but that game was darn fun. We then went on to lose to Oregon B in my last college game ever. Good times. 

JN: Easy. The 2009 Open final at Club Nationals, Chain vs. Revolver. This was my first Club Nationals, and seeing a team as dialed in as Chain was… I had just never seen that before. This was before Nationals happened in a stadium, so I was sitting on one of the front endzone line cones with some good friends who I had graduated from college with a few months prior, just talking frisbee and taking it all in. Our captain, Robert Runner, was playing big minutes for Chain, and seeing him dominate these top players with the exact same throws and moves and attitude that he had spent the last four years dominating us with at practice… that added this element of pride to it. The whole thing felt like this welcome to a new level of ultimate for me. I don’t think I’m painting a great picture here, but it all still glows in my head.

Savage: Favorite Neeley family memory?

JN: So tough! The time my dad saw us pretending to smoke cigars and then went to the store and came back with a pack of cigarettes and told us we had to smoke them because if you kids want to do that crap, why don’t you really do it… and then both of us crying and apologizing and seeing how unvirtuous we had been… that was pretty good.

Savage: Between the two of you, what's the tie-dye shirt count? Any favorites and the story behind them?

MN: I think I have 5 sitting in my drawers, with the best one being the Lithuanian Grateful Dead basketball shirt. That one is top-notch and gets a lot of shout outs. Just this past AUDL season the guy making my sandwich at Wawa geeked out over it, and we had a nice conversation about the Dead. Always cool when strangers connect over things like that.

JN: Off the top of my head, I’m counting 6, so 11 between us. Woulda expected a little higher. No great stories with mine, but I did only pay $.05 for my favorite one. Bought it right before spring break my junior year. It’s served me well ever since.

Savage: Who is more likely to start a jam band when he hits 40? What's the band name?

MN: I have to imagine that's Jonathan. He's been actively learning to play guitar. I'll definitely be ready to sell grilled cheeses and cooler beers in the lot when tour kicks up though!

JN: That’s nice of you to say, but that project has been on hold for a while. But Vault is pretty much a jam band if you're willing to look at it that way. We helped start that last December. 

Savage: Who are your favorite writers and why?

MN: Jeff Sullivan from fangraphs is one of my favorite internet writers. As a big baseball fan, and Mariners fan, he helped my friends and I cope with what was, and still is Mariners baseball. He's pretty witty, and did a good job of keeping things in perspective when dealing with a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2001. He's moved onto better things, like writing about interesting teams and players, but he still has our hearts.

JN: There's a thinker named Eckhart Tolle blew my worldview open two summers ago, and I revisit hist stuff pretty frequently, especially a book called The Power of Now. Along those lines, I also like Thich Nhat Hanh and Alan Watts a whole lot. I just got introduced to Neil Gaiman and have had a hard time putting his books down. I like a lot of New Yorker writers — Malcom Gladwell, Jia Tolentino, and Rachel Aviv all come to mind. My favorites tend to evolve, and I'm sort of a slow book reader so I don't always feel like I have time to get into a critical mass of a single person's work. But the Gaiman thing is showing me a little about how cool that can be.

Savage: This one's for Jonathan. What's the best biking city you've been to? What can you tell us about bike lanes? Are bike lanes even important?

JN: DC is pretty great, and people here should remember that. Nationally, we’re right behind Portland in terms of number of people riding, and we’re up there on miles of bike lanes, both of which make riding safer and more fun. Of other places I’ve been and have tried to bike, I had a lot of fun in New Orleans, and they’re building a ton of new lanes there. And Seattle is really great too—our dad still lives there and I work for a company that has an office there, so I go out once or twice a year, and I’ve done some bike commuting while there. What’s crazy is that in all of those places, riding your bike can still be pretty unsafe on the whole. And even in the places where a certain bike lane or street feels super safe, that’s just a function of where in town you are. If it’s a white area near the city center, you can probably ride pretty safely and comfortably. If you’re in a community of color that was probably redlined and still being starved for resources, the roads tend to be super dangerous for everyone. Luckily there are some smart people in all sectors who are talking about this problem more.

To sum all this up, though, what I really know is this: parking is going to kill us all. We’ve got to walk back this whole “storing my 2-ton hunk of personal property in the street is my God-given right” thing. Quit it with the parking, everyone. And build the freaking bike lanes.