Footbag isn’t just the sport you played in the parking lot after school. In fact a lot of people take it quite seriously. It’s been competitive sport in several forms since the 1970’s-with a substantial number of footbag tournaments and festivals held around the world every year. Commonly known as Hacky Sack (actually a product manufactured by Wham-O, Inc.), footbag clubs are popping up all over the country including the Blue Ridge.

Pete Irish of Maryland has been kicking competitively for 20 years. His foot fetish began casually in the late 80s after he broke his arm in a skateboarding accident. After a little practice he made his parents drive him to the 1986 East Coast Footbag Championships in New Jersey. He quickly learned that this was a serious sport.

Upon arrival to the event, I immediately discovered I wasn’t very good at all,” says Irish. “The games at their highest level take so much practice and skill that to be the best or one of them you literally have to devote a large portion of your life.”

Irish put in the time, and now he has five world championships to show for it.

The East Coast has one of the biggest concentrations of tournaments in the U.S. This year’s East Coast Championships took place in Maryland in June, and the Southeast Regionals will take place in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on October 14.

There are two main competitive forms of the sport are Footbag Net and Footbag Freestyle. Footbag Net combines the court strategy of tennis with the set-and-spike strategy of volleyball. Players use only their feet to kick the bag over a five-foot net. The rules for doubles are similar to volleyball: players are allowed three kicks per side and must alternate. In singles, however, players are only allowed two kicks per side. The footbag may not contact a player’s body except below the knee.

Footbag Freestyle is the more artistic form of the sport. It can be a flurry of difficult moves, or it can be smooth and flowing, as if in slow motion. Competitors are judged along four dimensions: choreography, difficulty, variety, and execution. Players choreograph routines to music, and are judged on how well their style of play matches their choice of music, as well as originality and creativity. Each move or trick has a determinable difficulty rating. Players must perform moves, and execution is then judged by smoothness, confidence, and, above all, the ability of the player to keep the footbag off the ground.

The professional circuit is still small and underground but growing. Recently footbag has taken a huge jump abroad, particularly in Europe and Asia. The current world champions in freestyle and net are Europeans, and the World Championships has been held outside the US for the last three years.

Locally, kicking clans have sprung up across the Blue Ridge, including clubs in Asheville, Boone, Virginia Beach, Arlington, Atlanta, Knoxville, and Silver Spring, Md., and Knoxville, Tenn. For a complete listing of clubs and more info, visit <em>www.footbag.org</em>.