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KanJam: From Buffalo backyards to world domination

Daniel Robison

In the late 1980s, a few college friends in Buffalo created a game called “Trash Can Frisbee.” Players tossed a disc toward garbage cans where a partner slapped it in for points. The sport was mostly played in backyards around Buffalo for years. Now, it’s now known as KanJam and played at tailgates and parties all over the country. But the sport owes its success… to gym class.

KanJam matches are simple. Players toss a disc toward a knee-high “kan” 50 feet away. Next to the kan stands a teammate, who tries to deflect the flying disc into the kan for a “dunk,” worth three points. When an airborne Frisbee hits the side of a plastic can, it’s called a “dinger” and worth one point. Teams of two take turns until the winner reaches 21 points. Player Jack Whalen said teamwork was the key.

“Sometimes he might throw a rocket and I just have to touch it. Other times I think ‘why not slam it in?' It’s called KanJam and not Kan-Touch,” Whalen said.

Whalen and hundreds of other players squared off at the 23rd annual KanJam World Championship. They donned homemade shirts with team names like Dorkus Malorkus and Spider Pigs. The games were highly competitive, so referees like Scott Silverman had to be ready for anything—especially since teams were trusted to officiate the games themselves.

“I’ve seen fights break out at tournaments before over things called and not called. The idea of having the referee here is that we keep the peace,” Silverman said.

Players vied for the coveted Hammer Trophy, which has winners’ names etched in its wooden handle.

“Oh I get all choked up. It’s a nice memory,” said Glen Colton, who won the first world championship in the early ‘90s.

Back then, KanJam was known as a backyard party sport with a cult following. The game has come a long way, Colton said.

“Well, back in the day it was two garbage cans. And there’s about more than 10 times more players than back in the day. There’s just a sea of players.”

Among them is Colton’s new partner - his 12-year-old son, Adam. They had practiced for months.  “I like playing with dad. And now we’re partners for the championship,” Adam said.

In this year’s tournament, they eked out a one-point win and moved onto the next round.

Adam Colton was first hooked on the game in his elementary school—and not by accident. KanJam co-inventor Paul Swisher is also a teacher. Ten years ago, he convinced his school district to allow the game in gym class.

“Once you break that door, once the ice is broken, then it makes it easier to get into the next place,” Swisher said.

Since the game requires hand-eye coordination, teamwork, and math to keep score, it meets curriculum standards of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Now, more than 2,500 schools in the U.S. offer KamJam. Many students go on to become Swisher’s customers.

“And I’m currently reaping the benefits of royalties from game sales,” Swisher said.

In fact, more than 100,000 kits were sold last year. Kits include two “official goal” cans, a special KanJam Frisbee, and instructions. Since KanJam requires such little physical activity, it can be played by almost anyone, said Swisher.

“My dad is going to be 99 years old and he’s in an assisted living facility. They just had a little KanJam tournament and he won a gold medal for that.”

Those aren’t the only kind of gold medals on the minds of KanJam organizers, who firmly believe the game will one day become an Olympic sport. Whether that happens or not, the company pledges the game will always be manufactured in Buffalo - mere blocks from where it was first played.

The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between six upstate New York public media outlets covering New York's innovation economy. Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.