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Finding Friendship Among the Swamp Donkeys: UTC’s Ultimate Frisbee Team

By Mason Edwards, Staff Writer for the University Echo

From left to right, Matthew Cook, Yanni Killebrew, Colin Flowers, Zander Allen, Sean Roche, Hunter Beard, Ben Cohen, and Andrew Barczak do "Bookends" for their teammate, Dylan Hendricks. Saturday, February 19, 2022. Abigail Mann, Contributor.

No member of UTC’s UItimate Frisbee team actually expected the new transfer to paint the Swamp Donkey logo onto his antique truck. 

Then, in a fashion characteristic of himself, Matthew Cook did just that.

“I was blown away,” Coach Cody Havens said. “Never seen our logo on a car, and it looks so good.”

“It was so dope to see a new player committed like that, ” team captain Clayton Simons added.

Now a senior, Cook spoke at length about Swamp Donkey’s impact on him; meanwhile, one of his team captains and one of his coaches discussed what the team truly means–victories and struggles included.

Wearing a shirt that displayed the word “Ultimate,” emboldened across a disc-shaped Chattanooga skyline, Cook spoke about his time with the team.

Back in December, the team ran their own online store, selling Ultimate Frisbee related merchandise, but the shirt curiously omitted the word “Frisbee.”

Swamp Donkey avoids the term “Frisbee” because it’s a trademarked brand of the Wham-O toy company, and according to Cook, it’s not a huge loss since other companies have better quality discs anyway. 

Cook’s humility emanated across his statements, at one point saying, “We’re just… around thirty or so guys who are just really passionate about Frisbee,” however, the game means so much more to the team.

He was passionate enough to paint their logo, a kicking donkey, on the frontside doors of his 1972 Datsun 521 pickup truck, which they now refer to as the Swamp Truck.

“I noticed the maroon paint on my truck was kinda beat up, and the maroon on the Swamp Donkey logo was the same color,” Cook explained. “With a million reasons to say no, and one reason to say yes, why not say yes?”

“Everyone kept asking if I actually did it,” Cook said. “At the end of practice one day, I asked if anyone wanted to see the truck, and they said yes, so I pulled it around.”

The Swamp Donkeys spend their Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights tossing discs around the Intramural Fields by Engel Stadium. From 8pm to 10pm, they practice drills, toss the disc, and condition. They’re the officially recognized Ultimate team at UTC, and even have their own chant.

“It’s as serious a sport as any other,” Cook said.

Ultimate resembles football, in that two opposing teams attempt to move an object down the field. There are endzones, but Cook noted the key differences, like how a score means one point–instead of football’s six–there’s no running with the disc, and there are no yard lines.

“In football you have the kickoff, in Ultimate you have the pull; it’s the same exact concept,” Cook said. “The major difference in Ultimate is the non-contact.”

Tournaments span across the Southeast, with Swamp Donkey traveling to play other colleges. The university gives them a budget for hotel rooms, but they pay for their own meals. When they traveled to UTK, they were able to cut costs by staying at the houses of a few team members, but Athens, Georgia for Fall Sectionals was a different story.

“We stayed at a cheap hotel, and housed like twenty guys in like three or four rooms,” Cook laughed. “It was a lot of fun.”

Swamp hosts tournaments too, including teams from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Kentucky, Jacksonville State University, and Ohio State University. 

“We wake up early, and go play Frisbee for six or seven hours,” Cook said. “It’s a tough workout, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Two of their current coaches, Cody Havens and Matt Russnogle, played for the Swamp Donkeys during their stretches at UTC. Cook noted that while one gets a small stipend from the school, they coach out of love for Ultimate and the program.

“It was always something I wanted to do as a way to give back to the team,” Havens, 21, said. “It’s such a great program that brought me so many relationships.”

Of course, they train together, but their interpersonal relationships–from supporting personal matters and encouraging each other academically–solidify the team.

“We say that we’re almost like a fraternity, like with the brotherhood aspect,” Cook said.

Havens noted Swamp Donkey suffers from “an underdog mentality” because they play several larger schools that devote more resources to their Ultimate teams. Still, he is proud of the team. 

”Our underclassmen are making strides every practice,” Havens said. “We're preparing for a tough matchup every time we step on the field.”

While the team’s camaraderie stands out to the team, their name catches the public’s attention. Clayton Simons, a team captain, explained its origin.

“The team used to practice on the Challenger Field before the intramural complex was built… it would always be muddy and have groups of water,” Simons said, explaining that the field felt like a swamp. “Then, the team used to be super small, but the few prided themselves on the grit it took and work they did to always be better. Kind of like a donkey.”

He’s proud of the team and feels honored to serve as a captain.

”I have seen the traditions and history that have made this team great, and it is my responsibility to keep it that way, and then improve,” Simmons added. ”I am here to serve to keep this program thriving through good times or times of sacrifice.”

Simmon’s sentiment echoes the feelings of the team itself, who continue to support each other no matter how difficult life may be. This past weekend was the anniversary of when Swamp lost a team member to a car accident. They still honor him by visiting the gravesite together, according to Havens.

Havens’ documentary, “DROWN’EM,” details the year they lost Joe Fugate, #11. To honor him, they retired his jersey and nominated him for the 2019 Callahan Award.

More may be found about Swamp Donkey on their Facebook page and in their self-created documentary, the SwampDoc, available on YouTube. There is also a women's Ultimate team called the Moxies.

Simmons shared the Swamp chant: “Person 1: Drown em in the water! Team: Swamp Swamp Swamp! Person 1: Leave 'em there to rottttt!! Team: Swamp Swamp Swamp!”

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