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The Church of Footbag

Leave your tongue at the door

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Let's get a few things straight. All Hacky Sacks are footbags, however, not all footbags are Hacky Sacks. Much like the Kleenex has over-taken the word "tissue," (or if you're English, the vacuum cleaner has been forever replaced with "Hoover" in your vocabulary), Hacky Sack is a brand name. And it is now made in a geographic locale where "minimum wage" is not commonly used terminology.

And let it also be declared that Hacky—er, footbags are not just for those with Grateful Dead teddy bears hanging from their rearview mirrors. Footbag can be an incredibly physical sport.

Sunny Freeman-Genz explains all this to me as she drives me out to footbag central—that is, her house in Nampa. Two teenage boys sit in the back seat. One leans forward intermittently to correct his mother in that teenage know-it-all way. Freeman-Genz is the matriarch of the Freedom Footbag family. She met Daryl Genz, a.k.a. "Genzu Blades," at her first-ever footbag tournament. She says, "Every circle I'd be in, I'd look up and he'd be in the same one ... Coincidence?" The couple moved to Nampa from Colorado, where Daryl Genz was a structural engineer. He followed his dream and now his life really is his passion: Genz makes, sells, plays, eats and breathes footbag.

The house seems to be a fairly normal, newish suburban home until I follow Freeman-Genz through the front room and into a massive room with a vaulted ceiling. She explains that the last owner of the home used the space as a chapel. Ambient music wafts through the built-in speakers dotting the ceiling. I notice quite a few cats wandering around. Hidden in the corner, behind a massive iMac and computer center, Daryl Genz is hunched over a sewing machine. All around him, stacked neatly in Tupperware containers, are the lemon-shaped fabric cutouts that will soon make up a quarter of a fuzzy footbag. Genz's feet rest on an enormous orange tabby cat, who remains belly up in sleep for the duration of my visit. Genz jumps up when he hears us. He is wearing shorts, a T-shirt bearing the name of a footbag championship that he most likely won and Converse sneakers with the tongue and toe completely cut off. He wiggles his stockinged toes and shows me some of the basic freestyle moves.

Freestyle footbag is sort of like figure skating in the way points are received. Players are scored on the amount of tricks they can pull off. Bouncing it on a toe or ankle counts for nada, but if you can toss it up with your foot and then swing your foot around it really quickly and catch it on your toe again, you get a point. Sound easy? It's not. Trust me, I tried. And that's only the beginning.

Daryl Genz is now hurling the footbag around his head, ducking and jumping in confusing patterns. "Each trick has different components," he offers. I watch him do a "Butterfly" and a "Mirage."

"The hardest trick I've ever done is a 'Spinning Ducking Symposium Paradox Double Leg Over,'" Genz proudly tells me.

Footbag is really its own subculture. "It's a peaceful community," Freeman-Genz states. "People are really supportive of each other and want each other to do their best."

However, Freeman-Genz laments that America isn't more like Europe when it comes to embracing the sport. The savvy Europeans' open culture of street performers and predilection for sports that are played with the feet make it a primo destination for American footbag players. "In Europe, when I played, we had people just gathered around us, really interested," she remembers. Not surprisingly, it's different here in the United States. "People aren't sure if they're supposed to watch or not. People are like, 'Hacky Sack?' Nobody really knows what it is."

And that's mostly what the Genzes want to change. Their Web site, www.freedomfootbags.com, pays homage to all things footbag. On the site, you can watch clips, read blogs and order equipment. Anyone who has questions or wants to learn more about footbag can call or e-mail the contacts on the site and set up an appointment for a lesson with one or all of the resident pros in the Genz home. They will teach anyone, anywhere, anytime about footbag.

Jim Penske met the Genzes years ago in Pocatello and now lives with them. "I'm the poster child," he says. Penske consumes footbag the way Daryl Genz does, with complete and total enthusiasm. And he's really good. He's won awards for his freestyle routines, and I ask if he'll show me one. Without hesitation, Penske picks out a song from iTunes and, along to the musical stylings of Eminem, starts jumping, bouncing and flipping that little sandbag in ways I hadn't imagined are possible.

Going pro as a shredder (as freestyle footbag players are known) isn't like going pro in another sport. For one thing, it's not nearly as lucrative, with prize money from tournaments rarely topping $1,000. You have to really love it and be really good.

In the vaulted room, Penske and Genz practice their moves and make footbags by hand. The two make and ship out up to 100 of the bags a day. "Footbag is his passion, his obsession, it's what he loves," says Freeman-Genz of her husband.

I walk away from the Church of Footbag with my very own footbag (in teal), a DVD featuring "Genzu Blades" and Penske, an instruction manual entitled, "Freestyle Footbag Fundamentals," and a soft spot for the Genz family.