For the Love of What You Love

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Brian Hayes in front of some of the flying discs in his collection, each with a story. Photo: Doug Marrin

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

I showed up to do the interview, and within two minutes, he had a Frisbee spinning on my finger like a pro.

Meet Brian Hayes, a Frisbee freestyle professional. Brian is one of the lucky few who have pursued the thing they love, and providence has opened a path for it to become a fifty-year career.

“This all began at the end of the 60s and early 70s,” says Brian. He laughs and adds, “Getting into this Frisbee thing as a career might have been a part of the rebellious nature of those times.”

It began when Brian and his friend, Mark Hickey, were students at Eastern Michigan University. Like many students, they spent much of their time tossing a Frisbee back and forth on the grass. They loved it and got more and more inventive with their moves.

“But when the weather turned colder, we had to figure out a way to keep playing,” says Brian.

The Flying Aces slogan is “You don’t stop playing when you get old. You get old when you stop playing.” Photo: Brian Hayes.

Both worked the night shift at a local grocery store. The meat aisle was relatively open, and the two spent their breaks throwing a disk back and forth. They liked playing indoors. The duo moved to larger accommodations from the meat aisle at EMU’s Bowen Field House, showing up early mornings with the basketball team.

“We really got into it and were playing three hours a day every day,” recalls Brian. “After about a year of this, the basketball coach came up to us and said, ‘I’ve been watching you guys for a year now. Would you like to do a halftime show for us?’”

Brian describes their Frisbee tossing as a “fast-paced run and gun style,” always moving, jumping, with trick throws and catches. The two developed a trick where they would fly multiple Frisbees between them, similar to jugglers. And if you’re imagining a gentle flying disc floating through the air, you’re wrong. Picture instead two people standing ten yards apart slinging plastic discs straight and fast at one another.

“So, we did this halftime show,” says Brian. “We were nervous as hell, but the crowd just loved it.”

“I tell young people these days that if you have something you really love doing, what’s it going to hurt if you go for it. If it doesn’t work out, you can always pursue something else.” Photo: Brian Hayes.

A scout from the Detroit Pistons happened to be in the crowd that night and asked them if they would like to do a halftime performance for one of their games. As they experienced at EMU, the show was a big hit. The two began calling around to different schools to see if they would be interested in having Brian and Mark perform.

“Perhaps the funniest experience we had was at U of M,” says Brian. “Bobby Knight brought Indiana into town and thumped Michigan. We did the halftime show. Afterward, the Assistant Athletic Director told us, ‘I really liked your stuff, but we’re probably not going to have you back because it ruined our concession sales at halftime. People stayed in their seats to watch you.’”

Still in their early twenties, Brian and Mark began to entertain the notion that people might pay to see them perform. They began marketing themselves with phone calls and mailings.

“We started getting enough business, and in 1977 Whammo gave us a van,” recalls Brian. “We decided to try and go full time. We didn’t get rich from it, but we were able to exist.”

Brian had earned a teaching certificate from EMU. “My parents just about disowned me when I told them I was going to become a professional Frisbee player.”

They dubbed themselves the “Air Aces” and moved to California, ground zero for the nation’s exploding Frisbee obsession. Air Aces got national attention when featured on a segment of “On the Road with Charles Kuralt,” a feel-good report on good things in America. Kuralt opened the piece saying, “This just might be the freest form of free enterprise that I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“He spent three days with us,” remembers Brian. “He took us out to dinner a couple of times and had a couple of beers with us. He was just the nicest, most sincere guy.”

Similar to coins, the value of a disc depends on how many were made, the stamp, condition, and other variables. Some of Brian’s discs, such as the one pictured here, are worth hundreds of dollars. Photo: Brian Hayes.

In 1989, love and marriage brought Brian back to Michigan. “I am fortunate to have married a woman who is super supportive of this,” he says.

With the move back to Michigan came a name change to “Flying Aces.” Brian’s original partner Mark had left the show for health reasons. Brian worked with a rotation of several others with a talent for the flying disc. The purpose of Brian’s shows also shifted about that time.

“A high school principal told me that because the kids like us so much, we should incorporate a message into our shows,” says Brian. “He told me that because they like us, they’ll listen to us.”

And so was born the core of Brian’s mission. “My big obsession is physical fitness, and we started talking to kids about getting off their butts away from the screens for some exercise. We also started talking to them about staying away from cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs.”

This was Brian’s work up until a year and a half ago when COVID struck, and it’s an all too familiar story by now. With gatherings prohibited, Brian was out of work. But after a 50-year career with more than 7,000 shows, Brian keeps it all in perspective.

“I was thinking that it might be time to retire anyway,” he says.

For Brian, retirement doesn’t mean stopping. Photo: Brian Hayes.

But retirement for Brian doesn’t mean complete retirement. He still does the occasional show for some of his business contacts who have become good friends over the years.

“I feel like I am one of those people who has been super lucky,” says Brian. “I was lucky enough to do what I like and make a living from it. I’m not a super religious guy, but I feel kind of blessed that I was able to pull this off.”

For a visual idea of Brian's illustrious career, check out the short news clip below.

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