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'Trash Can Frisbee' -- a local game -- goes global as KanJam

WBFO News photos by Daniel Robison

In the late 1980’s, a few college friends in Buffalo, New York created a game called “Trash Can Frisbee.” Players toss a disc toward garbage cans where a partner slaps 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 players want to score “dingers” – when an airborne Frisbee hits the side of a plastic can. It’s worth one point.

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 3 points. Teams of two take turns until the winner reaches 21 points.

For 16-year old player Jack Whalen, teamwork is 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 says, laughing.

Whalen and hundreds of other players square off at 23rd annual KanJam World Championship. They don homemade shirts with team names like Dorkus Malorkus, Spider Pigs and When Did I Eat Corn.

The games are highly competitive. So referee Scott Silverman must be ready for anything – especially since teams are 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,” says Silverman.

Players are vying for the coveted Hammer Trophy. Winners’ names are etched in its wooden handle.

That includes Glenn Colton, won the first world championship in the early 90’s

“Oh I get all choked up. It’s a nice memory,” Colton quips.

Back then, KanJam was known as a backyard party sport with a cult following. The game’s come a long way since then.

“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,” says Colton.

Among them is Colton’s new partner – his 12-year old son, Adam. They have practiced for months.

Adam Colton was first hooked on the game in his elementary school – and that’s not by accident. KanJam co-inventor Paul Swisher is also a teacher. Last decade, 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 says.

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,” he says.

In fact, more than 100,000 kits were sold last year in major retail stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Sports Authority.

Since KanJam requires such little physical activity, it can be played by almost anyone.

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

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 – merely blocks from where it was first played.   

You can follow reporter Daniel Robison on twitter @robisonrobison.