The History of Hacky Sack

Hacky Sack on the beach
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Hacky Sack, also known as Footbag, is a modern, non-competitive American sport that involves kicking a bean bag and keeping it off the ground for as long as possible. It was invented in 1972 by John Stalberger and Mike Marshall of Oregon City, Oregon as a fun, challenging way to exercise.

Inventing the Hacky Sack

The story of Hacky Sack began in the summer of 1972. Mike Marshall introduced visiting Texan John Stalberger to a game that he had learned from a Native American, a fellow inmate in a military brig. The game involved kicking a small bean bag repeatedly to keep it off the ground for as long as possible—using all parts of your body except your hands and arms—and then eventually passing it to another player.

Stalberger, who was recovering from a knee injury, began playing the game—which they described as going to “hack a sack”—as a way to rehabilitate his leg. Six months later, with Stalberger’s knee healed and newly acquired mastery of their game, they decided to go into manufacturing.

Hacky Sack Evolution

For about a year and a half, Marshall and Stalberger experimented with different versions of the sack. Their 1972 initial sack was square-shaped, made of denim and filled with rice. They quickly realized that internal stitching provided an improvement in control, and tried round instead of square, and switched from denim to cowhide for longevity's sake. By ’73, they had developed the classic, two-panel, leather, internally sewn, disc-shaped style that would stay in use and manufacture for the next twenty years.

The first bags using the Hacky Sack name appeared in 1974. When the 28-year-old Marshall died of a heart attack in 1975, Stalberger decided to soldier on, developing a more durable bag and working to promote the game he and his late friend had created.

Hacky Sack Ancient History

LIke most modern inventions, hacky sack is a really old idea. A game similar to hacky sack was supposedly invented by the legendary (or mythological) Chinese Yellow Emperor (or deity), who used a hair-filled leather bag in a game called cuju, as training for his military forces during his reign in the late mid-third millennium BCE. The first non-mythological records of cuju date to the Zhan Guo Ce, a Chinese record written during the Warring States period (476–221 BCE). Cuju is also mentioned in the Chinese history of Shiji written about 94 BCE.

In Japan, a similar game called kemari was being played at Nara by the 7th century CE; and in Malaysia, a game with a small rattan ball called sepak takraw has been played at least since the 11th century CE. Of course, hacky sack is also similar to soccer (European football), and soccer players frequently “juggle” or “freestyle” with a ball before kicking it in the air to a teammate.

Official Techniques

There aren't any rules per se to the game of hacky sack, except that you can't use your hands or arms to keep the ball from falling to the ground. There are established techniques. The inside kick involves using the inside curve of your foot to kick the ball straight upward. The outside kick uses the outside of your foot to the same thing, and the toe kick hooks the ball straight upward. It is legal to "stall" the ball, bouncing it off any of those places on your foot rather than passing it high into the air, and it is legal to bounce it off your chest, head, or back. Just not your arms or hands.

More formal types of hacky sack include footbag net (played with a net), footbag golf (like Frisbee golf), and consecutive (where you try to set a record for continuous bouncing). The original hacky sack is known as freestyle, where people stand in a circle and pass it to one another.

The Hacky Sack Game Catches On

Hacky Sack became extremely popular with high school and college students, especially with counterculture groups who would stand in circles, taking turns working to keep the footbags aloft. Groups of Deadheads playing the game became a familiar sight outside concert venues whenever the Grateful Dead performed.

Stalberg was instrumental in founding the National Hacky Sack Association, founded in 1975. In 1979 the U.S. Patent office granted a license to the Hacky Sack brand footbag. By then Hacky Sack Company was a solid business, and Wham-O, the company that manufactures the Frisbee, acquired it from Stalberger. in 1983.

A World Wide Sport

Along the way, the generic, non-copyright name of footbag became popular for the game, and the game has become a worldwide sport with official rules. The first official organizing body for the sport, the National Hacky Sack Association, was organized by John Stalberger and Ted Huff in 1975. It sanctioned or sponsored U.S. footbag tournaments, including the World Footbag Championships, which have been running annually since 1980. 

The NHSA ended in 1984, and the World Footbag Association rose to become its replacement. The World Wide Footbag Foundation was incorporated in 1994 and in 2000 it morphed into the International Footbag Player's Association, Inc. The IFPA has a Football Hall of Fame: the first person initiated was Ted Huff in 1997.