On a really good breezy afternoon on the Jacksonville Beach sand, Paul Kenny is blaring his favorite song by his favorite band while doing a dance of sorts with his Frisbees.
The flying plastic discs have taken him across the world and given him a path, relatively late in life, that once would have seemed unthinkable.
The song is “Mountain Jam” by the Allman Brothers — “the 34-minute version from ‘Eat a Peach,’” he said, giving a grin. Complete with a long, long drum solo.
It’s perfect music to accompany him as he tosses his Frisbee into the sea breeze, which lofts it back to him so he can spin it, flip it, snatch it from the air or roll it off his back and across his shoulders.
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It's another day of practice for the champ, a longtime competitor in freestyle Frisbee, which in competition is a meticulously choreographed individual or team routine set to music, like figure skating.
Kenny, who is 63, has long been one of the best in the world at this art — winner of eight world titles, two-time president of the Freestyle Players Association and a May inductee into the Freestyle Disc Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame recognition was a big deal, though he is modest about it.
"It really touched his heart that he got that honor," said his wife, Cheryl Kenny. "He's so happy, and humbled. What kills me, and I give him a hard time about it, is when he tells me he doesn't deserve it. I come back and say, 'Oh yes you do.'"
In his freestyling success, he didn’t really get serious until his late 30s and went on to win four world titles in his 40s and another four in his 50s.
Most days you can still find him and his Frisbees on the sand in front of his condo in Jacksonville Beach, which he calls the best place in the world to freestyle. The regular sea breeze provides something to throw the disc against, and the slight slope of the beach “squeezes” the wind so it floats better.
Engineering a style
The acrobatic, technical freestyle game suits him. As a kid in Detroit, he wanted to be a basketball player and was devoted to all the Harlem Globetrotter tricks, but when he stopped growing at 5'9" he realized that probably wasn't a career path.
And it suits his sensibilities as an engineer, someone with a master's from MIT, now retired from a long career as an engineer at Naval Air Station Jacksonville where he worked on F-14s and F-18s.
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“Engineering made me a better freestyler," he said. "Freestyling made me a better engineer.”
He applied the mental rigors of engineering to his Frisbee methods, while the creativity of freestyling opened up his mind to not think like an engineer all the time. Other engineers chuckled about that with him. But hey, he had found that way of thinking suited him just fine.
A life with Frisbees
Kenny grew up tossing a Frisbee around. But it wasn’t until he got to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg that he took up acrobatic freestyle Frisbee, inspired by a guy there named Lance.
Kenny and another friend started doing demonstrations and minor competitions, and he continued to play around with it after college, moving from Texas to Boston, to study at MIT.
He got more active after he moved to Jacksonville in 1989 and found a small crew of local freestylers.
It was the arrival of the 1995 world championships in Jacksonville Beach, however, that really triggered him. He was inspired watching world-class freestylers from throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Australia.
He wanted to do what they were doing, and committed to it. He got better and won his first tournament at 38. What followed was Hall of Fame-worthy.
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He’s had two stints as executive director of the Freestyle Players Association. He’s been director of the world’s longest-running tournament in one place, The Jammers in Jacksonville Beach. It’s been going more than 20 years.
He’s been on teams that have won eight world titles. He got the only perfect execution score in world finals history.
He was named player of the year in 2012 and 2014, the most innovative player of the first decade of this century and the most influential player of the second decade.
Frisbee has taken him to Australia, Japan, Colombia, Israel, across the U.S. and on frequent trips to Europe, where freestyle's popularity boomed. “It just exploded in Europe," Kenny said. "I went to Europe, until the pandemic, literally three or four times a year.”
Cheryl Kenny notes that with so many friends everywhere, his text messages come from just about every time zone on the planet.
Kenny has also been a mentor to many young and new players, including James Wiseman and Daniel O’Neill, who met Kenny as college students in Jacksonville Beach for their first big tournament. He put them up in his house, showed some moves and shared some strategy. And he sent them home with about 100 Frisbees each.
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"He's definitely one of my big mentors in the sport," said O'Neill, who lives in New York. "I was just getting started, and he was so generous with his time and his teaching."
Such hospitality is what freestyle Frisbee players say is common in the "jamily" — the worldwide family of players who jam together while tossing Frisbees.
Kenny stayed in touch with the promising young players, who are now each 31. He soon played with them on three-person teams — and even though he was more than 30 years older, together they won two world championship titles.
Wiseman, who lives in Hillsborough, N.C., was named the world's top men's player for the 2010 decade. He calls Kenny an "incredible innovator" whose influence on freestyle Frisbee has been immense.
He notes that Kenny's intricate style of play developed at least partly because he didn't begin serious freestyling until late in his 30s.
"He had a lot more limitations on what his body could do. Instead of that becoming something that weighed him down, it gave him an opportunity to develop freestyle moves that a lot of people never came up with before," he said.
"Some of the stuff he came up with is so ingrained in freestyle Frisbee now, but people don't realize it came from him."
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Paul Kenny of Jacksonville Beach inducted into Frisbee Hall of Fame