In this second installment of a 5-part series profiling Winnipeg's contributions to the AUDL's Minnesota Wind Chill (part 1 here), columnist Yacine Bara drops in on a quirky local hero.
I meet Jesse Greenberg on a grey but relatively mild late December morning -- the kind of average Winnipeg winter day that gets forgotten amid the more memorable bursts of minus yougottabekiddingme temperatures that we ‘Peggers all know and dread.
I pull into the driveway of a handsome River-Heights bungalow. Scanning the centre console and patting around the passenger seat in search of my pen, I catch what I think is a pajama-clad figure out of the corner of my eye. It appears only for a flash in the living-room window, scurrying away into the recesses of the home just as quickly as it had arrived.
Walking up the front steps, the door opens and I’m greeted by Jesse’s mother. She offers a warm, welcoming smile as she lets me in the house and hangs my coat in the front closet. The living room is well kept. A tastefully decorated Christmas tree stands alongside an earth-tone sofa and armchair with reading lamp, next to a fireplace that’s neat but does appear to be in regular use.
We exchange pleasantries about holiday festivities before she offers me a cup of coffee, then continue chatting for a few minutes as she starts the pot brewing. From somewhere toward the back of the house, I can hear the tinny cacophony of what sounds like a toy xylophone.
Handing me the coffee, she motions down the hallway, telling me I’ll find Jesse through the last door on the left. I thank her and head in that direction, passing the stairs to the basement, quickly admiring the few family photos hung along the way. (In one, a young Jesse wears a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt and oversized shades, with a toothy grin and a single ‘thumbs-up’ raised. I can’t be totally sure because of the angle of the photo, but it looks like the hair on the back of his head may be considerably longer than the close crop he has on top/front.)
I know I have the right one because it’s decorated with a series of pages torn out of magazines (National Geographic Kids, mostly) and colouring books (I spot a Pikachu with very little yellow bleeding outside the lines), a single completed page of Mad Libs, and a big red ‘J’ on yellow construction paper, right at eye level.
The clanging of the xylophone is much louder, now that I’m up close. I knock softly on the door but the clanging continues, so I knock a little more firmly -- at which point the music (?) stops.
“Who is it?” comes the sing-songy voice from inside.
I introduce myself through the closed door, explaining that I’m the writer he traded Facebook direct messages with, and that I’m here for our scheduled conversation.
The door swings open and Jesse Greenberg stands before me, zipped up to the Adam’s apple in a Minecraft-themed blue onesie. He stands about 5’10”, which I expected from having followed his Ultimate career for some time now, and -- aside from his clothing -- looks about his 26 years of age. I’m a little perplexed by his appearance, but even more impressed that this neck-to-toe garment exists in the first place.
He holds a plastic drumstick in each hand, so the palm I extend his way is met with a fist instead. I reciprocate the fist bump in the nick of time, just before being caught in the dreaded ‘ball and socket’ exchange (where handshake meets fist bump, the shaker’s hand awkwardly envelops the bumper’s fist, and absolutely no one wins).
Jesse is affable, if a little distracted, as he returns to his cross-legged position on the floor in the middle of the room, and resumes banging away on the Fisher Price instrument. I scan the room: twin bed with monster-truck comforter (unmade); 30ish-inch LCD screen on a small entertainment unit with three video-game systems connected to it; open spiral notebook on the nightstand, dense with some sort of wingdings/hieroglyphics (he later explains that these are cheat codes to some video game whose name I can’t remember); Thomas-the-Tank-Engine piggy bank; Marvel figurines along the window sill; walls nearly covered (haphazardly) in the same sorts of adornments as his door, with a handful of football/soccer/hockey posters mixed in; a laundry hamper containing most of the dirty laundry in the room; a bespoke train conductor’s hat and replica conductor’s whistle, both inscribed with his first name; three empty Cheetos bags, and two piles of Ultimate discs stacked relatively neatly in the corner.
“So you wanna, like, talk about stuff?!” he asks loudly over the sharp, unrelated notes he drives into the otherwise still air.
I tell him that I’ve been a fan and an admirer of his since I first learned of the competitive Ultimate scene in Winnipeg, and that I’ve taken a particular interest in his recent exploits with the Minnesota Wind Chill.
“Oh yeah, that’s chill!” he exclaims, not intending or realizing his pun.
He tells me a dizzying story from a particular weekend spent traveling with the Wind Chill, whereby he and his teammates stopped at a Hardee’s on the side of the highway, he ordered two combos with different customizations, the food predictably came out wrong, confusion ensued (I fail to keep up with the story’s twists and turns as I take notes), and I think the punchline is that he was given some sort of freebie as compensation. I (and possibly he) had expected, at its outset, that the story’s point would be something more directly related to his experience as a professional Ultimate player. That point never materializes.
Suddenly dropping the xylophone mallets, he springs up, opens the top drawer of his dresser and pulls out a fresh bag of Cheetos, opening it with startling efficiency. He thrusts it in my direction with a generous smile; I decline with a polite hand gesture. (I’m not sure how well Cheetos pair with coffee, and today isn’t the day I intend to find out). He grabs a mittful for himself, tilting his head back as he drops them into his mouth, then sits down -- again cross-legged -- chomping away as he powers up his Nintendo Switch.
I ask him about his childhood and how he got into Ultimate. Between bright-orange mouthfuls and the smacking of greasy lips, he recounts bits of his upbringing in River Heights, from elementary through his senior years at Kelvin High, then onto the University of Manitoba. His first sports were soccer, rugby and Nintendo 64 (he catches my puzzled look and explains that the latter can indeed be considered a sport). He found a toy frisbee in sixth grade, brought it to summer camp and somehow ended up in a makeshift game of Ultimate with the other children. Like anyone would, he struggled with the mechanics of throwing and catching in those early days, but enjoyed the experience enough to keep coming back.
I can’t help but be distracted by the game of Super Mario Party he’s playing, simultaneously, as he talks. With one hand, he swings a wireless controller around erratically. The Cheeto-crusted fingers on his other hand dangle in mid-air when they’re not busy transporting sustenance from the snack bag to his face. At one point, he pauses both his story and the game to yell a request for a glass of apple juice, with which his mother appears a minute later. I look on in morbid fascination, trying consciously to keep my mouth from resting agape.
He talks of his teenage years, wherein he developed a clinically diagnosed YouTube addiction. Part of his prescribed rehab plan was to spend more time being physically active. Since his initial encounter with Ultimate, he had continued to enjoy throwing a disc at school with his friends, but had not yet fully immersed himself in the sport. The silver lining to his YouTube-addiction cloud was that at least some of his screen time was spent watching footage of high-level Ultimate and studying the throwing techniques of the game’s greats. So it was that when it came time to rehabilitate, Jesse was able to ascend the frisbee-learning curve quickly.
Soon, he starred as a starting offensive handler at Kelvin, then in a mix of offensive & defensive handler roles with MOFO (Winnipeg’s elite junior Ultimate club), the University team and as a member of General Strike, Winnipeg’s elite Open club team. By then, his career was off to the races: he had fallen in love with the game, started cracking national-team rosters (U20, ‘Beach worlds’, U24) and, now, double duty as a key member of both ‘Strike’ and the Wind Chill.
By this point in our conversation, an empty Cheetos bag sits beside him (and if you think “empty” means “still containing crumbs that would take concerted effort to extract”, think again). His non-gaming fingers are now tinted orange and glistening, having been put through a spin cycle in his mouth. I ask about how he spends his time outside of Ultimate and he tells me that he has a girlfriend, but often finds himself short on time to spend with her. This causes him to remember that he has a ‘Clash of Clans’ raid scheduled to begin within the hour, for which he can’t afford to be late.
I ask about the source of his inspiration, failing to specify that I’m alluding to his Ultimate exploits. Shutting off his Switch abruptly and beginning to flip absentmindedly through the pages of a Captain Underpants book, he spends 15 minutes giving me an oral history of his video-game travels. (The answer about the inspiration, it turns out, is his childhood friend’s older brother, who has amassed a sizeable following on Twitch and in whose footsteps Jesse would like to follow.)
The gaming discussion somehow turns into a recap of all the gifts he received for Christmas. He seems bored or disappointed only by the socks he got in his stocking. I’m afraid to ask who, in Jesse’s mind, is responsible for that; I want to steer clear of the risk that I be the one to ruin Santa for him.
At 10 minutes to the start of his scheduled raid, he climbs onto his bed and begins jumping up and down, ducking his head so as not to hit the ceiling. He explains that he needs to get his blood flowing -- part of a pregame ritual that he takes great care to stick to.
Not wanting to interfere, I stand up, leaning against the doorway as I thank him for his time and wish him well in the upcoming Wind Chill season. As I back out of the room and pull the door closed, I’m pretty sure I hear the crinkle of another plastic bag being opened.
I thank his mother for the hospitality and head out to my car, pausing for a moment to write some final notes in my notebook before pulling away.
I chuckle to myself as I drive. Jesse Greenberg is an undeniable talent on the Ultimate field and now, having met him, I can confirm that he’s a kind soul at his core. And yet, somehow he’s not exactly what I expected. Fascinating stuff.
My first stop on the drive home is to pick up a bag of Cheetos.
Jesse Greenberg and his Minnesota Wind Chill squad host the Montreal Royal in Winnipeg for their 2020 home opener: April 18th at WSF Soccer North, 770 Leila Ave. Get your tickets now before they’re sold out!