March 31, 2023
By Evan Lepler
If you talk to anyone who’s ever coached Ben Katz, you’ll inevitably hear them marvel at his wide array of ultimate abilities. They’ll tell you how he’s a reliable handler, a solid cutter, and a superb teammate, but it’s his otherworldly defensive instincts that truly set him apart.
“Katz can see stuff happening before it does, and it’s incredible,” said Bryan Jones, who steered the New York Empire to the 2019 AUDL Championship as the team’s head coach, and now works as an AUDL analyst.
“His brain works differently.”
After Jones stepped aside prior to the 2021 season, Charlie Hoppes and Anthony Nuñez became co-head coaches for the Empire. It did not take them long to start appreciating Katz’s unique superpower.
“It’s remarkable the stuff that he does daily,” said Hoppes, who, alongside Nuñez, guided the Empire to the 2022 title this past summer. “I think he sees the same things that everyone else sees, but he just sees it a full second before the rest of us do. Sometimes more. In some cases, he’s literally seeing into the future [...] It’s beyond coaching. It’s beyond switching. It’s beyond any of that. It’s almost beyond anticipation into, like I said, seeing the future.”
Even if he does not possess a legitimately mystical clairvoyance, his exceptional on-field intelligence is something he’s honed throughout his athletic career. Across the many sports that he played as a kid growing up in Massachusetts, he always had a knack for seeing angles and naturally anticipating what would come next, something he credits to his tennis-playing grandfather.
“He was still quite good as he got older, and that was because of his mind,” said Katz. “The common refrain was ‘he knew where his opponent was gonna hit the ball before his opponent knew.’ I think that type of thing runs in the family. As a kid, I was even smaller than I am now, so I couldn’t rely on being big. I couldn’t rely on being strong. I was pretty fast, so that helped, but I just had to use anticipation, to use my mind to be able to compete.”
Since joining the Empire in 2018, Katz has produced 56 blocks in 57 games, along with 102 assists and 68 goals, a special and steady contributor for a team that’s gone 52-10 with two championships over the past four seasons. Throughout this run, he’s earned a reputation as one of the sport’s most versatile competitors, a dangerous defender who can also orchestrate the offense toward a pivotal break.
In this light, it's hard to fathom that since 2020 he’s also been battling a life-threatening disease that has left his neck scarred, and his future uncertain.
When the world shut down just over three years ago, Ben Katz moved in with his girlfriend, Stazi, who was living in Harlem with another frisbee couple. The four of them were enjoying life, processing the pandemic, and trying to stay safe in their little New York bubble.
Until one morning when Ben woke up and Stazi noticed something alarming.
“Hey, your neck looks swollen,” said Stazi. “What’s going on there?”
He looked in the mirror and agreed that his neck looked enlarged. Then he turned his head the other way and saw a softball-sized something coming out of the right side.
Something was definitely wrong.
Following a doctor’s visit, scan, and biopsy, it was determined that he had thyroid cancer in both sides of his neck. Surgery was necessary.
Suddenly, during an already turbulent time, the life of a 29-year-old reigning AUDL champion took a very quick turn.
“My mom worked in microbiology her whole life in pharmaceuticals trying to cure cancer,” said Katz. “When I called her and told her it was thyroid cancer, she immediately helped me calm down a little with, ‘cancer is a scary word; thyroid cancer generally makes it much less scary.’ That was the first breath of fresh air that I got from her.”
In May of 2020, Katz went in for surgery at the NYU Langone Medical Center, a seven-hour procedure where they cut his neck open and removed his entire thyroid, scooping out every cancerous cell they could find. When he finally woke up and opened his eyes, he threw up almost immediately, an adverse reaction to the cocktail of anesthesia and other medicines they had pumped inside him during the surgery.
“They said they got everything they saw,” Katz remembered. “Part of the problem with thyroid cancer is they can never be 100 percent sure that they got everything. First meeting I had with the surgeon, he called it ‘whack-a-mole,’ which is not exactly what you want to hear, but it was nice that they were honest and blunt with that because if I had no idea that more surgeries were likely to come, then I’d be pretty upset. It’s certainly upsetting still, but at least I have some forewarning on that.”
After a couple days feeling painfully isolated—because of the pandemic, no one was permitted to stay with or even visit him in the hospital—he was discharged and went to stay with his good friend and Empire teammate Jeff Babbitt outside of the city, where fewer people meant less chance of contracting COVID.
A month later, he was running again, though he acknowledged his body was feeling far from normal. In fact, the recovery roller-coaster was just getting started.
At one point in the summer of 2020, a few months after the initial surgery, Katz encountered something called radioactive iodine treatment, which endeavored to destroy any remaining damaged cells’ ability to reproduce. It literally made him radioactive for a week.
He could not be near anyone. Stazi was in Harlem, Babbitt was out of the house on a vacation, and Katz was alone again, social distancing not because of COVID, but because his presence was actually emitting certain amounts of radiation. He was also not allowed to work out or run because the radioactivity would be very concentrated in his sweat, which was a bummer since he had just started getting back in the groove of training.
Unfortunately, doctors determined that the radioactive treatment was not successful. When he had another scan six months after the initial surgery, they found more stuff in his neck, necessitating another surgical procedure in January of 2021. Just like before, they cut him open and removed what they could. But less than a month later, an ultrasound revealed even more unwanted growth, and he had a third surgery that May.
Astonishingly, when the Empire played their first post-pandemic AUDL game on June 4, 2021, Katz was on the field and active, dishing two assists, registering one block, and throwing for 229 yards in New York’s 19-18 win over DC. Despite three surgeries in the previous 13 months and the looming threat of continued complications, he played in all but two of the Empire’s 15 games during the 2021 season, maintaining his typical role for New York all the way to the brink of another championship.
"It’s stunning,” said Hoppes, when asked about Katz’s contributions in the wake of his medical situation. “It’s absolutely jaw-dropping the stuff that he does through this. He’s just an incredible piece of what we do, a unique piece, an irreplaceable unable-to-be-replicated piece. You just view what he is as a teammate and as a player, it’s amazing what he’s going through as a person through this.”
Of course, in 2022, the Empire completed their second perfect season, going 15-0 en route to the franchise’s second title. Who led the team in blocks? Not Ben Jagt. Not Mike or Ryan Drost. Not Marques Brownlee or Antoine Davis. Wildly, it was Katz, who played in every game and finished with 16 blocks, tied for eighth-most in the league.
“As a person who’s seen it all with him because he’s stayed with me after his three surgeries, watching how unbelievably talented and focused he is going through all this adversity has been so incredible,” said Babbitt, shortly after winning the 2022 AUDL championship. “I always think Ben Katz is the best player in the world, and the fight that he has in him is incredible [...] I’ve said it for years that he’s one of our best players ever. He’s on my galaxy line. If I was defending the galaxy on defense with frisbee, it’s Ben Katz.”
How has he maintained his enormously high level through all the adversity? Well, as he will tell you, he has always been more about brains than brawn.
“During recoveries,” Katz explains, “training is pretty interrupted and your body doesn’t like what has recently happened, so maybe your speed or stamina or agility or strength may suffer from that. Fortunately, those are not my bread and butter for playing at the highest level. Those are very useful and having what I have is necessary to allow me to play in the AUDL, but my mind, I think, is what really allows me to be there, and fortunately, that hasn’t been affected.”
Ben Katz is trying his best to live a relatively normal life. He and Stazi are getting married this September, and he’s gearing up for the Empire’s 2023 opener against Philly, scheduled for four weeks from tomorrow. But there’s obviously lingering concern, especially in the aftermath of a particular scan he had in November of 2021.
“They did a neck and chest scan and picked up what they’re pretty sure is cancer in my lungs,” said Katz. “And that is the stuff they were really not hoping to see. When my mom said thyroid cancer makes it a lot less scary, that’s because thyroid cancer, in general, is potentially chronic, but not lethal. When it gets into the lungs, it changes that a little. That’s a big thing we’re monitoring these days, whether those nodes they see in the lungs grow.
“Right now, they’re too small, too small to affect anything. Hopefully they don’t grow at all. And if they do, there are some treatments to stagnate the growth or some might reduce the growth, but the stuff they have now, most of it lasts for one to two years before it stops working. The best stuff they have is for two to three years. So there’s no reason to start the timer on that before we have to.”
He did have another surgery—his fourth—this past February, a little over a month ago, to remove more growth in his neck. This procedure included significantly more digging in pursuit of a node that was previously inaccessible, and they got it out. The recovery has been a little tougher this time around, but he still was at Empire practice a couple nights ago, competing as if there was no issue at all.
“I’ve been able to play sports, which obviously in my mind is very helpful for any sort of healing, mental or physical,” he said. “Being able to [pursue a championship] with a full team just tends to minimize if not erase what I’ve been dealing with personally. Because everyone is dealing with stuff and that is part of being on a team, being able to pick each other up and be better than the sum of the parts is a real thing that championship teams have."
“That also leads me to just the community that’s around me and Stazi is just incredible. Anytime there’ve been recurrences, the community’s stepped up and absolutely anything I could possibly need has been offered, which makes it so much easier to get through it.”
Outside of ultimate, he’s continuing his day job as the Facilities Coordinator at the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City, looking forward to the wedding, and focusing on what he can control.
“One of the worst parts about this, which I think is similar to a lot of cancer stories, is the uncertainty,” Katz said. “In the beginning, it was ‘thyroid cancer is chronic but not lethal.’ It made every scan worrisome for maybe needing another surgery, which was definitely scary but not the worst. Now it is a little heavier, hoping that the stuff in my lungs hasn’t gotten bigger because that could have implications that we don’t want to consider. But there is a chance that they never do, so there isn’t a timer running or anything like that. It has made life planning more complicated that I thought it would be, and I dread the time leading up to the scans and waiting for the results, but I am not living life differently than before.
“That said, I do think spending time with my family and friends has gotten better. Not through some big shift in my mentality, but from the fact that when we needed them, they answered the call. And continue to do so. I know that whatever happens, my community has my back and that makes me grateful to be around them [...] Also, I am not sure I stressed enough how helpful Stazi has been during this. The community support has been great for both of us, but I would be very lost without her.”
Even if he cannot fully anticipate the future, there’s a good chance his natural instincts will push him in the right direction. On the field, playing defense for the Empire, that’s what always seems to happen.