He is the soft-spoken player with little or no emotional expression in his game. His gaze reveals very little about the man inside. But for all those cool exterior, his game is full of fire. His drives are explosive even if his reactions aren’t. His putting is legendary for it’s consistency in high-pressure situations. He’s one of the best players under pressure but you will never know it by watching him play. But he hasn’t always been this way.
For the past twenty years, Steve Rico has been a high profile regular on the PDGA tour, and since his first few years he has consistently pushed the sport forward with his “Do I look like I give a %#@!” approach to the sport he dominates. No player in the history of the sport has maintained the same level of success for as long as Steven Rico. He may not have the number of titles of a Ken Climo or a Barry Schultz, but he has maintained a more consistent dominating presence. And all of this while working construction, finishing high school and starting his own disc golf company.
For many years, Rico was the standard bearer for the disavowed pro player who dared to carry a mixed bag. With each success, he embarrassed the disc golf companies who strictly demanded homogenized bags of their sponsored players. Eventually, Rico started his own company but he still maintains a mixed bag. Oh, and most of those other pros from the homogenized teams, very few of them are with those teams today.
Let’s talk to the man they call, “The Kid.”
So let’s start off with the basic stuff; Where were you born and where did you grow up?
“I was born in Sylmar, California and I grew up there. I still live there today.”
Tell me about growing up in Sylmar.
“I am the middle-child. I have an older brother, Bamba who is five years older that me, and a younger sister. My dad is JR Rico and he works construction and my mom is a stay at home mom. She’s the best. She raised us all up and took care of us. My father works with my cousins and uncles in concrete construction and when I was 18 I started working with them. I still do that today. It’s a family business.”
When did you start playing disc golf and who introduced you to the game?
“I was seven years old and my dad took me and Bamba out to play at Veterans’ park in Sylmar. He said, ‘Here you go’ and we were instantly hooked. That’s all I have done since. I didn’t play any other sports in school. I didn’t do band or any of that stuff. I loved disc golf from the start, I mean it was automatic how much me and Bamba loved it. My dad would take us out to play as soon as he got home from work and then we played until he made us leave.”
Seven? What was your first disc? Do I even dare ask if you still have it? And when did you start playing competitively?
“My first tournament was when I was nine. It was the Wintertime Open. But I didn’t turn Pro until I was 15. I played AM worlds when I was 14 and I was going to play again the next year but I started playing Open tournaments and I wasn’t going to accept cash but then I won a tournament and I decided to take the cash and just turn Pro. And my first disc was… an Ace. A 91 mold. I think they both busted. They used to crack really easily back then so I know I don’t have them. I wish I did.”
You were known as “the kid” back then. What was it like for you?
“I toured a lot back then. My final two years of high school I was home-schooled because I was on tour so much. I finished school that way. I loved it. I loved touring.”
Was there someone who guided you or coached you back then?
“My brother and I really pushed each other in those early days. He was really good and we pushed each other to get better. He took some time off for his family and I just kept going. And there was Sam Ferrans and Steve Valencia and Jeff and Johnny Lissman, Jay Earnhardt and Kenny (Climo). All those guys were around and were showing me stuff and pushing my game forward. But if there was someone who really helped me out it would be Jeff and Johnny.”
How did they do that?
“They didn’t really show me a style – I had my own style. They just taught me about course management and having a game plan. How to play the course. That was really important. Coming up in So Cal if you wanted to win you had to beat all these guys and you had to do it being smart.”
Is that your game?
‘Yeah. I would say so. You gotta have a game plan and know when to attack a hole or to play smart. Most players don’t have that part of their game and that’s why I am still successful. They just go after everything and it costs them. I know when to take chances and when not to.”
What is your practice regime?
“I try to learn something new in the off-season. I go out to a field and learn how to throw a new disc or a new throwing technique. This last year I figured out how to throw a good sidearm. I had one before, but I learned how to throw one for distance and how to be accurate with it. You need all types of shots to be competitive on these bigger courses. I can throw a sidearm about 350 feet now. I’m confident in that throw, so that’s what I do. I try to learn something new to improve my game.”
Is it hard to keep up with this new generation of pros?
“Definitely. You have to have a full game and you have to be in great shape. You have to exercise and stay healthy because you can’t get fatigued out there and expect to win. You have to eat right and build your endurance.”
What do you do to exercise?
“I started doing jujitsu about five years ago and it’s awesome. It’s a serious workout and it has made a huge improvement in my game. Mentally and physically. I’m not big on pushing weights or running but martial arts really gives me a work out. I love it. I’ve lost twenty pounds this past year and I feel so much better. The mental exercise is awesome. I just feel more focused and in control after I work out.”
You were recently named Runner-up in the World Rankings. How did you feel about that?
“That was so awesome. I mean, after all this time and with all these new players out there just playing at such a high level. To be in the top five was a big deal and when they said I was at 2 I just couldn’t believe it. I had so many people call me and send me messages congratulating me. It was incredible. I almost cried. It meant a lot to me. Now I just have to win Worlds and I will be number one.”
Is that the goal?
“It’s everyone’s goal. It’s mine. I still haven’t won it. I have some Japan Open titles and some other big wins but Worlds and the USDGC are the two I really want to win. I’ve been close so many times – I lost USDGC by one stroke last year – so I just really want to get both of those.”
You’ve been to Japan but not to Europe. Any reason why?
“No. Just never got over there. I’m going to Europe next year. I should have skipped Japan this year and gone to Europe instead. I just haven’t gotten around to getting over there. I want to though.”
How has the game evolved during your time on tour?
“Well, there used to be a family of us. We were all touring together, we played the same events and we hung out all the time. We played during the weekends and then we would have ‘Monday Fun Day’ where we would always do things together. But now, that’s all gone. People don’t hang out together and there is a lot of people on tour who have drifted apart. There’s some tension. It’s just not the same. No one tours together like they used to. People play different events so there just isn’t that family feeling anymore. That’s gone. It’s a shame.”
Family is important to you.
“Family is everything. I love my whole family. We work together all day and then we do the Legacy thing at night. My mother works with us and helps out. My cousin Freddy does the hot stamping and my parents are always at the warehouse. It’s a family. Legacy is all family. The team is a family.”
Let’s talk about the birth of Legacy Discs.
“What do you want to know?”
Whose idea was it?
“Some dude that I don’t know. Me and Bamba were at a tournament in San Diego in late 2011. We were sitting there and some dude walked up and said, ‘You have this pro shop and all this other stuff, why don’t you make your own Frisbees?’ Then he walked off. I wish I knew who he was. Anyways, Bamba looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, why don’t we make a Frisbee?’ and that was it. We looked up injection molding places around where we live and we set up some meetings with them. We picked the one we liked and we started designing a disc. We wanted it to be the fastest disc out there. They made the first ones and they were stiff as dinner plates. So I started looking into plastics and mixtures and all that stuff and eventually we got one we liked and felt good. We sent it into the PDGA and they approved it. That was the Rampage. We went with a fast driver first because we knew people don’t like to change out their putters that much but with a new driver that is something most people will try and give a chance. So we marketed it as the fastest disc on the market and it worked. We pushed the limits and we got what we wanted.”
How did you get Legacy off the ground?
“I knew a lot of people around the country who owned stores and I was like, ‘Help me out and buy some of these discs’ and they did and that got everything started.”
How many discs do you have now?
“Ten molds and we have one coming out in a few months called, ‘The Outlaw.’ It’s an over stable driver, not as fast as the Cannon and Rampage but more stable and with a smaller rim. And then we have a few putters coming out after that.”
Where do you come up with the names?
“I don’t know where Rampage came from but my friend said, ‘You gotta have one called the Cannon.’ So that’s where that came from. The Outlaw got its name from a Monster Truck I just happened to see. It was the name of one of the trucks and I liked it.”
Probably the most well-known “Rico” image is that VooDoo bag of yours. Just how many discs are in that bag?
“25 to 34 depending on where I’m going. I will use about 33 here in Portland. I will take out a few at some courses but others like Trojan, where there’s a lot of water, I will take extras. It just depends.”
Have you always carried so many?
“It’s been a recent thing. Probably when I started Legacy. I have had discs in my bag that I’ve had for five or ten years. I just know them so well and I can’t take them out. I have some discs that I use on specific courses and they only get put in the bag when I need them on that course. I wouldn’t use them anywhere else but I gotta have them. I just know them so well and I trust them.”
Prior to Legacy, you were well-known as one of the best players without a sponsor. How did they all overlook you?
“I was sponsored, briefly, by Discraft but that ended badly. I don’t want to get into that but I left the team and I just said to myself; You don’t need a sponsorship. You know what you throw and I had a job so I didn’t need money. So I went out without a sponsor. Other companies made me offers but I was okay without it. I won’t lie, when I was young and first started I thought it was extremely important to have a sponsorship. I think everyone does, but I know better now. I think you should use the right disc for your game, whatever it is. You don’t need that sponsor to be a good player.”
A lot of young players emphasis sponsorship as a form of validation for their game. What advice do you have for them as a player and as a sponsor?
“Be patient. Stick to your game. Do what you know works for you and don’t worry about playing with just one brand or that brand. Use what works for you. And be patient.”
What is your policy on sponsorships?
“Legacy has an application you can fill out at our website. We look at those and I have my eye on some players. I know who I want.”
What criteria do you use for picking team members?
“Loyalty. That’s first. After the big team shake-ups a few years ago I realized that loyalty is pretty rare in our game. Things got nasty. I like our team because they’re loyal and in return I’m loyal to them. That’s what I like. I also like people who represent the game well. People who are easy to talk to, people who are willing to help and are good ambassadors for the game. There are a lot of talented players who are in it for themselves and they are horrible ambassadors for the game. There are Pros who are like that.”
Care to name any names?
So if you want to be on team Legacy…
“Be a good ambassador first. Player second. I wasn’t always the best ambassador for the game when I was younger and I acknowledge that now. But I changed and I know now what I need to do. I’m a much more modest guy and I will always promote the sport.”
So when you left Discraft, you kept the Magnet in your bag and you used that for the inspiration of the Clutch.
“Yes. But we made it better. That’s part of what I was talking about – use a disc that works for you. I’ve tried Aviars and other putters but the Magnet really worked for me and I used it for years until I got the Clutch. I still carry a Firebird and a Wraith in my bag. I won’t lie. Others might lie about what they use but I don’t.”
Is this sport growing?
“The sport is growing but not all of it. There are more companies, more discs, more tournaments, more players, but there isn’t more money. The World’s money is the same as it was ten years ago, and the USDGC money is half of what it used to be. And there is no new money coming into the sport. The only ones making money are the disc companies and that doesn’t get shared. I have some ideas that I want to work out. One is making some big tournaments out there – charity events. That would bring in more media coverage, which will raise awareness of the sport. There are too many people in positions of power who don’t know about this sport. What if our ICE BOWLS all went to one charity at the same time instead of a bunch of different ones? A big problem with the sport is that there are people in our sport who don’t want the sport to grow because they want to keep control of it.”
What are some of the changes you want to see in the sport?
“I think safety has to be our biggest concern. It has to be issue number one. The courses are getting bigger and not everyone knows what’s going on. A lady got hit in the eye on a course here in Cali, and I think she went blind in that eye. Just some casual lady walking through the park and she lost an eye. We can’t have that. Safety has to be the number one issue when designing new courses. Some of the older courses are becoming sorta sketch. That hurts the sport when a course isn’t safe.”
“We also need to work on etiquette. Players need to learn how to play with others where they don’t put each other in harm’s way. We have too many casual players that throw at other players or players that don’t know how to be polite out on the courses. That sort of thing is going to cause more problems if it isn’t dealt with. In ball golf, players know the rules and they abide by them. You see too much stuff in disc golf that makes us look stupid. Tournament Directors should be taking more time to talk to the new players about how to play. I don’t think we’re ready for the growth yet. There are too many players who don’t learn the rules and there are too many Pros who don’t act right. That makes us look bad. No one is going to put us on TV acting like that.”
How often do you think about this stuff?
“Oh man, my mind is always coming up with new ideas. Mostly it’s stuff for Legacy but I never stop thinking about disc golf. I come up with stuff all the time. New ideas. We do a lot of brainstorming at Legacy about different stuff. We have new disc ideas, we have a bag coming out soon, tournaments we want to run, all kinds of things.”
Which direction are you going in with Legacy?
“We don’t think you need a lot of gimmicky discs. We just want a good line that we know people will use. We make solid discs and we take a lot of pride in what we have. We want all our discs to be consistent and reliable.”
Consistency is tough in disc golf.
“Yeah. There are like twenty things that go into a run of discs, from mixes to colors to the process. The plastic company might send over plastic that they say is the same but it’s not and you got to stay on top of them about being consistent.”
Is there any truth to the rumor that certain colors are more stable than others?
“Yes… Yeah… I don’t know why, but yeah, it’s true.”
So what is the goal for Legacy? Are you going to sell it? Do you want to get to a point that it runs itself and you can tour full time?
“I want to be on tour and playing all the time. But I’m a hands on type of guy with everything we do at Legacy and it would be hard for me to walk away from that. I love it and my whole family works with me. But I would love to get to twenty discs and still be able to go back out on tour. I think next year I will be able to leave the construction job for good and dedicate myself full time to Legacy. We’ve grown that much. And I want to run more tournaments. I just ran my first – The Summertime Open. I want to make it bigger next year. I want to increase the money. And make it an event. That’s a long-term goal for me.”
I ask everyone this mostly because it surprises me that Pros have a part of their game that they’re not confident with. What is the part of your game you don’t feel 100 percent certain of?
“Right now? Straight midrange shot to a gap 300 feet away. It’s a tough shot for me. That is the hardest shot for me right now. Some shots you just believe in or you don’t and right now I’m not feeling that shot in my bag.”
I played at Sandy Point in Wisconsin a few years ago and there is a hole there that’s about 400 feet across a deep ravine. A narrow, wooded hole that most people can’t make. I was playing with someone who said, “Rico threw his putter here and parked it.” Now that’s a 400-foot shot with a putter. Can’t you lay off a midrange a little and still get the job done?
“I remember that shot too. Man, that was a long time ago. When I was younger and I could just throw what ever. I bet I power gripped that Magnet and just bombed it too. I’m not sure I could do that throw now.”
As someone whose been around the game for so long, what advice do you want to share with new players who are hoping to get better?
“Work on form first. Get out to a open field and work on your form. Try different shots with a few different discs, figure out what works.”
Lots of Pros talk about form. What do you mean specifically by that?
“Start with your grip. Work on a good power grip, then a fan grip. Learn how to hold the disc. That’s everything. Next. Work on the proper footwork. Work on a decent cross-step making sure you get proper rotation. You want your weight to transfer from your back leg to your front leg. And then your follow-through. You want to throw all the way across your body. Not just pulling forward.”
And the best method for improving?
“Throwing those shots over and over for hours. Eventually it will begin to feel right and you will see more distance and consistency. When it all works out and you have the timing of your throws down, you’ll see a big change in your game.”
“I also recommend watching YouTube videos of Pro players who look like you. If you’re a bigger guy, maybe you watch Avery (Jenkins). If you’re shorter, then you can watch me. Then you build your style off of that. Watching a Pro is a good way to improve. It’s important that people know that you don’t have to look one way or another to be a good player to get distance. A short guy might not be able to relate to Avery but he could to me. If you look at Paige Pierce, she’s not that big but she can crush. She has perfect form, probably the most fluid form of any player – man or woman – out there.”
What was your first big win as a pro?
“It was the Caldecott Open in 1994. I was 15 and I beat some great golfers.”
How old are you now?
Because you started so early, do you think there needs to be more emphasis on getting kids involved in the sport?
“I think the EDGE program is doing a great job with getting kids involved with the sport. Also, I see a lot of clubs and players that are doing lots of school projects with disc golf and that is awesome. That will make a big difference.”
This is the million dollar question these days: What can we do to grow the sport?
“The best way to grow the sport is for the PDGA to teach their players on how to run events within their communities. It seems to me that at this stage of our sport the player have the biggest role in growing our sport. There is no better way to be introduced to a new sport than hearing about it from someone who is passionate about what they do.”