Two men stand beside a tree-lined field. Grass grows in sparse patches, but there is mostly dirt.
"This is where I will be happy to drop dead," one man says.
The other smiles and nods. "It sounds kind of pathetic," he says in agreement, "but I'd love to be buried here."
Soon after, a dozen others arrive and a game of touch football begins. A salesman plays beside a director of pornographic films. A hotel doorman guards a college student. An actor passes the ball to a car dealer. On this morning, they are football players.
Most sandlot games are loosely organized, coming and going with changes of season. The weekly ritual at Coldwater Canyon Park in Beverly Hills has endured for 17 years.
"It's beyond zealous, it's fanatic," said Bill Margold, 43, the porno director who professed his desire to perish on the field. "The fanaticism runs pure, blood-red through these people. You come out and are faithful and diligent to the game. Nothing is more important than the game."
The Coldwater Cats, as these men call themselves, have fought the City of Beverly Hills to keep their field. They have anted up $500 each season to pay for a required $1-million insurance policy.
They have done this for the pleasure of football. For several hours each week, these men set aside all other concerns to play intently, sometimes furiously, at a child's game.
"I'll be honest with you, it's a big ego trip. We have guys who maybe weren't good enough to play quarterback in high school and college. Up here, they can be a quarterback," said Ed (Ebby) Levine, a retired supermarket executive who founded the game in 1970 and still plays at age 67. "Guys like to play football. I know I'd just as soon play football than go on a European vacation."
The Coldwater Canyon game looks, at first, like any pickup football game. There are no uniforms. Players wear gym shorts and T-shirts. The field is small and marked at boundaries by a water fountain and a bench. A manhole cover lies near the goal line.
Yet the Cats' longevity has created traditions beyond those of sandlot games. There is heritage and order to preserve, they say.
Before each game, they divide the players carefully to ensure teams of equal talent. Passing is the name of the game here. Quarterbacks diagram intricate patterns. The defenses play zone, a sophistication unusual for street ball.
And the regulars have had to earn their reputations. Asher Brauner, a 40-year-old actor, and Rick Bryant, a 31-year-old aerospace analyst, are the established quarterbacks. Margold, whose knee has failed him at mid-life, is the defensive specialist. Randall Caan, 27, a thickly muscled man with spiked hair and an earring, is the game's "missing link."
"It's because I'm the biggest and fastest out here," said the 6-foot-4, 250-pound car dealer.
Another player suggests, under his breath, that the moniker is more likely attributable to "missing brain cells, missing genes." On the field, Caan is loud and laughing. Brauner is grim, often swearing under his breath. The teams move quickly up and down the field and score many touchdowns. Close calls are argued, but only briefly.
Good plays are applauded, missteps quietly chastised.
"We don't try to hurt anyone, but it's pretty competitive," Bryant said. "People aren't that friendly during the game."
Except for a handful of broken wrists, torn muscles and damaged ligaments, there have been no serious injuries at the park, the players say.
The Cats were born out of a friendly gathering of neighbors who met each week to play baseball, Levine said. One day, someone brought a football.
In the first decade, ex-professional players and television celebrities populated the game, Levine said. Peter Falk played. Dean Paul Martin was a regular and his wife at the time, ice skater Dorothy Hamill, watched from the sidelines.
"Children who don't want to be here, dogs who have no choice and girlfriends who are coerced--this is our only audience," Margold said.
The early years were marked by fierce matches and fisticuffs, Brauner said. It took some time for decorum to settle over Coldwater Canyon Park.
"We had a Catholic priest who played on Saturdays," recalled Levine, the only original player still active. "The language got a little rough, but he didn't mind."
Last summer, the City of Beverly Hills decided that athletic activities were destroying the turf at the park and outlawed games there. The Cats protested and were subsequently awarded the only permit to play on the field. They must insure themselves to cover the city's liability.
"They had a long, established history of being there without creating an uproar," said Steve Miller, assistant director of library and community services for Beverly Hills. "They have received a quiet acknowledgment from the community."