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FIRST AND GOAL : Flag-Football Tournaments Are Catching On Big-Time

January 13, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition.

It's drawing close: Super Bowl Sunday, that holiest of days for American sports fans, the January afternoon when the faithful approach a state of oneness with their sofas. It is a feast day, of beer and pizza and chips consumed before the flickering altar of the television set.

Among televised sports, pro football might be considered the unrepentant couch potato's last sanctuary. Basketball fans can head to the court for a pickup game, tennis fans make court appearances of their own, bowling fans bowl while baseball fans can join softball leagues. Meanwhile, fans of the Mighty Ducks can take to the rink for the fast-rising sport of roller hockey.

Football fans have fewer outlets. Other than tossing a Nerf ball around the living room, or hitting the street for a quick game of catch during the halftime show, most adults who watch football rarely get the chance to play. In no other U.S. sport are there so many spectators and so few participants (a fact borne out by statistics from the National Sporting Goods Assn. in Mt. Prospect, Ill.).

It's a situation that the National Football League is trying to remedy--with some success, judging by the early results. As part of the build-up to last year's Super Bowl, the league launched Draw Play, two weekend flag football tournaments (in Woodland Hills and Mission Viejo) leading to a one-day playoff--called NFL Experience--in Pasadena, site of the Big Game.

The tournament is back this year, rechristened Air-It-Out and expanded from an exclusively Southern California event to nine NFL markets across the country. The tournaments started in Green Bay, Wis., in August and wind up this weekend at UC Irvine, after having returned to Pierce College last week.

This year, the number of teams competing in the tournament in Southern California has gone from about 215 teams per site to about 350. New cities have caught on quickly as well: Air-It-Out tournaments in Miami and Dallas drew about 500 teams each.

The response has "been beyond our expectations," said Don Garber, who oversees Air-It-Out as vice president for development of NFL Properties in New York. He says the tournament is a grass-roots attempt to increase interest in the game of football.

"It allows fans to get a little closer to the game," Garber said. "The idea is to get these armchair quarterbacks out and give them the opportunity to play."

Chuck Price (who promotes the regional finals of the annual Hoop-It-Up three-on-three basketball tournament in Huntington Beach) oversees the Southern California Air-It-Out tournaments, and was the man in charge of coming up with the rules for the game.

In flag football, the players wear long fabric ribbons on each hip. The ball carrier is downed when an opposing player pulls off one of the flags. Because it is safer than tackle football and can be played without expensive pads, flag football is popular as an intramural college sport and with some city recreation departments.

Most adult flag football teams use seven-person teams and employ blocking. Price wanted smaller teams and no contact. The game he devised is played on a field 60 yards long and 25 yards wide, with four people on the field for each team (each team is allowed one substitute). The 30-minute game (rules are printed on Page 13) emphasizes passing and plenty of scoring.

"It's a real fun time more than anything," Price said. "The idea is to feel like John Elway, feel like Michael Irvin. We let your typical football fan get a touchdown, do a dance in the end zone and go back to work on Monday."

Go back to work, it is hoped, without bumps and bruises or more serious injuries.

"You can extend (to catch a pass) and not worry about getting hit," Price said. "We have a lot of guys playing who are over 40 years old."

The deadline for entering this year's Air-It-Out tournament at UCI has passed, but the fast-paced event is open to spectators. Former football stars who want to relive past glories have another opportunity, however: a new flag football league that has adopted the Air-It-Out format.

San Clemente-based Fast Action Sports has held two seasons so far since the last Super Bowl, in Costa Mesa, Cerritos and Woodland Hills. Deadline for entering next season's play is Feb. 1.

Dan Anderson is head of Fast Action Sports, which also sponsors a popular adult basketball league program in Orange County. He got involved in the flag football league after seeing the success of last year's Draw Play tournament. Football, he said, "is not a big participation sport, when you consider it's such a huge spectator sport. . . . Our idea is, get out and play. Participate."

Chris Valois quarterbacks the team that won the Mission Viejo Draw Play tournament last year. His team--the Chicoutimi Cucumbers (nickname of former Montreal Canadiens goalie Georges Vezina)--will be back at UC Irvine this week, and has played in both seasons of the Fast Action Sports league so far.

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