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Not Just a Passing Fancy : Flag football draws ex-athletes and others who want the fun without the bruises.

March 25, 1994|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WOODLAND HILLS — He looks like a stand-in for Rudy, the Notre Dame football walk-on who inspired the recent movie of the same name.

He stands all of 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches, this wisp of a fellow clad in headband, shorts, cleats and a blue jersey numbered "32," with raggedy sleeves that look as if somebody had fed them to a document shredder.

What's Dave Newman--family man, Mid-Valley YMCA senior program director and a 42-year-old --doing on Pierce College's football field, duking it out most Saturdays with guys (some young enough to be his children) who could almost stuff him into their hip pockets?

Well, just watch him play for a flag team named Thunder & Lightning, swerving and slithering through his arrayed opponents--like a lightning bug, naturally!

See him snag footballs tossed by his quarterback, Al Cruz, and leave defenders often grasping at air and kicking (or cursing) themselves.

Hear one stripe-shirted official say admiringly of Newman's foot speed: "Man, look at those wheels!"

And listen to Newman's 7-year-old daughter, Tiffani, a wide-eyed face in a crowd so sparse it could fit into a minivan, scream excitedly at her playmate:

"That's my daddy!"

You see, Dave Newman is a star in the rapidly thickening ranks of Fast Action four-man flag football, which consists mostly of ex-high school players and a few former collegians and pros on teams nicknamed Dirtbags, Wharf Rats, Barrio Dogs and New York Cynics, among others--the teams grouped competitively by skill level.

He became the premier offensive player last season in Southern California's North Division (Woodland Hills), which in one year has doubled from a dozen teams to 24 and plays three seasons (spring, summer, fall), each lasting about 10 Saturdays (including playoffs with South Division leagues that play concurrently in Cerritos and Costa Mesa).

"You don't have to be 6-foot-6 to play basketball," Newman insists, "so why should size make any difference here?"

What Newman lacks in bulk he makes up in speed, savvy and finesse--qualities he honed years ago at Woodland Hills' Taft High School.

His skills mesh perfectly with a sport that long ago began as "touch"--then "flag"--football on America's streets and sandlots, where school kids eternally huddle up and scrawl pass plays in the dirt or whisper strategy such as "You run deep to the trash can, then cut right toward the '79 Mustang."

"It's the average guy's Super Bowl tournament, that's for sure," says Chuck Price, a onetime Cal State Northridge quarterback who serves as Fast Action's North Division director (and a player, too). He officiated games initially, but now he plays because "it's just too much fun."

"This game," adds Louie Smolkensky of Studio City, the league's local commissioner, "is designed so players can go to work on Monday."

When Price crafted Fast Action's rules (see accompanying box), he insisted on no contact and on teams with fewer players than in adult seven-man leagues, which allow blocking.

(Defenders "tackle" by yanking loose either of two "flags," or strips of synthetic yellow fabric, snapped to players' plastic belts.)

Actually, the league is a modified spinoff of a program called Air-It-Out, organized two years ago with seed money put up by the National Football League--first in Southern California, then in other NFL markets.

It's a response to "armchair quarterbacks" and "couch potatoes" who tired of just watching football and clamored for their own adult league--not unlike those in softball, bowling and basketball. (A 3-on-3 tournament named Hoop-It-Up, as well as the NFL's Air-It-Out, are managed locally by Price).

Besides reducing the risk of injury by outlawing blocking and tackling, Fast Action encourages passing on almost every play (in keeping with the name Fast Action, passers must throw within 5 seconds after receiving the center snap), and everyone is an eligible receiver.

Moreover, Fast Action shrinks the field (to 50 by 25 yards), compresses each game (20-minute halves) and takes the foot out of football: Kicking is banned.

Most players are men in their 20s and 30s, although the league is open to both sexes, 16 and older, provided he or she signs a medical-liability waiver. Those younger than 18 must obtain written consent from parents, who also are required to sign the waiver.

And teams that sign up (limit: 10 players per squad) must pay a seasonal registration fee of $250 (with a $25 discount for those who pre-register for the next season), mainly to cover field rental, liability insurance and equipment, while per-game fees of $20 cash per team pay for commissioners, officials, scorekeeper and weekly statistics.

What used to be a sport confined mostly to picnics, beaches or schoolyards now boasts players who make fashion statements--bandannas, earrings, sun visors and even glasses--as well as thirtysomething ex-collegiate football stars such as Kevin Williams (USC) and Joe Adams (Tennessee State), who play on a team called the 888s.

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