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When Bad Players Happen to Good Games

January 30, 2002|Chris Erskine | THE GUY CHRONICLES

"Football is a kids' game, invented to give a lot of people a lot of fun."

--Joe Kapp,

former quarterback

"What I miss most is the violence."

--Dick Butkus,

former linebacker

The glory of touch football is that it's a game that never evolves--no instant replay, no domed stadiums--just a bunch of domed dads out on a chilly Sunday, trying to keep middle age at bay and stay healthy and desirable for our wives.

Because let me tell you a little secret about today's wives: They're lovely and caring. But let yourself go a little and they'll dump you like a load of shirts. Just ask Gino.

"She dumped me again," Gino told me one night at the local steak place.

"She can't dump you," I say. "You're her husband."

Gino explains that some women become so accustomed to dumping us that by the time they marry, it's imprinted on the right side of their female cortex, just behind their pretty foreheads. To them, dumping becomes second nature. Like blinking or buying on credit.

"I'm constantly trying to win her back," says Gino.

Which is why we're out here playing touch football on Sunday afternoon, a bunch of aging Huck Finns trying to hang on to our boyhoods and our marriages, an improbable goal.

"You, run a slant," Hank says, designing a play in the huddle.

"You, go long," he tells someone else.


"Hook-and-go," he says.

Then we all clap our hands and line up for the next thrilling play. Hank likes when we clap our hands after huddles. Shows we're a unit.

And off I go, running my hook-and-go pattern, which I make up as I run it, sort of the way I make soup.

"What was that?" Hank says when I come back to the huddle.

"Hook-and-go," I gasp.

"Right," he says.

Lately, our games have become a little chaotic. We have had such huge turnouts--eight to 10 players per team, many of them our sons and daughters--that the plays unfold with the skill and timing of a badly botched convenience store holdup.

Now, I admire chaos in a sporting event. Too much precision, and you lose the fans. A soulless precision is the NFL's worst enemy. That and those awful indoor stadiums. Tombs, really. Give me games in the snow and the slop. Give me touch football.

"What happened there?" I ask Hank after eight of our 10 receivers collide on a crossing pattern.

"Not a clue," Hank growls.

By the second quarter, I have taken to inventing my own pass patterns and then naming them after people I admire.

On short yardage, I run something called the Jayne Mansfield. Long yardage, the Loni Anderson, a big loop followed by another big loop, followed by big hair.

"What's he doing?" I can hear the free safety ask.

"Heck if I know," the cornerback says, and they turn their attention to players younger and more dangerous.

I used to be a player. At 19, I could catch a jellybean dropped from a fighter jet. At 25, I was quick as a stolen kiss.

Now, two decades later, I have almost no game left. So I make the most of what I have, running pass routes shaped like chesty actresses of yesteryear. Barbara Eden. Adrienne Barbeau.

"How'd he get so open?" I hear Eisen ask.

"Who cares?" Burlison says.

One week, we made the mistake of putting Eisen and Burlison, both lawyers, on the same team. Being attorneys, they won every rule dispute by sheer stubbornness.

At one point, they issued a restraining order against our nose tackle, the little red-haired girl, who would patiently count "one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi," then scamper like a field mouse at their hairy lawyer legs.

Later, in a crucial series, the two lawyers refused to honor our call for a timeout, acting as if they were in court and couldn't hear the other attorney objecting.

"Timeout!" I screamed about four times, nearly pulling a hamstring in my tongue.

"Huh?" said Burlison.

"Hike," said Eisen.

"Timeout!" I screamed again.

My advice: When forming teams for touch football, don't put all the lawyers on the same team. Too competitive. Too tactical.

My other advice: Always stretch. In football, and in life, be sure to stretch. Stretch before the game. Stretch during the game. Stretch in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Because once you've pulled a muscle, in your tongue or in your leg, it is pulled forever. Sure, it'll heal a little, but only enough to make you think you're fine again.

Then snap. Ouch. Down you'll go. The sniper shot you never hear.

"How many groin muscles do we have?" Eisen asks.

"Me? Hundreds," I say.

"I just pulled them all," he says.

The dads--some pushing 40, others 50--play every down as if it's our very last.

And the kids, ranging in age from 10 to 16, play every down as if it's a skit for a fifth-grade play, laughing in key moments and mugging for the crowd. The kids' basic philosophy of football is that if it makes someone laugh, it's a good play.

"We done yet?" one of the dads mumbles after an hour.

"We were done 20 years ago," Ulf says.

Late in the game, the dads begin to lose all remaining body heat out of the tops of our heads, a sort of chimney effect I can't explain.

The kids, meanwhile, get fresher and happier with every play. Most are video game kids, unaccustomed to fresh air and sunlight. Many are out of doors for the very first time. Like Huck Finn, they seem to take to it.

"It's sort of nice to get out of the house," a teenager says on a perfectly rainy and sloppy Sunday.


Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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