Our Lives Through Sports Part VI: An Enduring Tradition
Wednesday, November 25, 2009; 11:50 AM
The men arrive a little before 9 a.m. just as they have for decades now; trundling down the slope of Westmoreland Hills Park in Bethesda. They unpack gym bags, picking the previous Sunday's mud from their cleats. One pulls out a football. Another grabs a pile of small orange cones and begins to mark out the field -- 60 yards long.
Then they can play their touch football game. The one that has been going for 43 years.
It is remarkable, if they stop to consider it, that a group men could keep appearing every Sunday from Labor Day to the Super Bowl since the autumn of 1967, to break into two teams and play a football game. But then somebody calls a play, the ball is snapped, bodies fly, clumps of sod skip into the air and perspective disappears. Lost into the haze of time.
"I guess it's kind of weird to think the game has lasted so long," said its founder Richard Lowery one recent Sunday as he stood next to the field, himself 17 years retired from the game.
All around, Washington has changed, administrations flying past like years on a time machine: from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. Players have grown old. They had children. They got new jobs. Some moved away. And yet every autumn Sunday a group descends, ready to start the game again.
"It's almost like catching lightning in a bottle," said Steve Okun, an attorney in the Clinton administration who played the game for 11 years before moving to Singapore in 2003. "You couldn't plan this. You couldn't say 'here's a game that's going to go on for 43 years.' You had the right people in the beginning and they brought the right people and they brought the right people so it was able to keep going."
When he began the game as a young attorney at the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis, Lowery had no vision of a lasting legacy. He was fresh from University of Virginia law school, still carrying fond memories of the intramural football games he played in college. So he called some friends from law school and asked a few people at work if they wanted to start a game. He found a field not far from American University and that first Sunday turned into another and then another until the Sundays grew into a string of falls and the game moved from AU to Annandale High School to eventually here in the early 1970s.
For a moment he tried to remember how long it was when he moved the game to Westmoreland. Thirty-eight years? Thirty-six? He shook his head. That's longer than many of the players today have been alive. Not that those facts matter anyway. It was always better to tell the game's history through its people.
Like Richard Beizer,a defensive back at Harvard in the 1960s who became a lawyer after college who joined the game in 1969. Now he is 67, his features softened somewhat by age and yet backpeddling at quarterback, looking to fire a pass into a crowd of players 30 to 40 years younger.
"He will be out here with a walker," his wife Pat Douglass said.
Once, when her children were young, Douglass used to roll down these hills with them. Now her stepson, Nick, is playing quarterback, opposite of his father. Years ago, when Nick Beizer was a teenager, Richard Beizer would bring him to the game. Nick was fast then, maybe the fastest player on the field. Now Nick is 36 and his father notes a slight slowing in his son's step as Nick cycles through the game like so many before him.
"He's starting to see the long, slow slide," Richard Beizer said.