Touch football is a far cry from memories of past pigskin glories when cheerleaders in white lettersweaters scream "Hold that line!" But after a certain age, it's pretty much that or Monday-night football on TV.
Frustrated sandlot football players usually can't get it together alone. It turns out that local recreation departments, for a team fee of between $148 and $275, depending on the location, provide a playing field, officials, trophies, scheduling - everything but the T-shirts. Right now, most area recreation departments are taking team applications. The Redskins aren't the only ones to start the season early.
Your team could be co-workers who communicate via the bulletin board. They could be individuals, with nothing in common, who called up the recreation department and were referred to a coach needing more players to make a team. They could be pain-avoiders or contact-seekers. They could be last season's softball team after they change jerseys. They could be women. Or your dentist.
Dr. Roland Drum, a dentist at Bailey's Crossroads, is the captain of the Drummers. He's been playing touch football in Fairfax County with basically the same team for the last 10 years. Before that, it was intramurals in high school, college and dental school. He plays "for exercise, fun and fellowship." The guys on his team just seem to get along. They're attorneys, accountants, an insurance salesman, a school teacher. Two or three work for the CIA.
His team, like others, sometimes needs new players after the season starts. "You lose about eight people due to injuries. Not that serious, maybe a pulled hamstring, a broken leg, a broken finger, a broken nose. But at our age, they're major." He's 35.
Calling it touch football does not take the worry out of being close. "After all, we're not playing with a lot of equipment," Drum says. "We played a game in Fairfax County four years ago and within five minutes we sent three players to Fairfax Hospital. But then, nobody got hurt the rest of the year. Not that year, anyway."
In fact, Drum says, "a lot of my teammates are my patients. They get a tooth knocked out or loosened, or a filling comes out. When they come and see me, they tell me they got it in Wednesday's game."
They aren't the only ones to get it. Two years ago, the District's recreation department started hiring three refs per game instead of two to officiate. The reason: The extra ref helped eliminate some roughness.
Greg Sacknoff's team is in the Alexandria league, too. A 29-year-old bank branch manager and loan officer, Sacknoff looks forward to football season every year. Like Drum, he's been with the same basic team for 10 years and says he camaraderie among players and teams in a big drawing card for him.
There are other reasons people play, he speculates. "It gives adults a chance to vent some frustrations that build up during the week . . . gives you a chance for contact." Some seem to need more contact than others. "We have college ball players on the team as well as high-school players. Those players enjoy violence and hitting. They like the front-line positions. They go all out, as if they were playing tackle [football]. Except when they got to the quarterback. Instead of the pleasure of hitting the quarterback [when he has the ball], all they can do is touch him.
"They can hit each other, though, with their forearms. There are several bloody noses and cut eyes.
"You can just get out of the game whatever you are looking for. Some of the defensive positions, you don't have as much contact. I'm a middle linebacker. That's in between. I can either hide or I can get into it."
Tentatively, women have thrown their helmets in, too, at least in Montgomery County, Alexandria and Greenbelt. (Last year Prince George's County called a meeting to organize a women's touch league, too. Nobody came.)
Actually, women have been playing flag football, a variation. In touch football, even inadvertently stumbling into the ball-carrier constitutes a touch. In flag, you have to grab the flag attached to your opponent's belt.
"Women can't throw and catch that well," says Bob Chick, the commissioner in charge of assigning officials to touch football games. "They need flag football because they advance the ball more by running than by throwing . . . There's much more running in flag than there is throwing."
Liz Garvey is captain of the Epicurean Delights softball team, about to change T-shirts and sponsors and start football season. Last year was the first year she played flag football in Alexandria. "It was a lot of fun," she says, "and we met a lot of nice people." The age range of her team is early 20s to over 40; they're secretaries, a department store manager, a schoolteacher, a paramedic.
What happens when women start to play "a man's game?" First, the coach is a man. "They can coach us at practice, but not during the game," Garvey says. "They can't yell anything from the sidelines." The reason for muzzling the coaches: "It's an all-women's league and they don't want the men to have anything to do with it. But all the coaches are men."
In Montgomery County, Sue Maher, women's flag league director, thinks male coaches are something of a throwback, but with positive results. "Football has been a male-dominated sport. The women who go into the program don't really know rules and strategy. The women seek out male coaches just for the knowledge they have. I don't think the men control any other aspects of the women. Not these women."
Greenbelt's had women's flag for the past four years. At the recreation department, Harry James sets up the teams and is impressed with the women's progress. "The first year, you had a lot of women out there playing who didn't know the rules and blocking. Now they're gotten really good. The winner last year - half the girls on their team were over 200 (pounds). Little girls, if they are playing, they are playing out on the end and going out for passes, staying away from the line."
In Montgomery County, there's another kind of game, and though it looks like fun, it has its critics - coed flag football.
First, when men and women get together to play a sport, there's that issue straight from childhood - when the boys don't let the girls play.
"We've had some complicated rules," says Maher, "that the women must touch the ball within four downs. The fact that we had to have some rules . . . was to make sure that everybody got a chance to play. The men were dominating."
Last year's coed football team in Montgomery County played touch, and it's only this year that they're playing flag. Assigning Commissioner Chick at Washington Suburban Officials Association seemed to wince when he was told this. "Oh, that'll be nice, men and women playing flag. It's bad enough that women play it. It's open season . . . Men grab everything but that flag . . . It's terrible, it's a terrible game . . . You really have to have people who are friends to play . . . It's against the rules to grab the flesh. These men reach and they're grabbing a hunk of your stomach, or a side.
"Flat football's just about died out. The military play it."
So much for the brass. Here are the brass tacks. Though that franchise fee you pay the recreation department sounds steep, it will be divided among 15 to 25 players. (In most games, only seven can play at one time.) But why pay for it when you, like more than half the area teams, can get a sponsor?
"You just have to go in and talk to them," says Garvey. Besides being an ad-in-formation in their labeled T-shirts, "You'll be bringing business. We were sponsored by Joe Theissman's and the Riviera Restaurant last year. After the games, we usually go down there and do some drinking and eating." She works as a secretary in a law office and this season an attorney there plans to put up the money for sponsor. It's tax-deductible.
Then, too, some community centers sponsor teams for the county league.
A pizza parlor sponsors Sacknoff's team this year. In past years, they've run the sponsor gamut: from El Dorado Massage Parlor to Bob Connors H and H Exterminators. Try putting that on a T-shirt.
Here's where to go for information on touch football teams.