THE PASSES sometimes flutter like wounded ducks, the blocking may be half-hearted at best and speed is most often referred to in the past tense, but who cares? There's still the pressure kick, the diving save, the winning catch.
Be it flag or touch, adult recreational football is booming throughout the area, according to Jim Wilshire of the Montgomery County Recreation Department.
"Every year we have many more prospective men's touch teams than we can handle. We reached our limit (80 teams) weeks ago," says Wilshire, who coordinates non-tackle football. And getting into the co-rec flag league, where men and women play on the same team, "is virtually impossible for a new team. People who play this sport just keep on playing. Maybe they're not as fast or as competitive as they once were, but they figur why sit glued to a television watching football when they could be playing it."
On the other hand, they'd rather not break anything more than a sweat. And tackle football has a way of demanding sacrifices -- of teeth, knees, ankles and sundry other parts. So they've picked a game that's a little more loser friendly.
"Touch football originated sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century, perhaps as a response to the violence of tackle football. But then flag football evolved from touch because of the need for objectivity in determining whether someone had been touched," says Jerry Wrenn, assistant chairman of the physical education department at the University of Maryland. "Both games need less equipment, require less training and provide greater safety than tackle football."
In touch football, players don't wear pads or helmets, and stopping an opposing ball carrier is accomplished by merely tagging him. Consequently, the game has become a passer's delight, since even the shiftiest runners have great difficulty in avoiding the slightest touch by an opponent. Downfield blocking is barred in most touch leagues, but blocking at the line of scrimmage, where rushing the passer is a foregone conclusion on every play, can be polite or bone-rattling depending on opponents' competitive juices.
Teams can range from five to nine players on the field, but seven is the number in most recreational leagues. Usually, all players are eligible pass receivers, which keeps everyone involved and makes the game more interesting.
Flag football, where each player wears a belt with several detachable strips of plastic or cloth called flags, offers more than mere objectivity as to who was or was not touched. Jukes, fakes, and other assorted whirling-dervish moves make the flags difficult to grab and thus pay hefty dividends in increased yardage for ball carriers. While touch football, with its emphasis on speed and passing, beckons the young, flag football is considered more of a thinking man's game by its devotees.
"In flag, you can run, you can kick or you can pass, but there's nothing but throwing in touch and that can get boring pretty quickly," says Barbara Toula, whose Litchfield team has played in Montgomery County's co-rec league for the past seven years. "Everyone's much more involved in flag football because of the various play options."
And everyone includes more and more women drawn to the sport. In Montgomery's co-rec flag league, "our rules state that a woman has to touch the ball at least once as a passer, receiver or runner on each set of downs," says Toula.
"It used to be that women were merely tolerated on teams, but gradually the balance of power has shifted, and now the teams with the best women are dominating the league," says Toula, a wide receiver/cornerback. "In fact, on one team there's a woman who's better than anyone else on her team, man or woman.
"Why should anyone become a football widow when they can participate?"
(While Alexandria also offers women playing time -- with flag football for women only this fall, and co-rec in the spring -- touch and flag football remain a man's domain in the other jurisdictions.)
Depending on the skill classification (which ranges from recreational to expert), touch and flag can be little more than an excuse to get a little exercise and then retire for a few beers with the boys, or it can be a single-minded avocation where only a championship trophy satisfies.
"Both games allow participants to play at a level that they're comfortable with," says Jim Dunn, women's and co-rec flag football coordinator for the Alexandria recreation department.
"There's room for the ex-college jock and people who never made the junior varsity in high school. Very often the best players are the ones who played little or no organized football before." JOIN THE TEAM
For fans who want to act out their Joe Theismann and Dexter Manley fantasies, here's a sampling of area recreational touch and flag football programs. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
The D.C. Recreation Department will sponsor eight men's touch leagues this fall. Team registration, which costs $200, remains open. Games will played on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the city. League play is scheduled to begin in early October. Call 673-6787 for information. MARYLAND
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY -- Team registration remains open for this flag football league, which begins play on September 8. The franchise fee is $300. Games are played on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights throughout the county. Individuals who wish to join a team should call 621-
CHARLES COUNTY -- Registration for this eight-team men's touch league closes this Friday. The franschise fee is $425. Games are played Wednesday and Thursday nights at White Plains Regional Park. The 10-game season begins on September 11. Teams play once each week. Individuals who wish to join a team and those interested in registering a team can call 870-3388 or (301) 932-6004.
GAITHERSBURG -- Team registration is filled for this 10- team men's touch league, but individuals may call 926- 1100 to try to join a team. The season begins September 8 and lasts until Nov. 24. Games are played once a week on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings at Summit Hall Field.
HOWARD COUNTY -- Team registration for men's touch football closes September 5 and costs $220. The 10-game season begins on September 16; games are played Mondays through Thursdays at Waterloo and Patapsco middle schools in Ellicott City. Individuals who wish to join a team can call 301/992-2483.
LAUREL -- Is beginning its first men's touch league since 1977. Games will be played Sunday mornings at Supplee Field. Team registration costs $360 and closes on September 6. The seven-game season begins September 29. Call 725-7800 for further information in starting or joining a team.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- Team registration is filled for the 66-team men's touch league and a 17-team co-rec flag league. One touch division plays Wednesday nights at Martin Luther King Junior High in Germantown, while all other games are played on Sunday mornings at 18 locations throughout the county. Co-rec games are also played Sunday mornings at Rock Creek Rec Center in Chevy Chase. Individuals wishing to join a team can call 468-4176.
PRINCE GEORGE'S CPINTY -- The Maryland National Capital Park & Planning Commission runs an 84-team men's touch league that will begin play on September 6. The 10-game season will be played weekend mornings and weekday nights at various fields throughout the county until early November. Team registration is already closed, but individuals who are interested in joining established teams can call 699-2400.
ROCKVILLE -- Has two or three team openings remaining in its 18-team league. Teamregistration costs $375 and there is an additional $5 charge for every non-resident of Rockville. Games are played Tuesday through Thursday nights at Dogwood Park and Wootton and Richard Montgomery High Schools. Individuals who wish to join a team can call 424-3738. VIRGINIA
ALEXANDRIA -- Offers men's and women's flag football leagues this fall, and a co-rec flag league in the spring, but no touch football. Women play Monday through Thursday night at T.C. Williams High School. Team registration for women lasts until September 9 and costs $250. Men's registration is filled. The women's season begins on September 23; men's play starts September 14. (Men play weekend day games.) Call 838-4345 for information about joining a team or women's team registration.
ARLINGTON -- A nine-team men's touch league is planned, with games to be played on Saturday mornings at Blumont Park, beginning September 21. The season will last 10 weeks. The deadline for team registration is September 11; the franchise f is $335. Individuals interested in playing for a team should call 558-3179.
FAIRFAX COUNTY -- Offers a 35-team men's touch league, divided by skill into Classes A, B and C. The six- week season begins on September 16. Teams play twice each week (Monday through Thursday) at night at sites throughout the county. Team registration has already closed, but interested individuals may call 691-3294 about joining an established team.
MANASSAS -- Closes team registration for its 10- team men's flag league on September 3. The team franschise fee is $300. League play begins on September 8. All games will be be played on Sunday mornings at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Manassas. Individuals wishing to register a team or join an existing team should call Eddie Huffer at 361-8000 during the day or 364-2728 after 6 p.m.
RESTON/HERNDON -- Closes team registration on September 10 for its 8-all league. The franchise fee is $300. Play begins on September 16. Games are held on Monday and Wednesday nights. Any individuals who wish to join a team or who would like to register a team can call 703/754-4740 after 6 p.m.
Mike Fanning last wrote for Weekend on the Scottish Games in Alexandria.