"You wanna play on my flag football team?"
A beefy catcher made me the offer while our softball team chugged $1 domestic beers at Jackhammer, a bar on Chicago's far north side. It was mid-September 2003, and we were hanging out in the rear garden. The team went there after our Thursday-night games because the place offered cheap drinks and free pizza.
Both of us competed for playing time at the same position. I'd figured that my teammate wouldn't want to see any more of me than was necessary. Thinking he was trying to start a friendship, I said: "Sure, but I can't do all of the games."
"Just come when you can." He gave me two instructions: (1) find the offensive plays and league rules on the team's web site, and (2) show up for Saturday's season opener at Warren Park.
Two days later I hopped on the Red Line for the train ride north, and pondered whether doing the sport was a mistake. At 36, I had never played any form of organized football. Instead, I'd written about high school gridiron action for the Sun-Times during the previous decade. Usually, I walked along the sideline and compiled statistics and quotes on a clipboard. My only physical challenge was getting sore feet while walking on hard artificial turf.
Sometime during the hour-long ride, I'd rationalized that playing flag football would give me a taste of what those high school kids had experienced. I got off the train and walked a mile west to the park. The rest of the team, Quads Bears, was stretching on the grass. The Bears consisted of 18 weekend warriors; most of us were in our thirties or forties. We were in our debut season in the recreation division, which had teams sponsored by north-side bars and wore gray shirts.
Just before the start of the game, I hit a snag. The belt holding the twin flags wouldn't fit around my two shirts. A teammate shook his head while watching me struggle. "You better lose some weight if you want to play football," he said. "Okay," I said while taking off a shirt. Later in the game, I subbed at a receiver position. Because I hadn't memorized the plays yet, I simply ran routes away from our stars to draw defenders from them.
As the season progressed I became a substitute center on offense and a rushing lineman on defense, developing a more intimate relationship with the game. The man who recruited me, the starting center, showed me how to block at the position. On defense, I learned to watch the quarterback's feet and eyes to determine whether he would pass or run, to reach close to the waist to grab flags, to hustle back to the line of scrimmage after plays, to focus after the opponent made a big offensive play, to play through fatigue...the type of lessons a mere reporter can't fully understand.
My defense against the team sponsored by Spin provided some comic relief. Its center was a Paul Bunyan-esque figure who wore a bright green jersey. He extended his arms, resembling a scarecrow, to keep me from rushing the quarterback. One of my teammates yelled "Keep hope alive!" as I wrestled with 'Bunyan.'
The games took a physical toll. Usually, my arms and legs stayed sore until the following Tuesday. Slight pain in my left knee forced me to skip a game. On the other hand, flag football helped shrink my stomach. By the sixth game, I could wrap a belt around three shirts with room to spare.
My teammates were hard-nosed competitors. The youngest, a whippet-thin 24-year-old, had the speed and shiftiness to turn short passes into long gains. The starting quarterback was a paunchy, white-haired 58-year-old who could launch perfect spirals. Other stalwarts included a wiry cornerback and a defensive lineman with a knack for grabbing flags. One of our best receivers was a swimmer who could outrun most of his opponents on long pass plays. The man who recruited me knocked back opponents while starting at center and served as team captain.
It was a crew that routed most opponents. The passing attack generated at least 40 points in five of the eight regular season games. The defense stifled opponents until the games were well in hand. Our rushers harassed opposing quarterbacks into throwing errant passes or chased them down when they ran. The team also had a knack for grabbing interceptions and batting down passes.
Our only loss before the playoffs, to Big Chicks, occurred when the starting quarterback, a top receiver, and the wiry defensive back couldn't make the game. Big Chicks had the best looking attire in the division — blue tops decorated with gold letters. It was a skilled outfit that had played together for several years and lost in the previous championship game. It boosted a strong passing attack, led by a quarterback who resembled Father Mulcahy from television's M*A*S*H, and separate lineups for offense and defense. Because the Bears only had eight players available, everyone played both which tired us out fairly quickly. Late in the game, I fell from exhaustion while trying to catch a pass. An opponent leaped to avoid trampling me. After the game, we comforted ourselves with the idea that the Bears would win a rematch with more depth.
Injuries and absences depleted our ranks: The quarterback sat out the last two games of the regular season after injuring a leg, his replacement was a receiver slowed by a strained hamstring, our best receiver injured a foot, a reserve who'd intercepted a pass against Big Chicks pulled a calf muscle, the starting center broke a leg... Yet, we finished second in the division.
The semifinals and title game took place on a cloudy, chilly day in mid-November. To combat the weather, I complemented the gray T-shirt with a long-sleeve biker shirt, a turtleneck, sweat pants, long johns, and a baseball cap. In the semis, we faced Spin for the third time. The opposing quarterback was a short speedster with an average arm; his passing didn't heat up until late in the game. The 24-year-old helped prevent him from breaking many long runs. While I helped the substitute center block rushers, our quarterback completed passes at will. The points piled up. Late in the game, the Bears even ran the "pootie scoot" on an extra-point pass play. One of our guys stood near the sideline, conning Spin into thinking he wasn't in the game. The rest of the team lined up. At the snap, he broke for the endzone. The quarterback found him for an easy two points. One of Spin's players yelled, "We didn't see him line up!" We won 47-25.
Earlier that day, Big Chicks had beaten Atmosphere and advanced to the championship game. Fine with me. I was spoiling for revenge.
We had fewer players than Big Chicks. The man who subbed at center left after the first game to pick up friends who had flown into town. I would replace him and play defense. The teammate who had told me to drop some pounds sat out with a bad calf muscle. We'd only have eight players against the fifteen playing for Big Chicks. Still, the substitute quarterback and the wiry defensive back would play in the final game. We had a chance.
Big Chicks began the game on offense. On the first snap, I rushed toward the quarterback from his left. Unlike Spin's passer, he remained stationary. An opponent blocked me. I shoved him aside, and he fell. The quarterback threw an incomplete pass.
"Sorry," I said while helping the blocker to his feet.
Then I ran to a teammate. "Oh yeah," I said. "We can get this quarterback." For the next several plays, I didn't grab his flag, but the defense held.
We didn't reach the endzone on our first possession either. Then Big Chicks made an adjustment on its second possession. The blocker I'd shoved earlier started running pass routes toward the sideline, forcing me to guard him. That allowed the quarterback to run or pass to receivers who ran to the spot I vacated. Big Chicks consistently moved the ball for the rest of the game.
After a teammate told me to wait before rushing the quarterback, I paused after snaps. Once, the quarterback took a few steps toward me. I stood still and tried to guess his next move. He cut right. That froze me for a split second. Then I reached for his flag. My feet gave way on the moist grass, and he scampered past me. He gained about seven yards and a first down during what turned out to be a scoring drive.
I only managed one good play against him. Late in the half, the quarterback tried to throw over my head. I jumped and stretched my left arm. The ball scraped the nail on my middle finger, just enough to deflect the pass.
My play on offense was worse. The Bears didn't score while I played center. Their defenders blanketed our receivers. That forced me to hold off rushers longer than usual. I gave way several times. Once a rusher got past me and charged our quarterback, who scrambled before making a bad pass.
"We need some blocking," a teammate said after running back to the line of scrimmage.
"You're right," I said. "That was my fault."
The wiry defensive back saved a touchdown by tipping a ball in the endzone while his back was turned toward the quarterback. Big Chicks still scored two touchdowns for a 12-0 halftime lead. We were in dire straits.
During the break, the quarterback switched back to receiver. The 58-year-old gingerly walked on the field and tossed warm-up passes. He would play the second half. I thought of Johnny Unitas coming off the bench in a vain attempt to rally the Baltimore Colts against the New York Jets in 1969's Super Bowl III. Despite the leg problem, our quarterback gave us a lift. Though Big Chicks scored another touchdown early in the period, his two touchdown passes closed the gap to 19-12. A factor in our comeback? The man who blocked well after replacing me at center.
Big Chicks got the ball, and I joined the Bears' defense. I was fired up, knowing that a defensive stop would give us a chance to win. I rushed the opposing quarterback along with two teammates. But he stayed calm and still moved his team into our half of the field. On third down, he took a snap and rolled right toward a sideline. I got past a blocker and charged. Just as I reached out with my right hand, he threw the ball. I grabbed a flag a split second later, then tumbled on the ground.
Of course, he had completed the pass. It was a ten-yard gain. Two plays later, he tossed another touchdown pass that effectively put the game out of reach. The two teams traded late touchdowns, but we lost 32-19.
Both squads lined up and shook hands, then the teams formed two separate huddles. "Great season, Quad Bears!" Big Chicks' players shouted. "Congratulations, champs!" we replied. Then we chanted: "Bears, Bears, Bears, oh my!"
Our team lingered on the sideline. We hugged each other and chatted. One teammate pointed out we had done quite well for a new squad. The 58-year-old, however, remained defiant to the end. While casting a sideways glance at the winning team, he said: "We could beat those guys."