Bearing the colors of a San Francisco bar, a Denver cab company and a Royal Oak, Mich. machine shop among others, more than 600 athletes descended on St. Louis last week for what properly could be called the most touching competition in sport. Any moist eyes, however, were a result of the raw, freezing weather, and sentiment generally was less important than beer. The occasion was the sixth annual National Touch Football League championship tournament.
That's right, touch football—the game made famous by the Kennedys and played on every greensward and sand-lot from Bangor to Beverly Hills. Touch football is often a friendly, coeducational, choose-up-sides affair in which everyone goes out for a pass but the passer, the forward pass constituting 99 percent of a team's offense. When the game is over, a touch football team usually retires to the nearest tavern or keg for a beer, which is the aqua vita of the game. This helps explain why every touch football game invariably includes no less than six people who are overweight, out of shape, slow and apparently happy about it.
To those who had somehow missed the first five NTFL tournaments, it therefore was a surprise to observe the sophistication the sport can reach when it is played by athletes more dedicated to winning than running a deep fly pattern into the nearest friendly neighborhood bar.
Beer and the forward pass, to be sure, were suitably revered in the hearts of the NTFL players, but there was no denying the athletic skill exhibited on the city park fields of suburban Fenton, where the four-day tournament was contested, nor the intensity that preceded it. Indeed, but for the absence of pads, helmets, tickets, television, Pete Rozelle and all spectators except those related by marriage or romance to one of the players, it might have been the Super Bowl.
December 6, 1976
"We're here to have a good time," said Tony Samardich, 29, coach of the defending champion Royal Oak club, which brought a 32-2 season record into the competition, "but first of all, we're here to win. We'll party like anyone else, but when we go out on the field it's serious business." An imported-car salesman in the Detroit area, Samardich is familiar with serious business.
"This isn't a joke to anybody," said Steve Rosenthal, a 34-year-old shoe company executive who coaches and plays for Bogart's Bar, one of St. Louis' two top entries. "You don't drive 2,000 miles to get here unless you want to win." Rosenthal's sentiments were somewhat ironic. In a game earlier this year he stopped a full-force block with his face after snapping the ball and remonstrated with the offending defensive player by saying, "Geezuz, buddy, I gotta go to work tomorrow."
For real determination, however, few were in the class of Bob Steel, who will qualify as touch football's answer to George Allen as soon as his personality swings from likable to miserable. The 33-year-old coach of Friday's Steelers, Bogart's St. Louis rival both on the football field and in the booze biz, Steel has financed his club by holding raffles and dances and kept it happy with organized beer busts, one of which he threw the night after the Steelers won an early tournament game.
Steel also has recruited with a passion, acquiring his Steelers off other rosters (loyalty is a sometime thing in touch football, just as it is in the NFL), out of soft-ball leagues, from the NFL waiver wire and, in one memorable instance, from the officiating crew at a high school basketball game. That's where he found Gene Sandrowski, a 250-pounder who wears No. 66 in honor of the Cards' Conrad Dobler, who has won votes as the NFL's dirtiest player. "When I saw how easily Sandrowski was throwing players out of that game," Steel says, "I figured he'd make a good blocking back."
A word about touch football rules. Touches are made with two hands. There are seven players to a team, each of whom is an eligible pass receiver. The game consists of two 24-minute halves, with the last two minutes of each called "pro time" because the clock stops on every first down or incomplete pass. During the rest of the game the clock keeps running except for penalties or timeouts. Games usually last about 75 minutes. The 100-yard field is segmented by stripes every 10 yards, and the offensive team has four downs to make a first down by reaching the next stripe, no matter where it started.
With seven-player teams running six-player pass patterns the field seems to be wider and longer than it is. Touch football also features laterals—sometimes four on a single play—reminiscent of rugby. It makes for a fast, wide-open game and large numbers on the scoreboard. Just how wide open the game can get became apparent earlier this year in St. Louis when one enterprising running back racked up a big gain after he broke a one-handed touch thanks to a pair of tearaway shorts.
Neither gimmicks nor big reputations assure stardom in touch football, however. "A lot of people who have played pro football think they can come right in here and be superstars," Rosenthal says, "but it isn't necessarily so. No matter how big you are or how strong, you've got to have good hands and quickness to play this game."
In that regard, one of Rosenthal's finest receivers is Tim Van Galder, a KMOX sports announcer who may be remembered as a former Cardinal quarterback.
"One of the reasons I play is to keep active," Van Galder says. "You get fat if you don't do anything. Another thing, all my life I wanted to be a receiver but I couldn't because I didn't have any kind of exceptional speed. Now I'm playing that position and that's why I particularly enjoy the game."
Obviously, an NTFL team is a haven for the frustrated athlete who because of a lack of size or strength saw his football career end after high school, college or the early visit of the NFL Turk. To a man, however, touch footballers rave about their sport because of its camaraderie, and none more so than 32-year-old Ike Dunne of San Francisco's Odyssey Bar, the team which traveled farthest to get to the tournament. "I love this game," Dunne says. "Some of us on our team have been playing it together since we were eight years old."
As for the tournament, which showcased 32 teams representing 12 states and Hamilton, Ontario, a first-round loss relegated a club to the consolation bracket. Teams subsequently losing in the championship bracket were ousted immediately, which added to the prevailing miasma of heavy earnestness.
"Many of us have played college ball or gone quite a way in organized athletics," Van Galder said, "but for some of these other guys, this may be the biggest thing of the year. They act like they're playing for the Super Bowl."
For St. Louis, at least, the most appealing tournament finale would have matched Bogart's against the Steelers in a classic intracity showdown between contrasting life-styles. The Steelers are self-professed blue-collar types, proud of their physical intimidation. Bogart's, a team composed of more bourgeois types, runs a disciplined offense with precise pass patterns.
"We don't make as much dough in our place as those Bogart guys," said 255-pound Mike McCarthy, a defensive lineman who will not soon be mistaken for Rex Harrison. "Their bar is nice, I gotta admit, but mostly it's teeny-bopper stuff. Our place is full of all kinds of people."
Sadly for the cause of local color, Bogart's was knocked out of the tournament by Four Seasons, a team representing a Columbus, Ohio nursery. A more elderly bunch than most of the competition, Four Seasons rode the passing arm of 32-year-old Chuck Freiburger, a practicing attorney, to a 14-7 overtime win.
"The main reason I play this game," Freiburger said, "is that I've always played team sports and I enjoy the beer drinking afterwards."
Four Seasons advanced to Sunday's championship game with a 10-7 victory over Royal Oak when Don Cook kicked the game-winning field goal in the last three seconds. Meanwhile, Friday's recovered from Steel's party to knock off Hamilton 14-0 on Saturday morning and Athlete's World, another Columbus entry, in a 12-6 nighttime triumph made almost insufferable by a wind-chill factor of 10° below zero.
It was plenty cold for Sunday afternoon's championship game, too, but the weather had no noticeable effect on the increasingly tough defense played by Four Seasons, which made the day even more miserable for Steeler Quarterback Larry Brune and his cast of receivers. Headed by Tim Pond, a 31-year-old public relations man who starred in the Four Seasons secondary and also caught the game's first touchdown pass, the Ohioans blanked Friday's 13-0 for their first NTFL championship in five years of trying. The key to Columbus' success was a defensive unit that allowed but 14 points in five games.
After the loss, two Steelers, oblivious to the cold, stood discussing at length what needed to be done to win next year. Under other circumstances it might have seemed crazy. In this case it was merely touching.