Only Roger Staubach has gotten the better of Bob Butara. And he was lucky.
The legendary Dallas Cowboy quarterback tangled with Butara, the best flag football quarterback in the country, at the NFL's flag football exhibition last year in Orlando. Butara and his team had qualified for the showdown against Staubach and his cohorts by winning a national tournament.
To speed things along, the organizers limited teams to four players, banned quarterback running plays, prohibited contact and used a field one-fifth the normal size. Staubach and his squad, which was made up of active NFL players, barely won, 27-18.
"That wasn't flag football," says Mike Cihon, Butara's coach. "It was to this game what two-man beach volleyball is to volleyball. We'd lake them in a real game."
Cihon might be right. After all, the 6'2", 210-pound Butara, 40, has a winning record against every touch and flag football team he has faced in his 20-year career. He has completed 74% of 22,857 pass attempts, generating 2,688 touchdowns. His 793 wins (against 101 losses) include one world flag football title, 11 U.S. championships and several dozen city and state crowns. On Thanksgiving weekend in Buffalo, Butara hopes to win his sport's Super Bowl, the super-division title at the U.S. Flag and Touch Football League (USFTL) tournament.
An estimated 300,000 people play touch and flag in leagues run by colleges, park districts and amateur groups across the U.S. Teams are made up of seven to nine players, who are awarded tackles for tapping ballcarriers with two hands or yanking cloth "flags" from the ballcarriers' belts. In the super (or top) division, the best squads boast former college standouts and NFL castoffs.
Despite Butara's streak of successes, his career started with failure. In 1970 he and Cihon were cut from the freshman team at St. Joseph's High in Cleveland. After suffering the same fate with the junior varsity team the following year, they joined some pals from their east side neighborhood to form a squad they called the Gibbs Boys—after the nickname of the Hannah Gibbons Elementary School, on whose asphalt playground they practiced weekly.
In the beginning the Gibbs Boys—who now go by Gibbs alone—played tackle football and challenged clubs from other neighborhoods. But after beating the city's best touch football team in a scrimmage in 1976, they switched to touch. They were winners from the outset, but in their quest to be better they soon started luring other teams' stars. The first was 290-pound former Ohio State lineman Bob Coan, one of five current Gibbs starters who have played college ball or gotten a look in the pros.
After six successful years around Cleveland, Gibbs entered its first national tournament, in St. Louis in 1982. When the team took third place, the team leaders huddled. "We made a pact to be the best," says Butara. "We started really recruiting players."
Four years later their dedication netted them a national title. It also gave rise to a multiple-look offense, film sessions, scouting reports, complete offensive, defensive and special teams units, and player tryouts. "They have the best system," says Mike (Lefty) Flynn, a player-coach for Mad Anthony's, a team sponsored by a bar in Lakewood, Ohio. "If you're a good flag football player, you want to play for Gibbs."