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.
"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.