This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
Recently, a local touch football game produced the following: a sprained knee, a twisted ankle, and a busted finger. Nothing unusual about that perhaps, except that the combined ages of the three guys sporting those injuries was 173.
For years, a ragtag, sometimes changing cast of characters has assembled at a Princeton park nearly every Sunday morning from early September to late May to play the young man’s game of touch football.
The youngest among us is 28; the oldest, 72. (We tend to skew in the direction of Medicare recipients.) We range from former college athletes to weekend warriors to wannabes to guys who just enjoy the simple rewards of fresh air, competition, and camaraderie.
We all think we’re pretty good. What else are we supposed to think?
That 44-year age range is impressive. One might think 28-year-olds wouldn’t want to play football, or do anything, with 72-year-olds. And that would be correct. But somehow, it works, and has been for more than 20 years.
What began in the mid-1990s as an annual “Turkey Bowl” Thanksgiving Day game at the Princeton Battlefield, attended by several dozen guys, some of them bringing spouses and kids, most bringing food and fermented spirits, morphed into a much more enjoyable weekly event at Marquand Park attended by a dedicated Band of Brothers, eight, nine, twelve guys (it varies) who play intensely, joyfully, and often surprisingly skillfully for guys many of whom are well past their “sell-by” dates.
We moved from the Battlefield to Marquand 12 or so years ago, partly because the Battlefield wasn’t ideal — it was a bit on a slant — and partly because the local police hinted they might not take well to our well-concealed modest postgame beer drinking at a historic site.
The game became a weekly event, I say with pride, at my suggestion, a holdover from my youth spent largely in Princeton, when I would grasp every opportunity to play touch football until darkness made it impossible to see the ball. Once or twice a year was not nearly enough. I always sought out touch football games when I lived in Colorado and California, and was delighted when I moved back here that a Princeton neighbor told me about the Turkey Bowl.
We play in 95-degree summer heat and 15-degree winter snow and cold. We play in downpours, rain streaming down our cheeks and noses. We play on frozen ice that crunches under our cleats and provides a new definition to the word “running.” We play with bent fingers, gimpy knees and pulled hamstrings, in sickness and in health, and for some of us — myself included — with an apparent desire to play until death us do part.
For 2.5 hours, we call jerry-rigged plays that often include needlessly complex pass patterns that we may or may not follow, employ time-tested schoolyard counting protocols (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi” etc.), make the occasional spectacular catch, the occasional mystifying drop. We call simple defenses that still manage to confuse me (I understand “man” and “zone” defenses but what’s “manzoni”?)
We argue a little, congratulate a lot, talk sports, families, share snippets of our lives (guys tend to share in snippets) and go our separate ways until the following Sunday.
My grown children and my girlfriend gently suggest nearly every week that it might be a good idea for a guy in his 60s with two artificial hips and long delayed but urgently recommended rotator cuff surgery to consider not playing a game better suited to people 40 years younger.
I know that, I tell them, insisting I am not an idiot (despite evidence to the contrary). I just love to play.
We all love to play. Twenty years is a long time. Other than breathing and being a parent, there’s nothing I can think of that I have done for 20 years. Not a job. Not a romantic relationship.
I’ve played with horrid shoulder pain, respiratory infections, a finger that hangs like a limp swan’s neck. It is nearly impossible for me to imagine a physical malady that would keep me from playing. My colleagues have endured similarly, and still play every week.
There is obviously something about this that keeps us going through pain, family challenges, professional demands, bad weather, and the simple but inevitable creeping cruelty of age. Probably we keep at it because of the family challenges and professional demands.
It’s a Sunday touch football game, a ritual of no great consequence to anyone but ourselves. But there is something faintly noble about it, about guys perhaps better suited to leisurely hikes and cocktails on the beach than wind sprints down a field and leaping for interceptions.
Since we began, in our 30s and 40s, some of us have gotten divorced, we’ve all seen our children grow, struggle, prosper, find their own ways, have their own children. Careers have changed or ended. Small fortunes have been made or lost. Stomachs have edged outward as reliably as hairlines have crept backward.
Many of those who started playing in the 1990s have stopped. Others — many others — have joined, including younger participants, good guys, better athletes, with new life stories to create, a comforting continuation of this grand if small tradition.
There have been on field stories as well. One guy brought his son to play, smacking him in the head when he would drop a pass, cursing at him. His “parenting style” prompted a discussion — when he had left — about what to do. Cowardly, we let it be and he chose not to show up again. Problem solved.
Another time a young woman came running toward us from the edge of the park, crying, saying she had been slapped for no apparent reason by another woman she claimed she had never met. We called the police, who told us the slapper was well known to them. They took her away. Don’t know what ultimately happened. We believe we handled that one well.
Most of the on-field dramas have been medical. Mario broke an ankle when someone fell on him. David ruptured a knee coming down for a pass and had to be taken to the hospital. A few teeth have been lost. Many muscles have been pulled. Now and then, feelings have been hurt, though the arguments have been very few and very tame. There’s the occasional complaint about whether someone was out of bounds when he caught the ball, but we basically never call “penalties” — what would be the point? To slow down a game that’s already pretty slow?
For the most part, it is 2.5 hours a week far from the madding crowd, from bosses who pressure us, business partners who end run us, children who frustrate us and would gladly tell you that we frustrate them.
This is Princeton, so while the cast members are interesting and somewhat diverse, this isn’t exactly a microcosm of modern society. Still, it’s a lively group:
Bobby Hackett, he with the Harvard and Yale degrees, named for his father’s best friend, Robert F. Kennedy, runs a national educational foundation, and in his mid 50s, still has moves that baffle defenders on a regular basis.
There’s Doc Mark Deitch, the chiropractor, an amiable guy and arguably the most valuable man on the field given his skill at working us through our frequent minor injuries.
Chuck Moni, one of the originals, the star college athlete decades ago, who has lost a step or two, but whose lost step still leaves him faster than most of us.
Nelson Obus, the Wall Street whiz and as best we can tell, sole Trump supporter (or sole one who admits it.)
Greg “Old School” Payne, so nicknamed because they say he plays like in the style of some past pro football players — and because, well, he is old.
The affable Ed Fleming, mid 50s, athletic, and always good for a couple of spectacular plays every Sunday.
We have Keith Rackley and Chris Knigge, brothers-in-law who joined our troupe a few years back when we “merged” with an ongoing game of guys who played in Hillsborough (Ed, Greg, and others are also Hillsborough Boys).
Tom Zucosky, who had been a regular, moved from Princeton to New York City a few years ago but is dedicated enough that he still manages to get himself to the occasional game, taking his bike on the train then riding to the field.
Andy Lampert, the left-handed quarterback in his early 60s, accurate, talented, whose only athletic flaw is his failure to throw to me enough (he claims to be working on that.)
Jeff Laux, at 28, the current holder of the title of youngest guy on our field.
Tony DiMeglio, a real estate broker, another of the longtime participants, and perennial organizer of the Thanksgiving game.
Ben Brener, Tony’s son-in-law, who has moved out of the area twice, but we hold his place for him, knowing he will want to join the crowd again when he returns.
We have two Erics (Vogt and Pianka) and three Marks (actually, one is a Marc) — White, Rutsky, and the aforementioned Dr. Deitch.
Then there’s me, old, slow, but reliable hands (Hackett calls me Raymond Berry, a reference lost on the younger guys. Here’s what Wikipedia says about him: “Berry was drafted in the 20th round of the 1954 NFL Draft by the Colts and was considered a long shot to even make the team. Diminutive and unassuming, his subsequent rise to the Pro Football Hall of Fame has been touted as one of American football’s Cinderella stories. He made up for his lack of athleticism through rigorous practice and attention to detail.”
The door is always revolving, but never closing. Some have gone and not returned, but their places have been taken by Rik Johnson (he still hasn’t accepted our offer to buy him a C for his name), a local farmer and radio host; Graham Byra, young, fast, self-effacing; Eric Vogt, tattooed, genuinely talented (and modest about it), one of the very few who we cannot pretend belongs in the same talent pool as the rest of us; Jeremy Petre, another of the young guys, recently sidelined for awhile but always welcome back.
We still play the Thanksgiving Day game, the progenitor of all this, but it is the Sunday games that grant us (me?) serenity. I look forward to checking the weather forecast days before, to getting my cleats from the back of the car Sunday morning, to warming up. And to playing.
I admit to running my best and worst plays over in my head after the game, to getting ticked off when I don’t get enough passes thrown my way. But mostly I’m just glad I can still get out there week after week.
For the most part, the people I call good friends are people I knew when I was in my 20s and 30s. It’s a rare event for me to make a close friend after 50.
The guys I play football with on Sundays are all people I like — even the perennially annoying ones (you know who you are) — and some I regard as friends.
The off-field get-togethers are rare (maybe I’m just not invited?) and for me at least I think I keep the social gatherings at arm’s length lest the reality of our off-field lives intrude on the weekly fantasy.
But what we do is special. It is unusual. Yes, there are old guy playing touch football on weekends all over the place, I am sure. I know a bunch in New York City, a bit younger, a bit more intense, so I’m not stupid enough to think we have cornered the market on prolonged adolescence.
We are, these mornings, not grey haired (if we’re lucky) or balding former athletes who should be scouting assisted living prospects rather than trying to sprint down a makeshift field with traffic cones and towels as yard and end zone markers.
For that brief time on Sunday, we are athletes who vividly remember our glory days, even if we can’t recall yesterday’s breakfast.
It gives me hope that when I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, a new band of brothers — and perhaps sisters — will be setting up cones, choosing teams, and risking pointless injury in exchange for a couple of hours of healthy escapism.
No, I don’t intend to be buried at Marquand. I’m guessing town regulations wouldn’t permit it anyway.
I’ve certainly done more important, rewarding, things in my life. Lord, I truly hope so. To have old men’s touch football be among my top accomplishments would be a sad reckoning. I tried to raise kids well. Tried to be a good grandfather. Stayed out of serious trouble. No felonies. Loved, been loved, all that stuff one is supposed to pack into a life.
Touch football? Well, it isn’t really that important to me, is it? I get to the field early every week, think about the game beginning around Thursday, so maybe it is.
I’m glad I’ve done it and am still doing it. I’m glad I found a new bunch of friends later in life. I’m glad I can persuade myself that running square outs and post patterns somehow holds meaning for me.
It’s a nice mix of reality and self-delusion. It’s just touch football. Twenty years of touch football. That’s a good run. And we’re not done yet.
Editor’s note: Joe Seldner is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, producer, and former creative executive to Tom Hanks who recently started a nonprofit to help people over 50. He describes himself as “an underrated touch football player.”