It's a Simple Game

Ah, the final indignity....

The sophomores lined up for the first time for the last time in Physical Education. The fall semester was beginning and they all wore the same standard outfit of dark blue shorts, white t-shirts and jockstraps, a band of similar but not identical brothers. Thrown together due to pure chance, this class represented the final chapter of required mass education in which no discretion was necessary. Once this class concluded, no further mass requirements existed for all to complete, as it was the last bastion of forced humiliation.

The class consisted of a fairly typical cross-section of tenth grade males: athletes, scholars, miscellaneous sorts and pursuers of many paths of least resistance. Approximately one fourth were athletes who looked upon required class as a bad amateur hour while the scholars saw the class as one final indignity. Collectively the scholars would not be able to complete a single pull-up but their athletic prowess was no concern due to their pre-determined role, as established the first week of seventh grade, as a passive participant desperately pre-occupied with the exclusive goal of not being injured.

The rest of the class consisted of young men across the social spectrum; either more inclined to athletics but did not possess the talent to contribute significantly to the school’s sports team or less athletic but slightly more scholarly. The healthy remainder in the middle possessed neither athletic skill nor academic interest but leaning towards the less reputable, seedier social bottom-feeders with more of a concern about ingesting drugs and alcohol, odd attractions to Wishbone Ash, low-level conversation and handmade yet rustic ballpoint pen tattoos. This class dynamic helped to speed things along in general physical education practices. The athletes were already known to the gym teachers so they easily took on leadership roles within the team sports and this dance started with ego-sapping process of team selection.

Directed to quickly pick players by clock-watching gym teachers, the athletes dealt yet another blow to low self-esteem by choosing progressively less desirable team members until the less fortunate, infirmed and mentally defectives were reluctantly chosen the final rounds. The cruel addition to drama grew in proportion as each successive round left less and less desirables on the board until the remaining potential selections took on the appeal of leper spit which needed to be chosen. Another ingredient in the recipe for social disaster was the fact that the sports in tenth grade physical education were not of the teaching type: they were the type designed to keep the young men busy with the minimal amount of teacher involvement. The actual instruction was non-existent, as teaching the finer points of tumbling and volleyball were abandoned after seventh grade. The majority of time was actually participating in the series of chosen sporting events while the gym teachers strolled around in their sweat suits, replete with whistles, chatting up their female counterparts and wondering what was for lunch. The sports potential of the entire class had been well-known for several years so the urge to look for the athletic diamond in the rough was replaced early in the first year of high school gym with the desire to keep both the athletes and the litigation-happy injury-free.

The class would fall out to the nearby athletic field and the teams would begin strapping on their sport-specific equipment and do what they had to do for about forty minutes. At the end of that time, the gym teachers would force them inside and encourage some attempt at basic hygiene before sending them off to their next class. The gym teachers just needed to get through the day, with no paperwork or scrutiny. They wanted to see the young men play the sport and get the hell out by the bell. The fall classes had some leeway in picking their activities and flag football was considered the single easiest venture and the entire concept of being outside on a nice day was just icing on the physical education cake.

Flag football was a good choice for several reasons: one, the athletes could entertain themselves while leaving the rest of their teammates in inconsequential roles such as blocking back or offensive line. The athletes would commandeer the skill and glamour positions such as quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back and spend their physical education hour showing up the less fortunate for their final time. The second reason flag football was a good choice is that no one got hurt. The weak and unstretched did not run fast enough or hard enough to pull muscles and since flags were used, collisions in the field were rare. Finally, flag football didn’t need supervision or passive refereeing. The gym teachers knew the teams could follow the generally acceptable flag football principles and manage their game and teams with no direct involvement from the educators. Flag football was a self-contained time consumer with no involvement, equipment or hassles; it was perfect to kill an hour, day after day, for an entire semester.

Furthermore, the rules were simple and based on freewheeling offensive strategies. Anyone regulated to a support role might as well wear a sign, with no apologies to Nate Hawthorne, with a large L emblazoned across the front for “Loser.” Flag football was geared for long passes and bold aerial attacks. Running the ball was a cowardly and literally pedestrian way of playing the game and as a result, scores were astronomical and participants become as winded as they desired. A win/win world existed by taking a standard game, learned by all as children and taking away a majority of the downside injuries and cost of the equipment.

The strength of the game is also the key weakness; finite fun with no possibility of future applications. Being a great flag football player is like being the President of Belgium or junior Senator from Delaware: you are in the club but let’s just say, the club is not Augusta. One is unceremoniously issued a soiled cloth belt, one size fitting all, with two tear away vinyl flags which are positioned on each hip. Your two color flags are in direct ocular opposite of the opponent’s flags, such as red versus yellow or orange versus blue, and the game is football but without the tackling. The stops the runner or receiver by tearing off a single flag and the runner or receiver not only wants to avoid secondary contact, they also avoid the “tackler” by a variety of methods including spinning when approaching a defensive player. To be de-flagged is anti-climatic due to the overall silence of the act. No one hears equipment or helmets colliding but rather a subtle Velcro rip when the hand is quicker than the feet.

While simple and straight-forwad, flag football is not immune to cheating either: some miscreants have lowered themselves to secure their flags by looping them around the belt, thus making the simple act of removing a flag a physical impossibility. Not detected without scrutiny, many a sure tackle had been stymied when the defensive player grabs the flag but does not have the strength to tear it off its new foundation. Occasionally, once tipped off to the strategy, a more forceful grab of a secured flag will result in the runner or receiver being pulled down to the ground with extreme prejudice. As a rule, there are not many rules in flag football so when appropriate; violators were punished to the fullest extent of the playground law. Dualflagito Ergo Sum.

However cheating at flag football was usually reserved for the troubled as it is not really considered an activity of merit, rather a preoccupation of the masses. It would be a similar act to cheating at solitaire or gardening because preoccupations are there to fill time, as ascendancy is not, something delivered by the activity. If, for some reason, one had some success during a gym class, the potential to finding adoring fans and/or groupies was low. The games never really counted and if they did count, it was within the narrow confines of your required Physical Education class. It would like being a round of applause for renewing your license on time.

The offensive options for a flag football team are also limited as the rubric mainly concentrated on long, down the field, forward passes with emphasis on a quick score. When one combines the limited level of enthusiasm with a long, drawn out offensive series of plays, failure will usually introduce itself due to the piling up of options of approximations. The few engaged players will make an attempt at sprinting down the field in hopes of hauling in a long bomb but that feeling dissipates pretty early in the game as the goal of winning something so inconsequential is overshadowed by annoying fatigue.

The absurdity is increased by the mixture of athletes and non-athletes supposedly competing on the same field: never again would the non-athletes suffer humiliation and correspondingly, the athletes would never have that feeling of superiority on the playing field, unless they played against their twelve-year retarded female cousin. The cruel mixture of skills are the remnants of the public school education right before each individual can arc of into their own world of competence. Just as if a standard football player would stumble his way through advanced calculus, a non-athlete lining up across from a letter winner provides the same comic relief born of the collision of competence and incompetence.

This being said, the degree of athletic ability is so great that flag football was created. Someone had to develop a game, resembling football, which would allow for some basic interaction without the fear of true collisions. Neutering the football game by replacing basic tackling with red and yellow flags would be the same if you played the game of baseball with a larger, more easy-to-hit ball. Oh, that’s right, they did that with softball.

As the sophomores lined up for the first game of the season, athletes were seen at the quarterback and the two receiver positions. On the other side of the ball, the two defensive backs were also football players with a reluctant third athlete manning the middle linebacker position. The linebacker was surrounded by both the unable and disinterested as well as having to endure mixing with, and apologies to Emma Lazarus, the huddled masses yearning hoping to avoid head injuries while the wretched refuse just wanted to be left alone as any sudden outburst of physical activity would likely bum their fragile high.

The quarterback of the first team motions with simple emphasis to his drafted players to huddle up. Given the collective knowledge of his team, he felt it was better to assume the worst regarding the collective awareness of football vernacular.

“Okay, Billy and Bruce split out wide and go long and everyone else block. On one.”

The first play was an unsuccessful long bomb to one of the two interchangeable athletes and after the play concluded, the group reassembled under the exact same huddling motion given earlier. The quarterback was not yet ready to assume understanding.

Okay, Billy and Bruce split out wide and go long and everyone else block. On two.”

He felt it important to keep the line honest until he realized until he barked out the signals for the second that it didn’t matter because of the agreed-upon rushing delay. The second play was the same type of pass to the second athlete with identical results.

"Okay, Billy and Bruce split out wide and go long and everyone else block. Maybe do a crossing pattern if you want, I will hit one of you. On one….in fact, just hike it when I tell you to hike it.”

Finally, the third long pass was complete for an eighty-yard touchdown. The team that was scored upon was unceremoniously directed to walk to the far end of the field to receive the kickoff and the non-athletes from both teams just moved without emotion to their new positions. Time was on their side and if they just kept moving and called no attention to themselves, they might get out of this nightmare with self-esteem and fingers entact.

The other team’s offensive package was remarkably similar to their opponents with the same series of passes occurring with the same result on the third try and keeping the whole concept of first downs off the collective understanding of the low-level players. Each time the play began, the rest of the team politely huddled together in some illusion of pursuit while the opposing (and competent) linebacker would run, after the determined delay count, screaming in on the quarterback and just miss deflagging him. The groups between him decided early to just get out of the way of the marauder because it wasn’t worth the damage or the anguish of real engagement.

“I hate the screaming,” said bespectacled Tim Jordahl. “I just move out of the way and hope I don’t get hit.”

“I don’t even know why I am wearing this belt,” said his opponent Nate DeRusha from across the imaginary line. “The chances of me touching the ball borders on the impossible….I mean the ‘highly improbable.’”

The game’s score headed upward and opposing defenses were spending more time walking to the other end of the field to receive the ball than involvement with actual plays. As the game went on, the evolution of the game was becoming apparent with discontinuation of early rituals. The first of these rituals to be abandoned was the huddle and the leader’s interest in involving his entire team, the second. The plays continued to be the same and finally the day’s charade was compassionately brought to an end by the whistle from the gym teacher sitting down on a picnic bench in the shade. It was almost time for lunch.

The athletes ran ahead to quickly shower and then push their way to the front of the lunch line in order to wolf their food down. The non-athletes all walked together, comparing their stories of fear and near-calamity as they prepared to engage in another embarrassing rite of passage, the communal shower. They would quickly dart in and out of the shower, away from the behemoths with their own rituals, and change clothes and get the hell out of the locker room and head for the friendly confines of the library or an isolated corner of the lunchroom.

“I am counting the days,” said Tim. “I am counting the days until I am out of gym class. I will never, ever, take another Physical Education class for as long as I live.”

“It could be worse,” said Nate. “It could be winter semester."

Nate was implying that at least, with the forced attendance in the fall, they would avoid the unholy trinity of the uncoordinated: wrestling, basketball and gymnastics. In addition, the winter months forced the teachers to come up with special hellish gauntlets to break up the monotony of the unholy trinity. This came in the fashion of the game of murder ball; it had many other politically more correct names but its simple rules showed its cruelness. The game was simple: two teams, separated by a line which roughly approximately halved the playing surface. Approximately four or five old volleyballs would be tossed randomly to the two groups. Some schools called it dodgeball due to some political correctness but the concept was lifted directly from The Lord of the Flies, kill or be killed.

The balls would be gathered up by several lucky throwers and if the thrown ball hits an opposing player, and is not caught, the player is deemed dead. Although it sounds elegant, the manner of which a player is hit tells the true tale. For example, if some large knuckle-dragging baseball pitcher is only several feet from an opposing player (caught in the front by some cruel trick of nature), he is well within his rules to throw the ball as hard and accurate as he wishes. Comparable to an assassin that prefers close range eliminations with a sawed-off elephant gun, the sight is something to behold as the ball literally wraps around the target’s body while sending him several feet in the air while scaring the literal love of Jesus out of him.

“You got that right,” signed Tim. “I had a bruise from murder ball on my ass that lasted over a month. It looked like I sat in grape juice. I hate murder ball, I hate gym class, I hate group showers and I hate mixing with the great, muscular unwashed."

“Soon it will be all over,” said Mikey Compton. He had been listening to the story from behind the two friends and had to jump in. “Pretty quickly you can immersed in the safety of advanced academic classes and never have to put another jock on for the rest of our support-free life."

"I am literally counting the days,” said Tim.

They walked back into the locker room and quickly showered and dressed. Since they were not athletes, they had to stuff all their unused gym clothes into a much smaller locker, roughly ten percent of the normal locker, which only further segregated them from their large and freakishly coordinated masters.

“At least I didn’t get snapped with a wet towel in the crotch today,” said Mikey as he furiously tied his shoes in order to get out of the locker room as soon as he could. He realized that he was an attractive target to the quickly bored but accurate athletes.

Tim nodded as he scanned the surrounding area and said, "I agree. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

heir collective speed was saving them today but this was only the first of many potential flashpoints. If, God forbid, any of them had scored or prevented a touchdown, the chances of retribution would be very real. They stuffed their dry clothes back into their assigned cubbie, hooked on their locks and quickly exited the killing zone. They bolted up the steps and separated at the top, agreeing to meet for lunch the next period. Tim waved goodbye to his friends and said, “One day over with many more to go.” However, as he walked to his next class, he had an idea.

The next day, Tim approached the gym teacher with a proposition.

“Mr. Fourin,” said Tim. “I have an idea.”

“What is it kid?” Fourin barely recognized the kid and thanks to his gym suit, he finally assumed correctly that the kid was in his class. He adjusted his whistle, squared towards Tim and listened with his head slightly tilted forward, like a hunting dog.

“You see, Mr. Fourin. I have an idea about flag football. Instead of having teams which are all mixed up across the class, why don’t you let people pick what teams they wish to be on?”

"If we do that, that will be unfair. Each team should have ....”

“Good players and bad players?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No offense Mr. Fourin. I know I am not that good and a lot of my friends are in the same situation."

Fourin tilted his head again, much like a dog which stares at a ceiling fan. "I know kid, you don't have much ability."

Tim continued, “Let the athletes play against each other, which they would much rather do anyway, and let us play against each other. Everyone would be happier and less mismatched.”

Fourin couldn’t find anything initially wrong with the proposal and said he would think about it. The extra competition for the athletes wouldn’t be technically against any high school rules, especially if they picked teams again and let the kids make their own decisions.

"Okay, kid. You talk to your folks and I will talk to mine.”

Tim smiled and skipped away. Within a minute, the more upright and enlightened kids were grateful for the opportunity to avoid serious injury and the athletes saw this as a chance to actually have fun with their own group of athletes. They didn't have anything against the non-athletes as they viewed them as small accessories which served no real purpose.

Fourin whistled the group together and said, “We have a request for picking teams again.”

Everyone nodded and started to applaud.

"There will be four captains: Whathisname, Eyebrows, Greg and Joe.”

Greg and Joe were co-captains of the sophomore football team and they pushed their way to the front and lined up with Tim and Nate. Fourin told Tim to start the draft and Tim picked one of his fellow orchestra friends. Nate followed quickly with Mikey Compton. Greg and Joe each picked fellow football players and the pick went back to Tim. The subsequent rounds went efficiently and in a few moments, the four squads were chosen. The unwritten rule was Tim and Nate’s team would play only each other and Greg and Joe would do the same. Some of the late round choices that Greg and Joe made were a little hurt by their late selections, especially seeing some of the bookish, weaker boys being picked ahead of them.

“Serves them right,” whispered Mikey.

The next several classes, things appeared to be going well; the athletes were having fun and the non-athletes were playing at their level with no fear of injury or intimidation. Each member of Tim and Nate’s team got a chance to play quarterback as well as rotating across all the skill positions while Greg and Joe’s teams were positioning their players in their usual assigned role from the football team. Walking back to the locker room, it was becoming commonplace to see the meek talking about their game in the same but slightly more polite manner, than the athletes. Fourin was pleased with his open mindedness and was thinking about documenting this event as part of a yet-to-be written thesis for his yet-to-be completed Master’s Degree.

As time went on, the athletes’ games were growing in intensity until Greg, the starting quarterback, suffered a season-ending hyperextension of the knee when he tried to hurdle over the first line of defense, completely ignoring the rules of the game. He came down hard on the play and was unceremoniously fell upon by the pursuers because the current deterioration of the “pull the flag” rule. When the athletic director (and sophomore football coach) came storming out to the field, the first thing that struck him was the camaraderie and enthusiasm of the bookworms. They were laughing and carrying equipment bags without complaint or drama. Some had dirt and grass stains on their usually pristine uniforms. He pushed through these kids and came upon his starting quarterback sitting on Fourin’s picnic table with his leg immobilized with the community ice pack.

What happened, Greg?” shouted the coach.

"I hurt my knee when Dougie tackled me.”


"I hurt my knee when Dougie tackled me.”

"Why did you let him to that? You were playing flag football, it’s a simple game and you aren't the ones that are supposed to get hurt.”

"It appears that it is not as simple as it seems" said Mikey as he walked past the gathering and headed for the showers. He was going to be late for lunch.
Now, if you are talking the last, pure sport for the masses, it has to be flag football. It is one of the last opportunities in which everyone you knew at the time, had to play under the fascist watch of gym teachers everywhere. The entire experience of Physical Education was traumatic enough with the jockstraps and the mass showers but if you add the element of potential limb damage and mix generously with a remote chance of competition, you got something with some pizzazz.

The groups of humans, thrown together through a cruel randomness, was the final indignity for most young men. The athletes participated in tackle football and saw the game as a pleasant diversion of passive cousin. The non-athletes, usually counting the days of one of their last required physical education class, just hoped no one would get hurt. Either way and thanks to required uniforms, we all looked the same for likely the last time in our collective lives.

In a world in which everyone wins, flag football remains a bastion of civility.

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