Tackle-free is a big hit

At Play

Flag football offers all the thrills -- and demands all the skills -- of the conventional game

May 09, 2007|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,Special to The Sun

A lineman at Mount Hebron High School in Howard County in the mid-1990s, Steve Shifflett never played football again until he was asked to come out for a flag football team three years ago.

Now Shifflett, 28, and football are together again. The Glen Burnie resident plays flag football almost year-round, including in the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks spring leagues.

Among the 45 teams, Shifflett plays center on Duke's 1 (eight-man) and on the offensive line on Duke's 2 (four-man) teams.

Flag football's rules let him do more than just block people. Shifflett also gets to catch passes and run with the ball, something offensive linemen almost never get to do in tackle football, unless the ball gets deflected to them or it's a trick play.

"It's just fun," Shifflett said. "I try to stay a little healthy by doing it, and I [like] it."

In flag football, players wear a belt that has three flags on it. A play ends when a defender pulls a flag off a player who has the ball. Tackling isn't allowed, and players don't wear padding.

"Flag has a quicker pace and it's a lot harder to get the flag," he said. "It's harder sometimes to get the flag than it is to get the tackle."

But many flag football teams treat their game like college and pro tackle football players treat theirs. Duke's four- and eight-man teams have playbooks with about 20 plays and a system of audibles that lets the quarterback change the play at the line of scrimmage by yelling out a certain color or code.

Joe Gustafson, quarterback of the four-man team, wears a wristband listing all of his team's plays, much like National Football League players at the same position.

"I love it," said Gustafson, 40, of Stony Beach. "The only thing holding me up is my body. I've told my wife that I'll play as long as my body lets me."

Gustafson has played several versions of the sport for about 15 years now, and played semipro football in Anne Arundel County with the Admirals for about five years until last year.

He never played in high school, instead serving as a soccer goalie. But Gustafson began playing sandlot football with friends and neighbors after high school and eventually took up the sport.

In fact, he's stayed with a few friends throughout much of his flag football career. Earl Curran, 39, Brian Harryman, 37, and Gustafson all grew up together in the Point Pleasant area. Bruce Coe, 22, joined the team about seven years ago.

"It just wouldn't be the same without all of us out there together," Gustafson said. "Even though we may lose a step, it's just not the same without all of us there."

The success they've been having also probably helps. Duke's 1 has won all four of its games, not allowing a point against them all season, The four-man team has also fared nicely, posting a 6-2 record through eight games. The season runs from mid-April to early June, followed by a tournament.

Harryman agreed with Gustafson that while victories are fun, the friendship is better.

"We've known each other for so long that I know how they're going to react to certain situations," he said. "I would rather have a team that doesn't do so well rather than a team of superstars that's focused on themselves."

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