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Touch Football: The Secret to Cultivating Strong Male Friendships

It's something we've done for 20 years

Collage of multiple images of men outdoors playing touch football


Joseph Seldner and his friends have played touch football together for twenty years

I could always catch a football. I was rarely the best out there, but I was pretty good, and always the last one out there, the one who would want to play until it was so dark you couldn’t see the ball until it hit you in the teeth.

So it was not surprising that in the mid 1990s, when I was already in my mid-40s, and my young kids and I had just moved back from California to my hometown of Princeton, N.J., following a bloodcurdling three-year custody battle, that finding a touch football game became a priority.

And find one I did. The self-proclaimed once-a-year “Turkey Bowl” on Thanksgiving — a mixture of food, drink, pulled hamstrings and not very good football —  was fun but certainly not frequent enough for my taste.

So I cajoled and discussed and bludgeoned and occasionally whined and eventually convinced a group of like-minded middle-aged guys, ranging in athletic ability from former captain of the Harvard rugby team and former pitcher for the University of Louisville baseball team to several “why-on-earth-is-he-out-here?” types, to play every Sunday from Labor Day weekend to around Memorial Day.

Since about 1999, we have been doing just that.

We have lost some guys to injury, moving away or lack of interest. But we've picked up many more, including a woman or two and some very young folks, so that the age range — depending on the week – is now 22 to 72. And the geographic range from whence they travel is a few blocks away to 40 or so miles.

We play in snow and frozen rain and 90-degree heat. We pull muscles we barely remember we had until it’s too late. The second week of this recent 2018 season, the aforementioned Louisville alum — almost exactly my age (mid-60s) ran into me on a crossing pattern (I didn’t even see him) and fractured one of my ribs. Two weeks later, I was out playing again — in pain.

We have our different reasons for this foolishness. Pretending we are good athletes ranks high on the list. Keeping in some semblance of good shape is another. I used to think the younger guys liked to play because they enjoyed showing up the older guys, and maybe that’s a small part of it, but now I think they actually like the intergenerational thing. Getting out of the house, and letting those in the house enjoy a respite from us, perhaps is a motivation.

But I think most of all, we prize the bond, the kinship of relishing a simple kids’ game many of us believed we could only enjoy in our teens and 20s, something we lost when careers and families and bills began making different demands on us. We have rediscovered that bond — and now strive to keep it alive.

A (very) few of us see each other socially between games, but most of us seem content limiting contact to those three hours every Sunday. That seems to be enough.

We get there and stretch — or do what passes for stretching. We toss warm-up passes to each other. We set up cones to mark the field. We pick teams. (There are no set teams, few rules, and we never keep score or call penalties.)

During the very brief halftime, a randomly timed event, some will have a beer (one volunteer a week brings beer, but none of us is a big drinker), and then we quickly regroup on the field. We play another 45 minutes or so, and then for some reason, Ed, a mid-50-ish good athlete, always says, “OK, one more possession each.” And I always say, “Why does Ed get to decide when the game ends?” — which everyone ignores. I would happily play another two hours, even if that meant limping the final hour.

Another beer, perhaps, and talk about family (almost never about work), upcoming vacations, who’s playing in that day’s televised games, whether it’s football or baseball, maybe a little about each other’s past (“I didn’t know you played rugby in college?” “You went to law school?”). Next comes a quick and always inconclusive survey of who is coming to play the next Sunday (“I think I’ll be here.” “My wife says we might be out of town.”). And then, we disperse.

Which is as it should be. To make more of it would loosen the bond, make it less of a special event. To go out for lunch afterward, well, anyone can do that, right? Not every 65-year-old can play three hours of full-throttle touch football — and it is full throttle.

We make great catches — and sometimes drop easy ones. Which is also as it should be. We occasionally argue about calls. (Was he out of bounds? Did he cross the first-down marker? The first-down cones are never, ever properly lined up, so it’s often a bone of contention.) But the arguments last about 20 seconds. We don’t like to waste precious playing time.

We still have the Thanksgiving Day “Turkey Bowl,” but it’s the least enjoyable game of the year. We prefer the weekly camaraderie of the smaller group of guys we know. We’ve been doing it for about 20 years, since many of us were in our 40s. There’s no sign we will stop anytime soon. There is something special about that.