The offensive guard and team captain shows up for the weekly game wearing a 10-gallon hat, a red cape and bikini briefs and riding his 7-year-old daughter's hobbyhorse. One of the linebackers is 46. Some of the players have beer bellies. Mention discipline and a tight end laughs hysterically. The team has practiced just twice in 3½ years.
It's a team you'd expect Hunter Thompson to coach, but there must be a method to the madness. The Eagles of Wilkens House, a small bar in northeast Baltimore, have won three national flag-football championships in as many years, racking up a 62-8 record, and they've only been in business four years.
"We always lose the openers, it happens every year," says Mike Creaney, who was a second team All-America tight end at Notre Dame in the early '70s. "Those are our practice games. We only show up an hour beforehand. If we ever really practiced, we'd be scary."
Practice? Who needs to practice? Seven of the 32 Eagles made it to the NFL or WFL, and most of the rest were college stars who had pro tryouts. Running Back Lou Carter played five years in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wide Receiver Vince Kinney was a Denver Bronco for two seasons. Frank Russell, another wide receiver, spent one preseason with the New York Jets. Greg Schaum, a 280-pound defensive end, was with the Dallas Cowboys when they beat the Broncos in the 1978 Super Bowl, and ended his career with the New England Patriots. John Ricca, a 300-pound defensive end, was with the Florida Blazers in the WFL until the team ran out of money and stopped paying its players in the middle of the 1974 season. Offensive Guard Tim Brannan played five years with the Blazers, the Washington Redskins, the Detroit Lions and the Broncos.
The few Eagles who never made the pros certainly had no lack of desire. A few could be called obsessed with the game. Construction worker Mike Davidson, the 46-year-old linebacker, never played college ball and lost speed as he got older, so he now runs two miles a day and does wind sprints (something repugnant to most Wilkens House players) to keep his body as hard as that of any NFL rookie. John Adessa, a quarterback who played for Columbia, drives from his home in Atlanta, where he works as a sales manager for Kodak, to Baltimore every weekend just to play flag.
Brannan, who owns Wilkens House, is notorious for his eccentric pregame wardrobe, hunger for victory and disdain for practice. "We practiced in college," he says. "We called a practice here once, and only seven guys showed up."
After Brannan was cut from the Broncos in 1977 and realized his pro career was finished, he bought Wilkens House. But he missed playing football, and he joined a local flag-football team on which he found an old acquaintance, Frank Culotta, a former middle guard at Villanova who was cut by the Jets in 1966 and has been playing flag ever since.
That team might as well have been coached by the Baltimore Colts' Frank Kush. "You had to watch films, come to practice twice a week, work out on the blocking sleds, the whole bit," Culotta says. But after one season, he and Brannan decided that this wasn't how they wanted to play the game. So they started their own team by recruiting former college and professional teammates, many of whom had played at the University of Maryland with Brannan. They raided the semipro Baltimore Eagles when that team disbanded.
The result is the first team in the history of the U.S. Flag Football Association to win three championships in a row. "Teams try to outpretty us by wearing nice uniforms and flying in chartered jets," Creaney says, "but we outpersonnel everybody." The players, however, are used to tackle football and have had to readjust to the rules of flag. A defensive player must snatch an 18-inch adhesive flap from the waist of the ballcarrier to stop the play. Tackling is illegal. Blocking must be done with both feet firmly planted on the ground. There are only nine players per team (there is also a seven-man version)—five linemen and four backs on offense. Most of the rules adhere to the NCAA's, however, including the option of attempting one- or two-point PATs.
When Brannan first heard about flag football he thought it was "a sissy sport." A broken nose and a sprained ankle changed his opinion. Now he says, "It's almost as rough as pro football."
"Once in a while you play against some guys who think they could've played in the pros, and they want to prove that to you," says Carter, who broke most of the rushing records at Maryland in the early '70s. "They go after you. I play and have a good time. I don't want to hurt anybody."
Some opposing players, however, have charged that Wilkens House plays too rough. "We've got a lot of guys coming out of tackle football," says Coach Don Warthen of Wilkens House, "and they've had a hard time adjusting to just grabbing flags. It's a natural reaction for them to hit low." In a recent 20-13 loss to Mitchell's Construction, three Wilkens House touchdowns were called back because of penalties.
"Wilkens House isn't too rough," USFFA Commissioner John Carrigan says. "They're physical. When you have a 275-pound lineman going up against a 195-pound guy, that's an 80-pound difference and it's going to get physical. They play hard and clean. Any other flag-football team can go out and recruit this talent if it wants to."
Wilkens House men have other talents, as well. The bar attracts players of every sport except marbles: football, softball, tug-of-war, soccer, bowling, basketball and a new sport called basketwall, which is played on a racquetball court. The slow-pitch softball team, led by 275-pound John Copenhaver's 114 home runs and 295 RBIs, finished with a 103-29 record and placed ninth in the national playoffs in September.
"I like to win," says Brannan, who only competes in football and tug-of-war. "I joke around before any game, but when I get out there on the field I'm all business."
Indeed, in a Baltimore tug-of-war competition last August held to raise money for a children's hospital, Wilkens House outtugged everybody. "I bought an Encyclopaedia Britannica service where they'll research special items just for you," Creaney says. "Timmy had me write them and have them research 'The History and Winning Techniques of Tug-of-War.' The Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote back and said, 'Be serious.' "
So Brannan learned how to play tug-of-war without the Britannica. Brannan and Culotta screamed orders at the tuggers like boot-camp sergeants, while anchoring the line were 324-pound Bill Kazmaier, who has dead-lifted 886 pounds—a world super heavyweight record—and has been called "The World's Strongest Man," and John Gamble, the assistant strength coach of the University of Virginia's football team, who's been called the "World's Third Strongest Man." He can dead-lift 830 pounds. The winning technique of tug-of-war? Recruiting, my man, recruiting.
This year's softball budget was about $25,000, the football budget for the 18-game season $12,000. Some of Wilkens House's rivals claim the saloon pays its players, and Brannan concedes that he does pay some "travel expenses." Gamble and Kazmaier, who were flown in from Virginia and Atlanta for the tug-of-war, said they received nothing more than that. Local players say they get just enough dough for gas and refreshments, which are often on the house anyway. Culotta helps raise the money by organizing small fund-raising affairs, often roasts of his peers, but most of it comes out of Brannan's pocket. "I'll do it as long as I can afford it," he says. He says a semipro football team offered him $800 a game to play for it, but he turned it down. "I'd rather play with my flag team for nothing," he says.
"Timmy's crazy," Ricca says.
All right, Timmy's crazy, but why do the other ex-pros and college standouts go out of their way to play flag football every Sunday for gas and beer money?
"Once you play at the top," says Carter, "you don't want to play semipro. It's better doing it for nothing. I just enjoy playing flag."
"Most of these guys have played college football, have had their day in the sun, and now most of them are over 25 and making an honest living. But they miss the game and can't go cold turkey," Ricca says. "They've got to let out the aggressiveness that's built up in their jobs during the week."
"I keep saying I'll play one more year," Culotta says. He has been playing flag football for more than 17 years, excluding time off for back operations. When I turned 30, my wife wanted me to stop. Now I'm 40 and she's praying that I'll stop. But I only know two things—sports and my business. [He's vice-president of sales for a computer company.] And if I didn't have them you could throw peanuts to me at the Baltimore Zoo."