Only Roger Staubach has gotten the better of Bob Butara. And he
The legendary Dallas Cowboy quarterback tangled with Butara, the
best flag football quarterback in the country, at the NFL's flag
football exhibition last year in Orlando. Butara and his team
had qualified for the showdown against Staubach and his cohorts
by winning a national tournament.
To speed things along, the organizers limited teams to four
players, banned quarterback running plays, prohibited contact
and used a field one-fifth the normal size. Staubach and his
squad, which was made up of active NFL players, barely won, 27-18.
"That wasn't flag football," says Mike Cihon, Butara's coach.
"It was to this game what two-man beach volleyball is to
volleyball. We'd take them in a real game."
Cihon might be right. After all, the 6'2", 210-pound Butara, 40,
has a winning record against every touch and flag football team
he has faced in his 20-year career. He has completed 74% of
22,857 pass attempts, generating 2,688 touchdowns. His 793 wins
(against 101 losses) include one world flag football title, 11
U.S. championships and several dozen city and state crowns. On
Thanksgiving weekend in Buffalo, Butara hopes to win his sport's
Super Bowl, the super-division title at the U.S. Flag and Touch
Football League (USFTL) tournament.
An estimated 300,000 people play touch and flag in leagues run
by colleges, park districts and amateur groups across the U.S.
Teams are made up of seven to nine players, who are awarded
tackles for tapping ballcarriers with two hands or yanking cloth
"flags" from the ballcarriers' belts. In the super (or top)
division, the best squads boast former college standouts and NFL
Despite Butara's streak of successes, his career started with
failure. In 1970 he and Cihon were cut from the freshman team at
St. Joseph's High in Cleveland. After suffering the same fate
with the junior varsity team the following year, they joined
some pals from their east side neighborhood to form a squad they
called the Gibbs Boys--after the nickname of the Hannah Gibbons
Elementary School, on whose asphalt playground they practiced
In the beginning the Gibbs Boys--who now go by Gibbs
alone--played tackle football and challenged clubs from other
neighborhoods. But after beating the city's best touch football
team in a scrimmage in 1976, they switched to touch. They were
winners from the outset, but in their quest to be better they
soon started luring other teams' stars. The first was 290-pound
former Ohio State lineman Bob Coan, one of five current Gibbs
starters who have played college ball or gotten a look in the
After six successful years around Cleveland, Gibbs entered its
first national tournament, in St. Louis in 1982. When the team
took third place, the team leaders huddled. "We made a pact to
be the best," says Butara. "We started really recruiting players."
Four years later their dedication netted them a national title.
It also gave rise to a multiple-look offense, film sessions,
scouting reports, complete offensive, defensive and special
teams units, and player tryouts. "They have the best system,"
says Mike (Lefty) Flynn, a player-coach for Mad Anthony's, a
team sponsored by a bar in Lakewood, Ohio. "If you're a good
flag football player, you want to play for Gibbs."
As time passed, all of the team's founders except Butara were
benched in favor of better players. And though Butara is running
on surgically scarred knees and developing a paunch, he doesn't
plan to step down soon. Among the young speedsters who dominate
flag football, Butara still shines. "Everybody thinks talent and
speed win," he says, "but experience counts as much."
Which isn't to say Butara lacks talent. He is quick and agile,
and he can sling 60-yard bombs or short lobs. "As I've gotten
older, I've developed other strengths," he says. One of these is
smarts. He is so adept at spotting defensive weaknesses that he
calls most plays at the line of scrimmage. His grimaces and
grunts might make you think he had had enough. But he hasn't. "I
can't give up," says Butara, who takes his family to every game.
"This is the only hobby I have."
Butara has a mantel full of awards, and in 1990 he was enshrined
in the USFTL Hall of Fame. "There's nothing else to win," he
admits. Except maybe the next showdown with Staubach.
Joe Bower has written about sports for "Audubon," "Women's
Sports and Fitness" and "Outside."
COLOR PHOTO: HAL STATA PHOTOGRAPHY Butara has completed 74% of 22,857 passing attempts and led Gibbs to 2,688 TDs and 793 wins. [Bob Butara]