By Brendan Cooney

The ragtag bunch of guys I’d recruited were warming up for our first touch-football game, stretching and discussing our hangovers, when we first saw the Chicago police team. They were playing the game before ours. But what they were doing out on the field didn’t look like touch football.

“Those guys are huge,” my friend Hansen said.

It was clear which team he was talking about. The team that was grunting wildly and hitting hard. The team that looked like its players averaged 250 pounds. The team in blue T-shirts with POLICE printed in big white letters across the front. They had separate offensive and defensive squads, and the players on the sidelines were screaming, “Get him!” “Nail him!” “Kick his ass!” “That’s bullshit, ref!”

When I’d heard there was a police team in this league, which plays in Paul Revere Park on Irving Park, I felt safe. I knew that nothing would get out of hand, since when the dust settled they were there to protect people. Not that anything could get out of hand in touch football.

None of the guys on my team knew what to expect of this league, which I’d found through a classified ad. Some thought it might be coed. Some thought it would be just friendly. Others thought it would be a joke.

But we were impressed. The field was adorned with cones and lines. There were 20-yard first-down chains, goalposts, and two referees. Some of my teammates looked a little nervous watching the police squad. We weren’t playing them that day, but since the league had only four teams, we would have to play them three times over the course of the season.

The police game ended, and we took the field. “Go Cartographers,” my sister yelled from the sidelines. Our team name had seemed funnier over beers at the Map Room–our sponsor–than it did now.

We needed eight guys on the field, and we only had seven. But moments before kickoff, a guy I apparently had met in a bar the night before strolled up carrying doughnuts and milk. After two plays one of the teammates I didn’t recognize pulled a muscle, and we were back down to seven. We dropped the opener something like 26-6.

The week before our first police game, I got nervous making the calls to ask people to play. After I told one guy the time of the game, he asked, “So who are we playing, the police?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Oh, you know what?” I said, “You have to go to Milan.” He said, “That’s exactly right–my God, how did you know?”

Somehow we dredged up enough people. I think that entering the game most of us were concerned simply with the size of the police. A couple of their guys were pushing 50 and had round guts, but others were young and strong and huge. They snarled. Some had buzz haircuts. One guy chewed a cigar as he played. But we still assumed it would be just good, clean football. Some hard hitting on the line, maybe, but all within the rules.

Yet in the first few plays our blockers learned that they should protect their faces, because the police linemen often charged at them with forearms cocked. And as quarterback I learned that two-hand touch can mean two-hand knock-you-on-your-butt. Most plays ended with me on my backside.

Later one of their defenders tackled our receiver, Mark, after he caught a touchdown pass. The two players exchanged some words, got in each other’s faces, and the referee threw the police player out of the game. Mark heckled him. “You’re too old to cover me. Too slow!” The police player yelled, “I’m going to get you next time we play. Three weeks!”

Three weeks later was a windy, rainy October morning, the coldest day of the season. I was flattered that my sister and her friend Connie had got out of bed to stand in the freezing rain and watch a bunch of middle-aged guys run around a field.

One of our guys, Brian–who played safety for the University of Michigan–psyched himself up to block the cops by telling their defensive line, “Bring it on. Gimme your best shot.” The defensive-line police looked around for a second, confused. Then one of them said, “Aw shit, is he talking shit? I think he’s talking shit. He’s talking shit!”

For the rest of the game they called him Buster Brown–presumably because of his dark skin, even though both teams were racially mixed. When we were on defense, their defense would taunt Brian from the sidelines. When we were on offense, their offense would heckle him: “What you got, Buster Brown? Hey, Buster Brown! You ain’t got nothin’!”

The taunting spread to other members of our team. They dubbed Mark, the short, stocky guy they’d tackled in the end zone in the first game, Short Round. “Hey, Short Round! They scored off your ass, didn’t they, Short Round? You got burned, didn’t you?”

During a lull in the insults, Connie called out to the police on the sidelines, “It’s only a game.” One guy responded, “No it’s not! Fuck you!”

The tension escalated until Brian and a cop blocked each other and ended up rolling around on the ground. Brian got up, and the police sideline cleared and started pushing him around, yelling at him while he screamed back.

Connie ran onto the field yelling, “Hit him, Brian!” She later explained that he was a friend and the slurs had riled her.

Finally the referees broke it up, threatening to end the game if there was another fight. The main referee, a shorter, rounder guy than Mark, announced that if he called it off, whoever was winning at the time would be the winner. A minute later he amended that. “If I have to call the game there will be no winner. It will be a tie!”

“Let’s just settle it in the parking lot after the game,” one of the police proposed.

When play resumed, one of our players, Ian, took a forearm to the face while blocking. I pointed out the blood trickling down Ian’s chin, but the ref said, “There’s only so much of the field I can watch.” Ian went to the hospital after the game and got five stitches in his bottom lip.

Soon tempers flared again, and the police sideline squad again surged onto the field. My roommate Rick, who was dressed in street clothes because his ribs had been bruised the last time we’d played the police (though on a clean play), told one of the cops, “Stay on the sidelines, motherfucker.” Rick is a shy, clean-cut guy whose driver’s license says he weighs 140.

The cop stared at Rick in disbelief. “What?” he yelled. “I’m going to get you next, faggot. You’re next, Peter Brady!” He stared at Rick on and off for the next few minutes.

I asked Rick later what possessed him. “Adrenaline, man,” he said.

The irony of the game was that the referee threw their quarterback out for questioning a call, a field goal called wide right. Perhaps because he was a geeky-looking lawyer and he stood out.

And he wasn’t just thrown out of the game. “Out of the park!” the ref yelled. “I have to listen to your bitching every week!”

The quarterback waited in his car till the game was over, then came up to us to shake hands. We’d lost by a couple of touchdowns. He and I discussed his getting thrown out just for questioning a call, but when I said it was ironic given all the other flagrancies he just walked away.

Playing the police did strange things to us. People I thought I knew started showing surprising sides. Brian, who’s so polite he never utters a curse, had taken on the whole team in a brawl, screaming, “You ain’t shit, pussy!” Mild-mannered Hansen was tagged (or shoved) by a cop and threw a wild elbow that missed by a mile but looked like it was designed to break the guy’s jaw.

Toward the end of the last game against the police–which we were to lose 3-0–I released the ball, then got pushed over. After I was down on my knees the guy pushed me over again. I sprang to my feet and started screaming at the guy, then at the referee. My mother and sister happened to be watching that game, and they were stunned by the string of profanities that issued from my mouth. The ref responded with a vague “Fuck you all.”

Even the guys I didn’t know surprised me. A friend of a friend brought his roommate just to watch game two, but when we became short a player we persuaded him to play. He was a very friendly, quiet guy. He wasn’t big, but he took off his glasses and gallantly blocked the whole game. But by the end of the game he was so sick of all the cheap shots, late hits, elbows, and insults that he was furious. He got called for a cheap shot of his own–trying to hit someone with his forearm. He told the police after the game, “Nice game, except for him!” pointing to one of the cops. And he went on to exclaim, within earshot of a couple of police, “Now they have to go home and beat their wives!”

If there was one guy I thought would remain aloof all three games, it was Tom, our center. Perfect snaps every time. Never said a word. Showed up every week. But when the cops were sitting on their 3-0 lead in game three and killing the clock, Tom tagged their quarterback. The quarterback, the geeky lawyer, went after Tom, pushing him and taunting him. It was a bizarre showdown. Ian knocked the hat off the lawyer’s head. A small melee ensued, and the referee called the game.

We found out that we weren’t the only team that had problems with the police. Ted, the commissioner of the league, told me he uses special protection for games against the police. He rigged up a contraption made out of Styrofoam and knee pads that he ties around his ribs. “We had three guys out with bad ribs after we played the police,” he said.

My roommate Rick’s ribs had healed by game three, but he refused to take the field against the police again. He even said he was going to complain to the commissioner about the cops.

A total of four of our guys quit the team because of the police. These were guys who’d loved the league before we encountered the cops, guys who’d gone to the office on Mondays raving about the league, guys who didn’t wash the grass stains off their knees all day Sunday.

During the course of game two, shortly before the brawl, my sister went up to the biggest police player on the sidelines, who was probably six foot seven and 270 pounds. “What makes you guys so angry?” she asked. “You’re scaring me.”

“Oh, we’re just having fun,” he said. “It’s just testosterone. Don’t be scared.” o