Illustration: Benjamin Currie (G/O Media)
Bear called around seven and told me to wake up Moe.
It was Sunday morning, three summers ago, my first week playing what Vice once called “High Stakes Street Football in New York City.” I was a member of the Lions, and to me and the rest of the team, the sport we played and loved was just called “rough touch.-
The game is pretty much what it sounds like. 7-on-7, two-hand touch with full blocking and no pads. “Rough” finds its way into the name because those two hands are usually attached to a very large, very fast man who is hitting you at high speed. Teams come from all over to compete in year-round leagues and tournaments. Prizes get into five figures, with money going to players, uniforms, postgame empanadas, and, in real fruitful years, international trips.
The game started in the ’70s, first played on concrete and mostly for pride. Then crack happened and shit got intense. Old heads tell stories of espionage and arms races and drug deals that could make Oliver North blush. Apparently a game in the Bronx once got broken up when a gang on motorbikes carrying shotguns circled a player from a rival outfit. It doesn’t get like that anymore.
The old-timers still come around, though. They tend to have a certain walk, a slight arthritic limp that lets you know their knees have been through some shit. But they carry themselves in a way that indicates, if it really came down to it, they could get the juice going one last time. Some come to watch and some to referee. Some, like Bear, choose to coach. Victor’s his Christian name but I doubt anyone’s called him that since he was knee-high. I can’t imagine playing safety and seeing him barreling downfield, the ball limp in his hands like a fresh caught salmon. I’d play dead.
So when he wakes me up and tells me to knock on Moe’s window, with the vaguest of directions about how to accomplish that, I say, sir yes sir.
It’s not that Moe can’t get himself up, it’s that his waking state is nothing to fuck around with. He hooped at famed Lincoln High, and even 10 years later his legs are still spring-loaded. He jukes and leaps with a balletic fury, and often he’ll yam it so hard the hoop’s whole structure shivers long after he’s gone back to his cigarette. He says in eight words what anyone else would need 18 to communicate. If he thinks you’re a bozo, it’s because some great cosmic alignment deemed it so generations before your birth. He and his son—an adorable toddler whose first word was “ball”—live in the Williamsburg Houses, in Brooklyn. The Houses were some of the first housing projects the city built, back in the ’30s. They run through a cluster of blocks in East Williamsburg, with each block containing a group of individual four-story towers, separated by rivers of concrete walkways and a courtyard in the middle. Some bedroom windows, like Moe’s, face into the courtyard.
On Saturdays, the courtyards hum. Old men flirt with young moms while their kids run through water spouting out of busted fire hydrants. Dudes move through the eight courts in the 10-block radius, looking for pickup runs. I started playing here in the summer of 2016 and met Moe shortly thereafter. I was good enough that Moe started referring to me as his son to anyone reticent to give me the time of day. When guys started talking about football coming up, I said I’d played a year of quarterback, receiver, and defensive back in high school. They told me to come through.
It’d be a few more months before I’d get invited into Moe’s spot, so when Bear told me to go knock on his window, I spent a good 15 minutes twitchily milling about the courtyard like a pigeon on a vyvanse comedown, trying to guess which was his. I knocked on my best guess and yelled his name and braced for impact. Sunday mornings around 7:30, the Houses are quiet and still, save a maintenance man or the odd jogger. So imagine that you’re trying to sleep off a hard week, and suddenly jolted from bed by several knocks and desperate yelps for “Moe!” You might you go to the window and see a “Dawson’s Creek-ass motherfucker” (opponent’s words) staring at you, bleary-eyed. Imagine the new asshole you’d rip him.
Thankfully I guessed right, and Moe popped his head out. We met out front a few minutes later and headed off to Lindsay Field, to get our bones rattled under the late summer New York sun. That’s how it went, every week, through the winter and into the spring. If our day started in Brooklyn we’d walk over to the field a few blocks away. If our first game was in the Bronx, City Island specifically, Orpheus and Blowie would scoop us.
Orpheus has his Master’s and works helping fucked-over folks find jobs, but the thing that’s most impressive about him is how he drives. He’s got a pickup truck the weight of an Abrams tank, with a technological nervous system on par with at least Apollo 8, and yet he handles the thing like it’s a Jetta. You’d have to be an idiot not to see the genius in it. Blowie doesn’t play anymore, but was as much a part of the team as anyone. On the 40-minute ride to Rodman’s Neck we’d talk about the Pats (he’s the first likable Pats fan I’ve ever met) or his kid, who got a full ride playing football down south. One ride we talked about shit jobs, so I went in on my death- and spittle-filled nursing home gig as a high schooler, and then he told me how he used to shovel horseshit for a living. I just sorta shut the fuck up until we got to the field.
At first I played special teams, where things tend to get hairy. The kickoff team sprints downfield like a bomb went off, slaloming through dudes looking to make a highlight-reel block, all while keeping their heads on a swivel. If the returner cuts back and you’re not ready, the guy you just beat will come from the blindside and tune you up. They’ve got this ride in Coney Island, where you’re strapped into a big metal orb that slingshots up about a thousand feet, where you’re left dangling in space for a good three seconds. Catching a blindside block with no pads on feels kind of like that, with the added pain of a shoulder crashing into your sternum. I swear to Christ, one time a guy named Burger hit a dude so hard that he flew into another dude and knocked him down, like something out of 36th Chamber of the Shaolin.
After the return, rough touch follows the same basic structure of playground football. Quarterbacks have five seconds before the defense can rush, but three seconds on two-point conversions. There are no field goals, so after a score you go for one or for two, from the two-yard line or the five. The fields are all 80 yards long, but each comes with its own idiosyncrasies. The field in the Bronx is about eight yards wider than the one in Brooklyn, so teams get four plays to score from where they’re tagged on the return. In Brooklyn, getting past half field nets you another four downs.
At the snap, five receivers move downfield in a sort of controlled fast break. The most effective signal callers see the field with a point guard’s eye, manipulating space and defenders with look-offs. When an offense is cooking, the game looks like a scene from Bill Walsh’s wet dreams. Defense requires the sort of hip fluidity needed to D up on a basketball court, and communication and switching are paramount. Hand checking is an art mastered through practice. Usually someone stays back to block for the QB, ideally a guy who can dish out some punishment. A few times a game, the big guys will go at it like musk oxen, and the game’s momentum can suddenly switch depending on who topples who. The game feels like a mashup of football’s past and future. There’s a sandlot element to it, yet it’s not hard to envision this style—fast and fluid and fierce—becoming what pro football looks like in 10 years.
By the end of the first fall I was starting on both sides of the ball. Then one early February morning, a pass got swung out to the tight end, and I came to meet him. Defenders are afforded some leeway on the tag. If someone is streaking down the sideline with the ball, the safety basically has free rein to line him up and body him into whatever hard object’s unfortunate enough to stop his momentum, be it a fence or industrial size beer cooler. So I came up to meet the dude at full speed, and at contact felt a sudden crack around my aorta. My adrenaline was going and I stayed in, and the next week was the playoffs so I played then, too. But when the season settled I was left with several severely cracked ribs. It took a few sneeze-less months to be able to lift my arms over my head again.
By the next fall I was fully recovered. One day early in the season we had three games scheduled—one in the Bronx and two in Brooklyn. I had two touchdowns in the Bronx, and on our way out I ran into Jeremy from YMM, a team out of Coney Island. We had them in the third game, so I talked some friendly shit and said goodbye. That second Brooklyn game I had two more scores, and was eager to keep my momentum in the third. But then everyone started packing up. There was no third game that day, because Jeremy was in the hospital with a seizure he suffered after going up for a ball and landing on his head. He made a full recovery, but shit like that happens every so often. The postgame meals are as much a celebration of continued health than a big win or anything.
Postgame hangs were the good shit. Sometimes we’d go out to eat, like after we won a chip in Brooklyn and went to Dallas BBQ to celebrate. The team’s running joke of the day was yelling, “Conor!” at every white guy that walked by. Once a few of us went to Wingstop with Orlando, our other coach, and another old head. There was a liquor store across the street and he came back with a bottle of rosé. He got me a cup and I told him I don’t like rosé, and he told me in no uncertain terms to lighten the fuck up.
Things weren’t always so pleasant. A few summers back our free safety, Darren, got in a scrap that came to blows. The fight was bad enough that the game got called, except Darren didn’t get any shots in, so he told the other guy to meet him in the parking lot. Problem was they had another game right after. Darren decided to wait. And we did. For about 45 minutes we hung out in the parking lot, waiting for Darren to cool off or for the game to end. Thank God it was the former, because I’d already had a couple of hot dogs, a hamburger, and two cans of soda and was feeling sluggish.
The same thing happened a few months later to a guy on our team I won’t name. A similar scrap turned into a featherweight bout, except this time the other guy went off to get his knife, and our guy headed to his bag about 20 yards away to get whatever was in it. I was in his ear the whole walk over, telling him it wasn’t worth it. Luckily, he didn’t grab whatever was in there.
Confrontations rarely get ugly, though, because all the guys pretty much like each other. Whenever someone wants to scrap, everyone on both sides—fans and family included—slowly migrate to the middle of the field and wait for something to happen. It’s not dissimilar to a middle school dance: a bunch of bodies milling about in a large human blob, a few brave souls making contact in the middle, a few others getting physical on the perimeter.
The Lions eventually dissolved, but another team, called Undarated, hit me up. Undarated’s featured heavily in the Vice documentary about rough-touch football, and they’ve been the consensus best team in the city for a long time. The team’s founder and captain, Swiss, first played for Carver Mobb, out of the George Washington Carver projects in Spanish Harlem. Carver Mobb preceded Undarated as perennial champs, and were the subject of this Ivan Solotakoff piece some years back. The main difference between a team like Undarated and the Lions is that most everyone on it grew up with each other, and have been through some shit together.
Undarated’s also just damn talented, replete with rangy athletes and waterbugs like Shannon, who people speak of in hushed tones, who at least twice a game embarrasses very athletic men with some moves from Barry Sanders’s catalog. There’s also Cabby, probably the single most dominant dude in the city. He starred at Seton Hall and was in camp with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. He once dropped 40-plus on Durant at Rucker Park. He’s about 6-foot-4 with Lovecraftian arms and fingers, and warps the dimensions of the field whenever he steps foot on it. In last year’s playoffs he hauled in a back-of-the-end-zone desperation heave with his right hand while his outstretched left arm held off the defender, like a rapidly maturing teen toying with his younger brother. That play got called back due to a bogus offensive pass interference call, but two plays later he went up over two dudes and hauled in a 30-yard jump ball like rookie-season Randy Moss.
The only thing holding Undarated back from a real dynastic run was a high-level kicker/punter. The best teams all have guys they’ve brought in, dudes who’ve done it at the scholarship level at places like Florida and Fordham. But even they’ll tell you that this is a different kind of pressure, performing 15 yards from of hundreds of dudes who’ll happily explain exactly how you’re going to fuck up, and then take advantage of the lax sideline policy and explain the near-Biblical nature of said fuckup once you’ve jogged off the field. I kicked for the Lions in all the leagues that needed it. I played varsity soccer in seventh grade before I got burned out, and then junior and senior year of high school I kicked and punted. Kickoffs are from the 10, so touchbacks need to get about 65 yards in the air. I can get it about 70 percent of the time, and the rest I get it down to the back of the end zone. Punts, I can get about 50 yards in the air with a four-second or so hang time.
The first league I played in was Friday Night Lights, at the Harlem River Park. I had a good showing through the regular season, and when the playoffs rolled around we were the one seed. We were down six in the semis with a few minutes left. An offensive drive sputtered back on our 15, so we had to punt. A solid effort can pin a team back, but a monster kick can wreak havoc on any return man and set up a potential recovery. I took the snap and torqued my hips and swung through, and I swear to god that shit went perpendicular. A shank if there ever was one. Fifteen yards at the most, man. I slunk back to the sideline, feeling the weight of everyone’s eyes. Their offense took two plays to score and that was it, season over. No one said a word to me. After the game I told our coach he didn’t need to pay me and he said, in no uncertain terms, yeah, no shit.
I figured they were done with me. But summer of ’18 rolled around and I got the call to come up for a tourney in City Island. We played five games in two straight days, three back-to-back-to-back on Sunday, in the brutal June heat. I redeemed myself and we were champs. Then we won the fall league a few months later, a game two days before Christmas, with the ground like frozen-over concrete. After the game, Swiss told me everyone was going to the Dominican Republic at the end of February, and asked if I wanted to come. With a mouth full of papas rellenas I muttered, “Fuck yeah.”
I’ve never had time for heights or confined spaces, so planes have always been a non-starter. But the ride and AirBnB were free, so I said fuck it and sucked it up. It was a trip, man. I ate my weight in los tres golpes and talked to Venezuelan prostitutes about Guaido (they are not fans). We stayed out until sunup, grabbing McDonald’s while shotgun-toting mercenaries guarded the gas station across the parking lot. It was a dizzying five days, but by far the best part was Sunday night, the last of the trip. Mentally and physically checked out, a bunch of us gathered in the main room, smoked pot, drank whiskey gingers, and bullshitted. It was an echo of the best part of any game day, when we’d all hang out after the game was over, pounding chicken and rice made by families who sold food out of their pickups.
We relived the trip’s most questionable decisions and pantomimed plays made during the fall playoffs. Players from decades past were memorialized, football and hoops stars guys knew growing up. Many of them had been undone by drugs, injuries, or institutional bullshit, but their exploits lived on in the collective consciousness of my teammates. Sitting back on the sofa as these previously unknown legends became three-dimensional, I felt, in that moment, like I was part of something bigger. Those legends created a tradition that me and the rest of the guys were doing our best to uphold, and it was thrilling to consider that we were all part of the same chain that extended decades into the past. It felt better than flying for the first time.
At some point Chooch broke through the laughter and chatter to tell us he loved us, and we all said the same.
We landed in JFK on Monday night and said our goodbyes like it was any other week: We gingerly grabbed our bags and hugged and dapped and shuffled away like old heads, happy to have survived intact. The next day we’d go back to the barbershops, construction sites, and firehouses where we spent our non-football time. The air outside the airport was in the single digits, and the cold hit like a free safety coming across the middle. But that was fine. Winter season playoffs were starting next Sunday, so we needed to get used to it.
Conor McKeon has contributed to The Onion Sports, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Mental Floss, and Splitsider. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.