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Flag football puts the fun back into the game

Football, played right, can be really, really fun.

More fun, even, than that supposedly beautiful game, the one they just played the championship of, the one that the whole world just loves, but that could be made so much better if they just got rid of futbol’s boring version of “offsides,” which means no solo runs down the sidelines to take in a huge pass and change the situation with a score in deliriously fast seconds.

What makes American football fun is precisely the athleticism of a long bomb thrown from a quarterback to a wide receiver who pulls the ball in as it falls from high in the air near the end zone.

Or a reverse in which the halfback takes the ball from the QB and sprints the length of the field for a thrilling touchdown.

Blocking is not what makes football fun. Bunch of overweight guys mixing it up in order to create a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust first down? Not much fun.

Tackling is not what makes football fun. It’s what makes it exceedingly dangerous. Its sometimes deadly and often injurious consequences is what made American football subject to public and legal outrage back in its early days in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. Rules were changed. Equipment was updated. And, still, as we were reminded once again last week after Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills suffered cardiac arrest after a hard hit in an NFL game, it’s what makes football brutally appalling, exceedingly dangerous, no fun.

By far the most fun I’ve ever had playing football was in the pick-up games we played on my street as a child. The boundaries were the curbs, and the shirts thrown down on the asphalt to mark the two end zones. That football, played in shorts and tennis shoes, was of the touch variety — catch a guy with the ball and place two hands below his waist, and forward movement was stopped until the next play. Mild blocking at the line of scrimmage fully allowed. Concussing anyone was not.

We moved on to the flag variety in elementary school games against rival teams. In sixth grade, the “Morro run” — Greg Morrison spinning and twisting so that no defender could get his flags — was famous in our Altadena and Pasadena neighborhoods. So was the long bomb thrown by QB Martin Kelley to Paul Stanslaw, an athlete so superb, so adept at catching any ball anywhere near him when he later played third base on the UC Santa Barbara team, that the coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo declared Paul the greatest infielder he’d ever seen. That coach’s own shortstop? Ozzie Smith, the finest infielder ever in Major League Baseball.

That’s athleticism. I got to see it from Paul and so many other friends all my young life. Nothing beats it. Certainly not gladiator-like barbarism.

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And so I have a modest proposal for high school, college and, yes, professional football going forward: Play the flag game. Wear helmets, still, but ditch the pads and other body armor. Sure, heart attacks are rare on the field. And concussions are getting rarer. There were 275 in the NFL in 2015; last year, there were 187. Still a lot of concussions.

Flag football with the best athletes in the nation not only would be just as good as the game we know today — it would be a lot better. No cringing every time you see a brutal play. No grieving relatives gathered at the hospital. No guys mysteriously dying at like 48 from injuries clearly tied to their “playing” days.

As fellow Daily Californian alum Kurt Streeter of The New York Times Sports section has it: “Will it take a player nearly  dying on national television for us to widen our view and examine why and how we watch?”

I watch for the long bomb. Hey, you can run faster and catch better in shorts and a rugby shirt, anyway.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. lwilson@scng.com.

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