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The Tag Team

These ten friends have been playing the childhood game for decades—and each year, the stakes get higher. Now, their contest is being immortalized on film.

Darryn King is a writer based in New York.

 

On a Saturday afternoon in February in downtown Seattle, Chris Amman, a neatly dressed fifty-two-year-old financial services professional, had the strange feeling he was being hunted.

After spending the morning attending to a few things in the office, Amman had a one o’clock meeting in a bar named The Brooklyn, on the ground level of his building. He’d chosen the location knowing it would be relatively quiet at that hour, all the better for detecting anything out of the ordinary. The day before, he’d paid a visit to get the lay of the land, suss out its blind spots and points of entry. He spent some time looking online for more information on the person he was scheduled to meet. His story checked out, but Amman remained suspicious.

Entering The Brooklyn a few minutes after the hour, he scanned the space, gazing past a man at the bar with a mullet, eyeing the group in the back.

He spotted the journalist, whose picture he’d seen online, and walked over to take a seat. Niceties were briefly exchanged. He ordered a beer.

And then, just as Amman was beginning to relax and feel safe, the man with the mullet rose from his barstool and stalked purposefully over. “Hey, aren’t you—” he began. Amman looked up at the approaching figure. It took a moment for recognition to dawn. Then he made a run for it.

He didn’t get far. The man with the mullet gave Amman a light but effective whack on the upper back. “Tag!” he said. “You’re It.” 

In all the usual ways, they are just like ten normal middle-aged guys. Mostly scattered around Seattle and Spokane in Washington, they have wives, children, jobs, grown-up responsibilities. When they get together, they drink a few pints, smoke cigars, watch basketball, regale each other with stories and call each other by time-honored nicknames (Amman is Lepus, Rick Bruya is Bruiser, Joe Caferro is Beef).

Unlike most adults, however, they have been playing an unprecedentedly epic and continuous game of “tag,” the beloved children’s playground game (called “tig” or “it” by some), for more than thirty years. They call themselves the Tag Brothers.

On that Saturday in February, Amman was the latest to become “It” in a long line of Its—the most recent victim of likely the most enduring Itness ever, passed on, and on, in a decades-long, criss-crossing relay of taggers and tag-ees.

This is not your typical schoolyard game of tag. The Tag Brothers plan and execute tags with the seriousness and dedication of resourceful adults. Their movements put one in mind not of the tomfoolery of schoolchildren but the merciless cunning of hitmen, participants in The Most Dangerous Game, taking turns at being prey and predator, hunter and quarry.

They gather intelligence on their targets, conscript accomplices, don (often ludicrous) disguises. They scheme, they stalk, they strategize. They engage in all manner of subterfuge and deception. When eluding their would-be taggers, they plant red herrings and false trails, lay low or hide out like fugitives.

The story of the Tag Brothers was first covered in the Wall Street Journal on January 28, 2013, after a family friend tipped off a reporter at a party. It was a front-page story. “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It,” read the headline. “Group of Men Have Played Game of Tag for 23 Years; Hiding in Bushes, Cars.”

Amman hadn’t even thought to tell his family about the game until the article was published; he was more nervous about telling his boss. “You never know what someone is going to think about a group of grown-ups playing tag,” he says.

There was a huge response to the Wall Street Journal article, and an enormous amount of follow-up coverage, in print, on radio and on television. In Shine: Rediscovering Your Energy, Happiness and Purpose, a self-help book by Andy Cope and Gavin Oattes, the case of the Tag Brothers was held up as an inspirational example of preserving the joy and innocence of youth. The takeaway lesson: “You can have a happy childhood at any age.” And, on June 15, Tag, a movie inspired by the story, starring Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher and Rashida Jones, hits theaters.

With all the press attention in 2013, the game intensified. This year, with the new movie on the way, the game kicked up several notches more, with a noted increase in smack talk. As a number of them told me, “No one wants to be It at the premiere.”

In February, I traveled to Seattle to embed myself with a covert tagging operation (on hearing my plan, one of them said, “You’re like Wolf Blitzer”), but also to hear their stories and observe their much publicized, outsize friendships first-hand.

I quickly got the impression that, for some of the Tag Brothers, the game is a counterpoint to a more serious occupation or loftier calling. Mike Konesky is a consultant with IBM; Sean Raftis is a Catholic priest in Columbia Falls, Montana; Joe Tombari teaches math at the school where it all started; Patrick “Paddy” Schultheis is the chair of the corporate department of one of the biggest law firms in the country, overseeing four hundred corporate lawyers. 

“My profession is very serious,” says Paddy. “But it’s important to me to remember I’m just a middle-aged guy who grew up in Spokane, with a bunch of really good friends.”

*

They were ten boys who attended Gonzaga Preparatory High School in the ’80s.

They were an eclectic bunch. Some were varsity athletes, some were members of the trivia club, some held positions in student government. If they had one thing in common, it was a sense of humor and mischief, and a lunatic tendency to take it too far. Chris and Sean once hung a sign from an overpass that read, “Party at Konesky’s.” Mike got revenge by kidnapping Sean, strapping him to a stretcher and leaning him up against a street sign at the entrance to the school. 

In 1982, they started playing tag, and playing it fiercely, hyper-competitively, like an extreme sport, with all the energy and single-mindedness of testosterone-addled adolescent boys. Whoever was It would be the butt of mockery and ridicule—playful, yes, but the way that getting strapped to a stretcher and propped up at the entrance to the school was playful.

They were regularly late to class. Sometimes, they would sit in on classes that weren’t their own to avoid being tagged. Bill Akers once collided with a book-carrying sophomore girl in the hallway at full speed. She hit the ground; he kept running. “I found her after school to apologize, and she wanted to know why I was running. I said I didn’t want to be tagged. She said, ‘You guys are so immature.’ I was seventeen at the time.” Akers pauses for a beat. “Now I’m fifty-two. I doubt her opinion of me or us has changed.”

In June, on the last day of finals, Tombari found himself It. His masterplan involved driving to Paddy’s on the pretense of collecting Akers’s copy of Of Mice and Men. With fewer than ten minutes left in the game, Paddy locked himself in his car, in his driveway. Tombari stood outside, helpless. To his horror and humiliation, he would be It for life. Or so he thought.

A few years after graduation, during an informal reunion in the winter of ’89-’90, there was much fond reminiscence of schoolyard antics, the tag game in particular. And then, someone suggested—maybe not entirely seriously—that the game ought to be resurrected.

Well, what if it was? How would it work? How could ten adults, dispersed around the country and with other things going on in their lives, set about playing a meaningful, enjoyable game of tag? 

They devised and agreed upon three main rules. The game would only be played in February—from midnight February 1st to the last moments of February 28th, or 29th in a leap year. There would be no touch-backs, meaning a tagger would be immune to being simply tagged in return. And, if asked, “Are you It?,” one must respond promptly and truthfully.

Paddy, a junior lawyer at the time, was tasked with drawing up a contract. The nine-page Tag Participation Agreement, dated January 27, 1990, and signed by all ten “Participants,” outlined and defined the game, even went to the trouble of defining what constituted a “tag”:

“A valid tag occurs whenever (subject to Article II below) It intentionally causes his hand (right or left) to come into contact with the body or clothing of any other Participant.” 

It went on: 

“Tag shall be played by each and every Participant beginning, initially, on February 1, 1990 and ending on February 28, 1990. Thereafter, Tag shall be played during each and every February until the termination of this Agreement.”

Everyone signed their own copy of the document and sent them to Paddy for safekeeping.

By the end of January every year, whoever happens to have been It for the past eleven months is desperately raring to go. The other nine, meanwhile, are on high alert. 

“Many of us played sports together in high school,” says Akers. “Feb 1 feels a little bit like being in the locker room before the football game starts. Adrenaline. A little bit of nerves.” Tombari compares it to being like a deer or elk at the beginning of hunting season. 

Over the years, they have each developed and refined a personal evasive strategy and methods for thwarting enemy espionage. Every February morning, Amman lets his dog out his front door to sniff out anyone hiding in the bushes. He cuts back on social media, never disclosing his location, in fact posting false clues as to his whereabouts. He takes the freight elevator into work and has co-workers check if the coast is clear. Brian Dennehy avoids going out altogether and has even lied to family members about his travel plans. Bruiser locks himself in the house on the last day of the month. “Change your schedule, always be suspicious of friends and family and spread misinformation about your plans and whereabouts,” Amman says. “Always be prepared to tag someone else.” 

A conscious effort is made to tag evenly, democratically, among the group. Sometimes, especially towards the end of February, a would-be target will suspect, or glean from intelligence, that their time is running out. Sensing the sniper’s crosshairs closing in on them, they will often employ extreme evasive measures.

“I knew I was at target on the last day in 2016,” says Beef. “I got a room in Tacoma and stayed two days until the month ended.”

“I went to Mexico,” says Akers. “I told people I was going to Cabo when I really went to Cancun.”

As for being It—the feeling is multifarious. As was the case back in school, there’s a certain amount of shame and dishonor associated with it. Not in an abstract way, either, but plenty of actual jeering and taunting. But that shocking sensation of having been gotten, the initial disgrace, eventually gives way to the bloodthirsty thrill of the hunt. “I hear music in my head,” says Akers. “Usually the Mission: Impossible theme song. Sometimes James Bond music. Or ‘Eye of the Tiger.’”

But that assassin-like urge itself can gradually curdle into a sticky, sickly, burdensome feeling, a sense that the Itness is an oppressive weight or infection to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. 

Tombari describes being It as like having something “flowing through your veins,” comparing it to possessing the powerful, corrupting ring in Lord of the Rings; Father Sean Raftis likens it to being a character in a Cold War thriller.

No one, and nowhere, is safe.

Over the years, there have been tags in public and on private property, in homes and in backyards and in places of work, in the street and in shopping malls and in airport terminals and at the movies, over drinks, over dinner and, in one case, over someone’s dead body.

There have been too many instances of breaking-and-entering to count. Konesky once tagged Dennehy while he was in bed with his then-fiancée. (“That’s the G-rated version,” he told me.) Tombari tagged Paddy in the shower. (When Paddy told me the story a fellow Tag Brother interrupted with, “Where did he tag you?”)

Father Sean has been tagged during mass (“He’s a sitting duck on Sundays”), while he himself tagged Tombari after springing, Jack-in-the-box-like, out of Konesky’s car trunk. (Tombari’s wife was so alarmed she twisted her knee and blew her ACL, the worst tag-related injury thus far. She was a good sport about it.)

Bruiser once drove the one thousand miles from the Bay Area to Seattle to tag Beef while he was in the middle of a job interview—Beef didn’t get the job—whereas Konesky once flew across the state purely to acquire a tag from Beef so he could fly back and tag Tombari that same evening. 

Just this year, Akers was reprimanded and removed from a pool at the YWCA by a lifeguard, after tagging Mengert during his children’s swimming lessons.

Some of the more momentous tags have become enshrined in Tag history, their stories so frequently told that they are easily recollected by name alone: the aforementioned Trunk Tag, Home Invasion Tag and Shower Tag, but also the Hag Tag, the John Wilkes Booth Tag (which took place in a theater), and a tag dubbed The Michael Corleone Tag. The latter mirrored the choreography of the Louis’ Restaurant scene near the end of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone retrieves a handgun stashed away in the restroom, returns to the table and murders the rival gangster Sollozzo. The Tag Brothers’ version is similar, except that hiding in the restaurant restroom was not a handgun but Mark Mengert, currently It. “A thing of beauty,” Tombari remembers.

Tombari owns around ten wigs, a lot of mustaches, and professional facial hair kits. “A few years ago, a large costume shop went out of business and I went crazy,” he says.

“I am not much for disguises,” says Bruiser, “but have worn hats, overcoats and overalls. One time I wore a large ’70s-like poncho, cowboy hat, dark glasses and put myself in a wheelchair.”

Akers has posed as a cowboy and a fast food drive-thru window worker, sported a fake beard and wielded a walking cane. Amman has dressed as a UPS driver (Dennehy opened his front door with no hesitation) and a pushy beggar, and keeps a change of clothes and a disguise in his car during the whole of February.

“I lost my shame a long time ago,” says Beef, who has disguised himself as a nun, an elderly lady and a nurse. (“A redhead nurse,” he clarifies.)

One February 28th, Mengert crashed a major college basketball game in full costume as an anthropomorphic bulldog, one of the team’s mascots. Swatting away the children who gathered around him, he maneuvered into the row behind Dennehy and, since his voice wasn’t audible through the enormous bulldog headpiece, handed over a note. “You’re it,” the note read. “Your friend, Mark Mengert.”

Mengert’s glory and gloating was short-lived. That night, Dennehy managed to tag Akers, who mercilessly tagged Mengert back at a few minutes to midnight, when everyone else had made themselves scarce. It for another year.

Friends, family and co-workers have all been drawn into the Tag Brothers’ complex web as co-conspirators and spies. 

“My office manager Karen, secretary Deirdre and receptionist Cleo all know who the other taggers are, and zealously protect me during February,” says Paddy. “They do not disclose my whereabouts or schedules. Cleo keeps a Taser behind her desk, in case one of the Tag Brothers tries to blow past her in February to tag me. She is not afraid to use it.” 

But loyalties and allegiances shift, even across bloodlines, with family members acting as double agents. One of the lessons of the game, says Akers, is that no one can be trusted.

“Son, daughter, and wife have all betrayed me,” says Dennehy. “I don’t harbor a grudge. That’s what wills are for.” 

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to sell out a priest, though one of Father Sean’s friends has done it. “Catholicism is about forgiveness and mercy,” he says, even-handedly. “So I readily forgave him.”

For the Tag Brothers, there’s a lot of personal satisfaction to be gained from executing an especially creative or ingenious tag. But, sometimes, foiled or otherwise unsuccessful attempts are as fondly remembered as the successful ones, such as the time when Beef, with a fake mustache and wearing a hard helmet, was escorted away from Amman’s office by building security, having been pretending to “triangulate” the area. “I mean,” says Amman, “who would think that was suspicious in this day and age?” Another time, Paddy, rightly suspecting he was about to be ambushed at the airport, arranged for a driver to collect him—then exited via a different terminal and took his own car home. (Bruiser hovered near the driver holding up Paddy’s name, ready to pounce, for some time—one of several failed airport tags.)

“I spent a week working with the chemistry teacher,” says Tombari, “trying to figure out how to start a fire on Meng’s car without it damaging his car, to try and get him to come out of his house. I never pulled the trigger on that one because I didn’t want to ruin the paint job.” 

Konesky once flew from Washington to Boston and spent three days staking out Amman’s apartment, only to find out he was in New York for the weekend.

Ultimately, however, there’s little disagreement about what has been the all-time greatest, most brazen tagging. On the afternoon of Friday, February 15th, 2013, at St. Aloysius Church, Spokane, Paddy was seated in the front pew at his father’s funeral. During communion, friends and family offered their heartfelt condolences as they passed him by. And then he felt a reassuring and familiar hand on his shoulder.

“You’re It,” said Beef. 

There was a pause.

“Really?” 

“Yep.” 

As February began this year, Tombari was It.

Tombari tags Amman, Amman tags Bruiser, Bruiser (dressed as an airport janitor) tags Akers as he is returning from Mexico, Akers tags Beef as he tries to help a (phony) stranded motorist, Beef tags Amman, Amman tags Paddy (after lurking in Paddy’s yard for some time), Paddy tags Akers, Akers tags Mengert at the YMCA swimming pool (allegedly yanking a lifeguard into the water in the process), Mengert tags Tombari (after a plan to tag Konesky is foiled), Tombari coordinates with Paddy’s wife and tags him in the shower (again), Paddy (hiding in the washroom stalls) tags Amman at a urinal, Amman tags Tombari, Tombari (dressed as an old man with a walking frame) tags Konesky…

And then, in the third week of this year’s game and for the first time in its history, an outsider was used as bait—a journalist who’d reached out to Chris Amman for an interview for a story.

I meet Konesky—currently It—across the street from The Brooklyn, about twenty minutes before he plans to tag Chris.

“I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m fired up,” he says, scanning the surroundings through his Ray-Bans, which are part of a disguise that also includes a mullet and soul patch. He wonders if Amman will make a run for it. “If he takes off, I’m ready to roll.”

Even I, with no stake in the matter—and a mere walk-on role in what is, remember, a children’s game—become tense and nervous as Konesky assumes his position and my meeting time with Amman draws closer.

The tagging goes off without a hitch, much to the baffled amusement of the bar staff, and there are laughs and back-slapping all round. For a while, Amman has the red-faced look of someone who’s just been humiliated in public. “I’ve got some time, I’ve got some time,” he says, reassuring himself. 

Before long, an evening’s truce is called, and several Tag Brothers have gathered for drinks. The first order of business is a blow-by-blow account of the afternoon’s tagging.

They laugh hard and laugh often. February, I’m told, is often the only time many of them get to see each other. Without the excuse of this game, they agree, some of them might not be in close contact at all. “This game pre-dates everyone’s marriages,” says Beef. “We get a pass.” But Akers points out that, until the response to the Wall Street Journal article was so huge, none of them thought their friendships were that remarkable or special. 

“When we were younger it was more of a fun thing,” says Konesky. “For me, definitely as we get older it’s really, really cool. It takes a little effort to stay friends with people, you know. I talk to a lot of people who don’t stay in touch with their high school friends anymore. And maybe they wish they had, I don’t know. I think I appreciate it more and more every year.”

(Father Sean, who couldn’t be present, would later tell me via email that he’s had a series of severe diverticulitis attacks in the last few months. “The Tag Brothers were all in touch,” he said, “praying for me and expressing their love for me during that time. That helped save my life.”)

After at least one round of drinks, I’m emboldened enough to ask the question: What’ll the game be like twenty, thirty, forty years from now?

“You know what,” starts Konesky, “we could be in a home for old people, and we would be going down the hallways…” He mimes the wheeling of a wheelchair. “Where do we go from here? It’ll just keep going.”

Sure, I say. But after that? How will the game end?

“We’ve thought about that,” says Amman, looking less red-faced now. “Do you hand it down to your children?” He mulls it over. “It’s not going to be the same.”

“Eventually somebody will die. Hopefully that person’s not It when they die.” 

“I think there’s no disagreement about what happens. If the person who’s It is in a casket, then the previous tagger—” 

Someone else finishes the thought: “It goes back.” There’s a beat. “Just the fact that we’re thinking about that is crazy.”

“Well, at some point,” says Akers, “somebody will be It for eternity.”

They all laugh.

Five days later, on the night of February 28th, Konesky earned the “Championship Tag Belt” for a successful eleventh-hour tagging.

Until next February, Akers is It.

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