For years, they've gathered every weekend on a grassy field in Dundalk to play tackle football. A gang of spirited, blue-collar twentysomethings, they shake hands, choose sides and, for three hours, wale the tar out of each other.
So, when they heard about the first Baltimore Flag Football Festival on Saturday — an all-day, round-robin tournament at Pimlico Race Course promising $1,200 to the winner — the crew from Dundalk signed on. After all, how hard could the flag game be, once you're used to playing tackle?
They learned quickly. Dundalk lost three games by a combined score of 121-12 and left the Pimlico infield sadder but wiser, and with a healthy respect for a game that many folks take lightly.
"We will get better," Dundalk captain Christopher Day promised. "This was a learning experience. For this tournament, we each bought [$20] jerseys with a big 'D' on the front, and we're still going to wear them with pride, around town."
The festival, whose proceeds benefited Baltimore Toys for Tots, drew 53 teams in various divisions — men, women, coed and youth — with the cash prize going to the men's elite champion. The event drew teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, as well as Maryland.
Most of the men's entries were star-laden, tourney-hardened teams like the D.C. Jets, 2008 national champions of the U.S. Flag and Touch Football League. The Jets, a veteran team boasting some former college players, roared past Dundalk, 64-0, prompting Day, 22, to address his charges.
"What happened today at Pimlico stays at Pimlico," he warned.
"It's already on Facebook," a player said.
Another threatened to burn his jersey. His teammates wound hear none of that.
After the rout, the Jets' coach empathized with Dundalk, which hadn't thought to hire a coach.
"When we started out, 15 years ago, we got our heads beat in, too," Melvin Pickett said. "You've got to start somewhere. Flag football is like anything else; it takes time to get that chemistry. You've got to join a league, take your lumps and learn."
Saturday, the Jets were proof of that. They wound up winning it all and pocketed the $1,200.
The only neighborhood team in its bracket, Dundalk is a melange of 11 high school graduates: custodians and stock clerks, mechanics and fast-food workers. Some grew up together. All are eager to meet Saturday afternoons behind Eastwood Elementary, as they've long done, to play old-fashioned pickup games of knock-down football, minus pads, until dark. Afterward, they talk trash, lick their wounds and head to places like Cactus Willie's for the all-you-can-eat buffet.
"We come together as friends," said Jeremy Carpenter, 22, who raises party tents for a living. Carpenter, who played football at Dundalk High, arrived at Pimlico on Saturday wearing earrings and with two silver snake bites in his pierced lips.
"We all still love the game, and playing it now keeps us out of trouble and away from the police," he said. "Instead of doing something stupid, we play football. 'Course, we never wear pads, so how stupid is that?"
They play all winter, in all kinds of weather. "Snow is the best; it's more of a challenge," said Richard Moore, who also attended Dundalk High. "You've got to be dedicated to play in a blizzard when it's six inches deep."
The players have learned to make the best with what they've got. Monday nights, Carpenter said, the group gathers at General John Stricker Middle School, where youth-league soccer games are played under the lights.
"When the pee wees go home, we run out there and play football until they turn the lights out," he said.
But Saturday's showing has given the Dundalk team something greater to aspire to, Day said.
"This was all new to us," he said. "None of us had big heads coming in here. We just love to play football, man, and you don't know what you're up against until you try.
"We learned that there are better people playing flag football than what you seem to think, people who are really committed to this game. I saw legitimate football players out there. Now we're going to get into a league, come back and, hopefully, turn some heads.
"We lost, what, 64-0? We can only go up, from this point. We didn't let Dundalk down. We're going to build on this."