The Tag Game Played for Over 20 Years

They leap out of car trunks, break into one another’s homes, and go on wild chases. Ten school friends have played a single game of tag for more than two decades.

Tag
Dan Saelinger for Reader’s Digest

Last February, as Joseph “Beef ” Caferro was walking into a Seattle pub, he was accosted by an aggressive panhandler. Caferro, who is prone to sporting gold chains and wearing a yellow polyester leisure suit, did not take kindly to this. When the guy refused to back down, words were exchanged. The guy reached out to grab Caferro.

Caferro recoiled. The panhandler yelled, “You’re It!”

“Oh, @#$%!” Caferro said, laughing. The guy was Chris Ammann, a friend in disguise. Caferro shouldn’t have been so surprised. The next day, he used a similar tactic and went undercover as a woman to tag his friend Rick Bruya.

This, then, is the true story of how deceit, treachery, paranoia, and espionage have kept a group of now middle-aged friends together for more than 30 years.

Taggers
Courtesy Mike Konesky

The Players

These aren’t just a bunch of overgrown kids running around shouting, “Tag! You’re It!” OK, maybe they are a bunch of overgrown kids running around shouting, “Tag! You’re It!” But they’re also successful professionals, businessmen, and spiritual leaders who have taken this childhood game to a whole other level by combining a Peter Pan–ish I’ll-never-grow-up mind-set with the money and wherewithal to pull off the ridiculous. Along the way, the guys have laughed, plotted, grown closer, and kept their inner child well nurtured.

They are: Bill Akers, health care executive; Chris Ammann, financial services professional; Rick Bruya, recreation coordinator; Joseph Caferro, aerospace engineer; Brian Dennehy, chief marketing officer; Mike Konesky, technology executive; Mark Mengert, machine-shop owner; Father Sean Raftis, Catholic priest; Patrick Schultheis, attorney; and Joe Tombari, high school teacher. All are 48, except Dennehy, who is 47.

In the Beginning …

In 1982, ten buddies at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane had an ongoing game of tag. All but one decided to end it on the final day of school. The holdout was junior Joe Tombari. He was It. At a Christmastime reunion in 1989, Tombari, tired of wearing the Yoke of Shame, as it would come to be known, convinced his pals to revive the game. They agreed that every February, whoever was It at 11:59 p.m. on February 28 or 29 would be It until the following February 1. Schultheis, then a first-year lawyer, wrote up a tag participation contract, which was signed by all. The contract specified the rules, including one disallowing tag-backs and another requiring a player to answer honestly when asked if he is It because the identity of a tagged player wouldn’t otherwise be revealed.

The Art of the Tag

The spirit of the game is documented on the website tagbrothers.com: The tag is generally passed around no more than once if the guys are together, since an easy ambush is not considered worthy of advanced play. The Tagbrother style of play is more Jason Bourne than Dennis the Menace, but not much more. And the guys take this sentiment to heart. As you’ll see, there is no such thing as an out-of-bounds tag:

● Late one night, Konesky, channeling Bourne, broke into Dennehy’s garage, tiptoed into the darkened house, threw open the bedroom door, and turned on the light. Dennehy’s wife, realizing a hit was coming down, screamed, “Run, Brian!” But there was nowhere to run. Dennehy was It.

● Wanting to enjoy some quality time with his kids, Konesky bought tickets to the movie The Little Mermaid. As Konesky and his children entered the theater, he was immediately tagged by Tombari, who was waiting for him behind a door. How did Tombari find out where Konesky would be? He had an informant: Mrs. Konesky.

● During the funeral for Schultheis’s father, Caferro went to the altar to receive Communion. On the way, he laid a reassuring hand on his bereaved friend’s shoulder. As he continued past, he mouthed, “You’re It.”

Mask
Dan Saelinger for Reader’s Digest

Tag Teams

The guys often work together, and on occasion an innocent bystander becomes a victim. Once, when Raftis was It, he and Konesky conspired to tag Tombari. They drove to his home, and Konesky persuaded Tombari and his wife, JoAnne, to come outside to see Konesky’s new golf clubs. When Konesky opened the trunk of his car, Raftis sprung out. Recalling the look on JoAnne’s face, Raftis said, “It must be unsettling to see a human hand coming out of a trunk.” In fact, JoAnne was so startled that she backed up to a curb and fell, tearing her ACL, which left her husband with a tough decision: “Run from the tag and hide out somewhere, or stay and help my wife.” Fortunately for JoAnne, it wasn’t the end of the month, so there would be plenty of time for Tombari to tag someone else.

Wily Vets Are Tough

You don’t play tag for 31 years without picking up a trick or two. One day, Bruya found out when Schultheis was due to arrive on a flight to Seattle from Arizona and headed to the airport. At the terminal, Bruya spotted a chauffeur holding up a sign with Schultheis’s name on it. Bruya waited nearby, his tag hand itching to go to work. But the sign was a diversion. Schultheis had suspected something might be up, so he hired the driver to lure Bruya, snuck out through 
another terminal, jumped into his car, and drove home.

Paranoia Runs Deep

Trash can
Dan Saelinger for Reader’s Digest

For 11 months out of the year, life in Washington State, where most of the players live, is pretty staid, as the guys devote much of their time and energy to their families and jobs. But come February 1, all hell breaks loose. Then the friends live like fugitives, peer out windows, alter routines, and put office security guards and staff on high alert. Even marriages are strained. Ammann was furious with his wife one February 28 after she posted on Facebook that they were home—he had been texting everyone that he was holed up in a remote hotel. Why all the anxiety? Because duplicity is an integral part of the game, and no one knows when or from where the next tag is coming.

Remember that you-must-admit-you’re-It contract rule? It can’t always be trusted. One time, Konesky and Tombari, roommates in San Jose, California, were in their kitchen together before leaving for work. Something made Tombari ask Konesky if he was It. Konesky replied, honestly, that he wasn’t. They agreed to meet for lunch later that day. Seeing a good opportunity to trick Tombari, Konesky hopped a flight to Los Angeles and met Caferro, who was It, at the airport. Caferro tagged Konesky, who returned immediately to San Jose. Then he met Tombari for lunch and tagged him.

Believe it or not, this tactic has a name: the Michael Corleone Tag. Its genesis: the scene in The Godfather when the young Corleone is patted down to show a corrupt police officer that he’s not carrying a gun, only to knock off the cop in a restaurant with a pistol that had been hidden in the men’s room earlier.

Variations on a Theme

Of course, this move is not to be confused with the Lone Gunman Michael Corleone Tag. A few years ago, Akers met Raftis for lunch. It was a somber, soul-searching occasion—Raftis was debating whether or not to become a priest. Mengert was also invited but couldn’t make it. Or so he said. Akers went to the bathroom at one point and was shocked to be tagged by Mengert. “He was waiting for one of us—he didn’t care which one,” remembered Akers.

If Raftis was looking for a sign, he might have found one: Akers returned to the table and patted his friend on the shoulder benevolently. “You’re It,” he said.

Raftis is now a priest in Townsend, Montana. He loves the calling, but he has mixed feelings about the location. “There are lots of hiding places in Montana,” he recently said. “On the other hand, if I should get tagged the last day of the month, Spokane is a seven-hour drive, and it would be in lockdown.”

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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