Most fall football players are decked out in full pads and a helmet. But on Saturday in Rogers Park in Brighton, Mark Mitchell preferred a shiny gold suit.
The 38-year-old former college football player, who played for Dean and Mount Ida Colleges, was competing in his fourth year with Three Piece Suit Football. The annual charity event has been held every October in Boston since 2014 after getting its start in Atlanta. And, as the name implies, all players were decked out in formal wear that went that went through the ringer of full contact, tackle football.
Mitchell, who was playing quarterback for the Red Team (the other side was aptly named the Blue Team), had unique insight into how difficult it was to throw the ball in an outfit more suited for the disco than the gridiron on what turned out to be an unseasonably warm day.
“Especially in this metallic suit, it’s really hot. It’s like an oven, man. It’s really hot,” Mitchell said, adding that the heat wasn’t the only challenge. “Throwing a football in a suit, ‘cause you can’t get a full range of motion in your arm … that’s probably that hardest part.”
It was a scene unlike most others in the history of the sport. But for those involved, there was a good reason to put their bodies on the line while dressed in their Sunday worst.
The goal of the event was to raise money for Operation Delta Dog, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that trains rescue dogs to be service animals for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma.
Cameron Miller, who grew up in Georgia, brought Three Piece Suit Football to Boston while he was finishing his doctoral program in psychology and working at the Veterans Affairs hospitals in Jamaica Plain and Brockton. While Miller was here, his Boston friends saw what the Atlanta chapter of Three Piece Suit Football had become since beginning in 2009, and they wanted to start a local branch.
Victor Morency, one of Miller’s friends, has lived all around the Boston area and helped get the Boston’s game off the ground. At least 200 people were gathered in the park on Saturday to watch the game — something that would have seemed like a longshot when Three Piece Suit Football came to town in 2014.
“I mean, when we first started, there was like maybe five to six people, and it’s just our closest friends,” Morency said. “I don’t know the exact numbers for this year, but I think this is the most people we’ve had ever and also a constant turnout, which is good as well. Like, we still have people checking in, like, in the fourth quarter, which has never happened.”
The event, not surprisingly, had a carnival-like atmosphere with odd attire, ranging from a leopard print getup to a more classic prom look. On the sidelines, Morency was adorned in a McDowell’s uniform à la Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America.” Then there was the game’s mascot, Ronnie Peaches, who worked the crowd with a custom, peach jacket, hat and cane.
The game itself was an as bizarre as the outfits. Seven players from each side pummeled each other on a 70-yard field while two emcees gave commentary that doubled as friendly heckling from the sidelines. While there were officials, the contest resembled more of a backyard football game, with lots of scrambles by quarterbacks in the backfield looking for receivers to get open and plenty of fumbles.
Emily Mangiaratti, who plays roller derby and took on her first Three Piece Suit game on Saturday, is a dog trainer with Operation Delta Dog. Mangiaratti said she appreciated the physicality of the game.
“It’s intense,” she said. “These guys are like really rolling here, we’re really playing real football, which is great, because I don’t really know the rules of football too well, but I’m picking it up quick.”
Mangiaratti said the event helped to draw additional attention to what Operation Delta Dog does.
And the results speak for themselves: founder Miller said they’ve raised around $60,000 for Operation Delta Dog in the last seven years from the Boston event.
Heather Kosakowski, who served five years in the Marine Corps and has PTSD, is directly benefitting from that partnership. She recently graduated from Operation Delta Dog with her service animal Juno, a 3-year-old black lab mix rescue from Alabama. They were both at the game Saturday. Kosakowski said it was humbling to see the crowd.
“Like, there were a lot of years where I just felt alone and isolated and nobody understood or nobody cared,” Kosakowski said. “But through Operation Delta Dog and through events like this, I’m able to see that there’s a whole world of people out there that, even though they can’t really understand, they do really care. And so that’s, I don’t know, it gives me chills. It’s really cool that there’s so many people with so much heart.”
By day’s end, there wasn’t a suit on the field that wasn’t ripped, stained or bloodied. The Blue Team beat the Red Team 31-20 in what was being described as one of the more competitive games in the event’s history. But afterwards, both teams came together to shake hands and stand together at midfield, having accomplished something much more than just a bizarro game of football.
Esteban is a reporter for GBH News. Born and raised in Texas, he interned at the San Antonio Express-News, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and The Dallas Morning News before coming to Boston. He’s a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas, where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Mercury, and was a DJ for Radio UTD.