On the surface, my longtime friend Father Sean Raftis appears to be a mild-mannered small-town Montana pastor.

But every February, he and nine of his former schoolmates from Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane, Washington, do something extraordinary — so extraordinary, in fact, that it has inspired a new major motion picture.

They play tag.

Make no mistake, this isn’t mere playground tag but a grown-up version, with no tagbacks and no geographical boundaries. The 10 friends have been doing it annually for 28 years, having bound themselves to a “Tag Participation Agreement” drawn up by a lawyer among them. It’s how they keep in touch — literally.

Now, five years after a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal brought worldwide notice to the “Tag Brothers,” the exploits of Father Raftis and his friends have been transformed by Hollywood into “Tag,” with an all-star cast that includes Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress.

None of “Tag’s” characters is a priest — which is doubtless a good thing, as the film is rated R (for crude speech and behavior, and brief nudity). But Father Raftis told me in a recent interview that, despite the film’s worldly elements, it contains a spiritual message that captures something of the joy of the real-life game.

 

Dawn Eden Goldstein: I remember calling you one evening in late 2012 and you apologized for not having been available to speak at the original time we had arranged, because you had an interview with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. And I wondered what a Journal reporter could possibly want from a pastor of a rural parish in Townsend, Montana.

Father Sean Raftis: I know it didn’t quite register. You were, like, “What is wrong with this picture?” People don’t come to me for financial counseling — with good reason, frankly.

Not only that: I never was a businessman, I wasn’t that great in sports and I never had any opportunity to be involved in movies. Well, God has a great sense of humor, because we hit the Wall Street Journal on the front page. Then the head of SportsCenter on ESPN loved the article so much that we made it onto that show.

Then the coach from Carroll College, Mike Van Diest, called and said, “Father, I have a day off on Monday and I know you do, too. Could you say Mass for me and we could go out to breakfast?”

We had a nice Mass, and when we went out to breakfast, he said, “Father, I’ve been head coach for 26 years and I’ve never been featured on ESPN. And you make it on ESPN.”

I wasn’t even qualified to be a waterboy! And then this movie comes out, and it’s like this trifecta of God’s sense of humor being enacted. He chooses the weak to confound the strong.


Goldstein: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did the tag game begin, when you were at Gonzaga Prep?

Father Raftis: We had a 20- or 25-minute break in the morning and people would be skirting to their classes, and it just happened. I think it was either Mike Konesky or Joe “Beef” Caferro or Joe Tombari — basically, one of them said right before they got into class, “Tag, you’re It.”

Then it took on a life of its own. I remember seeing people running down halls and things like that — people were getting books knocked out of their hands.

You weren’t allowed to run in the hall, otherwise you’d get Jug, which was detention. So you risked having to work an hour after school, doing cleanup or some other manual task.


Goldstein: Were you all in the same grade?

Father Raftis: All but one. Patrick Schultheis was a year ahead of us — which leads to an interesting story.

In 1982, on the last day of school for us juniors — the seniors had already graduated — Joe was It, and at lunch break he decided to drive approximately five miles to Patrick’s house. But Bill Akers tipped Pat off. He got on the pay phone — this was before cell phones — and called Pat at his home, saying, “Joe’s on his way to tag you.” What Pat did was go out into his driveway, unlock his car, get inside, lock the car doors and just sit there waiting for Joe.

Joe arrived at Pat’s home, making up some story like, “I forgot my hat,” or “I forgot something at our last poker game,” and Pat was totally stringing him along.

Finally, Pat asked, “Are you It?” Joe was, like, “Aw! Yeah.”

Joe went back to school, the game was over, and Joe was It for life.

 

Goldstein: Ten players is a lot for a game of tag. How did you wind up with so many?

Father Raftis: Many of us had known each other before high school. We weren’t the jocks or the “glitterati” of the school. But these guys had great senses of humor. In college and for some time after, we’d get together during the winter and play Snow Bowl — a game of football in the snow. We actually videotaped some of them; they were hilarious. And then we’d go and hang out afterwards. 

It was just a chance for us to get back together, because most of the guys went to college in different states. So we would converge during Christmas break or summer break and get together regularly; we were pretty tight.

 

Goldstein: All 10 of you!

Raftis: We had other friends, but we just kind of coalesced as a group. And one day — it was around 1990 — we were giving Joe a bad time about being It for life, and somebody said, “Hey, why don’t we resurrect the game?” Patrick wrote up the Tag Participation Agreement, and the rest is history.

 

Goldstein: Tell me more about how that agreement came about.

Father Raftis: It was at that time, about seven years after graduating high school, when people were getting married, settling in their jobs. That time can be a point of departure, where, the next thing you know, it’s your 30th high school reunion and you don’t recognize people, and you certainly don’t keep in touch. We knew that was going to happen.

The move to restart the game was a Holy Spirit thing, as though all our guardian angels were whispering in our ears. 

I lost my dad to cancer in 1986, and at the time we rebooted the game, my mom was dying of cancer. Having these ties of friendship really helped me get through a difficult time.

You know that movie “A Man for All Seasons”? The guys remind me of “friends for all seasons.”

 

Goldstein: Are the players’ wives or girlfriends really as involved in the game as they are in the film?

Father Raftis: Yes. Jackie, Beef’s cousin, who’s married to Mike Konesky, went through high school with us. In February 2013, when ESPN was covering the game, she told Joe “Joey T.” Tombari, who was It, that she, Mike and their three girls were all going to see “The Little Mermaid” at Gonzaga Prep. And ESPN got it on tape — Mike got nailed!

He thought Rick “The Bruiser” Bruya was It, and that Bruiser was in Seattle. But little did he know that, earlier in the day, Bruiser drove 4 ½ hours from Seattle to Spokane to tag Joey T. 

Mike thought he was totally safe. He walked through the doors of the theater and Joe was standing right there. In the video, you can see Joe jump out and tag a disbelieving and stunned Mike: “You’re It!”

And Mike had to sit through the show — what was he going to do? By the time it’s the evening of the last day of February, everybody is in lockdown mode. I sure was.


Goldstein: Really?

Father Raftis: It’s brutal. The first day and the last day are the most harrowing. If you’re not It on the first day, as Joe Tombari said, you’re like an elk in hunting season. You just have this weird feeling. And on the last day, you’re panicked if you’re not It and you’re panicked if you are It, because you know that “tempus fugit,” and it’s going to be the stroke of midnight.

When I was living in Seattle, I rented a room in a big house. It had lots of entrances, and lots of bushes and rhododendrons. 

Beef was It and kept calling me. He convinced me that he was seeing me through the window.

I ran about the house frantically, shutting windows and locking doors. I went downstairs into the big storage area to see if there were any basement windows ajar.

I was a mess, and he kept calling me and taunting me. In actuality Joe was about 15 miles away.

 

Goldstein: When Mark Steilen was writing the “Tag” script, did you tell him these stories?

Father Raftis: Mark’s a great guy and really smart. He went to Gonzaga Prep as well. He had graduated before we did, and by the time he got ahold of us, he was already a well-established writer in Los Angeles. That’s why we chose him; he’s a very talented writer.

He knows all the principals; he went to school with siblings or cousins of ours. He knew my brother really well because my brother was good friends with his sister in high school.

 

Goldstein: Vice magazine said that the film could be seen as a treatise on the need for twentysomethings to have male friendship.

Father Raftis: The good and the true and the beautiful — friendship is part of that. Christ said, “I call you friends” [John 15:15]. 

So Christ started with the disciples — there was a group of male friends. Whether it’s the Knights Templar, the Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans or the soldiers in “Band of Brothers,” there’s something very beautiful and good, in the agape sense, about friendship, which is conveyed in “Tag.”

When the article came out, it was published into many different languages around the world. That golden thread has to do with the yearnings of the human heart, which are for communion. Friendship is part of that communion of saints in the Mystical Body of Christ.

Our lives are supposed to be friendship with God. If we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ, friendship with one another is a form of friendship with God.

 

Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and, as Dawn Eden, is the author of several books.

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