The movie Tag, in theaters June 15, may not be worth watching, but the story it is based on is well worth hearing.

The movie is a raunchy take on a very sweet tale. It’s about Father Sean Raftis and nine childhood friends who have played an elaborate, coast-to-coast game of tag for nearly 30 years, a game that has meant that, every February since the 1990s, “You’re like a deer or elk in hunting season if you’re not It. If you’re It, you’re like a spy in the Cold War.”

More importantly, “In this culture where value is placed on things,” he told me, “we were always taught that people are ends in themselves, and to have one friend is a gift from God. Through this game, I’ve gotten to be a part of these men’s lives.”

The 10 men’s story became public in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article written by Russell Adams. “He really hit the nerve center, or the golden thread, of what this is about,” Father Raftis said.

The story captured the attention of scores of readers and then was followed by more and more media attention.

Author Dawn Eden Goldstein, a friend of Father Raftis, explained, “The tag brothers’ story touches people because it concerns men who found a creative way to maintain their high-school friendship. … These men, for a month out of every year, turn their energies to keeping in touch with one another — literally — and as a result, their high-school friendships are still going strong after some 30 years. One can’t help but admire them for that. Plus, they have a terrific amount of fun!”

The story begins in the 1970s.

That’s when Sean Raftis met Mark Mengert at St. Francis of Assisi elementary school — in the first grade. “We became friends at the first day of classes,” said Father Raftis, a parish priest in Columbia Falls, Montana.

They are friends to this day, and Father Raftis got me in touch by email with Mengert. The “tag brothers” have done several interviews in the run-up to the film. The film is in the mold of edgy buddy films like The Hangover — but the true story is centered on family

“Mark and his wife have six kids,” said Father Raftis. “The game is a great opportunity for me to go over, tag him, then hang out with him and his wife and his kids.”

“We all met at Gonzaga Prep,” he said. “That’s where we started the game.”

Another of the real-life tag brothers is Brian Dennehy, not to be confused with the veteran character actor Brian Dennehy, who plays the father of one of the film’s tag brothers. He explained how the group ended up together in high school.

“We weren’t the smart guys; we weren’t the dumb guys,” he told CBS. “We were probably the refugees from all the other cliques who didn’t accept us, so we made up our own gang.”

By one account, the game started as a way for the young friends to avoid having to study or go to Mass during a special period at school. Joe Caferro, or “Beef” as his friends call him, said that the tag game on a high-school campus was “chaos” when they would “chase people all through the halls.”

“There was mayhem,” he told CBS This Morning. “It was fun!”

But then it stopped. Joey Tombari was It in 1982 on the last day of high school. He almost got one of the others, but he hid in his parents’ car with the doors locked.

“I was It for life,” Tombari added. “That was no good.”

As it turned out, he was only It for eight years. In 1990, the friends got back together — after college had ended and careers and families had started — and decided to restart the game.

Patrick Schultheis, who had grown up to be a lawyer, drew up a quasi-contract, Father Raftis told me.

“He called it a ‘Tag Participation Agreement,’” he said. “You can only tag in February. There are no tag backs. And if you ask if I’m It and I am, I have to answer truthfully and reasonably promptly.”

 

Tag! You’re It

“Even if tag is a means to an end of keeping our friendship alive, it’s not an end in itself,” said Father Raftis. “Friendship is the end.”

Fair enough — but the tagging is important, too. How does it work?

“The last tag I did,” said Father Raftis, “was at church at Holy Cross about three years ago. Mike and Joe waited, and then, after Mass, they tagged me at my parish. So we went out to lunch together.”

Some stories of the tag game are legendary. When Schultheis’ father died, many of the tag brothers came to the funeral and patted Patrick on the shoulders as they walked up to Communion. Beef patted him a little longer than the others, and Patrick looked up to share a grateful look. “You’re It,” said Beef.

Schultheis said his dad would have appreciated the humor in that, and he did, too.

“There’s really no rules; whatever you can do to tag that other person — no shame, no embarrassment; just get them,” Mengert told local media.

Mike Konesky was once tagged going to a school play with his wife and daughters. The guy who tagged him knew he would be stuck in the play and have no time to get someone else before midnight on the last day of February.

“I was completely blindsided,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

The fact is, the tag brothers are all on high alert throughout February, so tagging is not easy.

Tombari and his daughter dressed as an old couple to get close enough to Beef to tag him in a restaurant that Joey learned he would be at.

The Wall Street Journal described a few more tagging exploits. Early in the 1990s, Konesky snuck into Dennehy’s house and up to his bedroom at 2am. “Run, Brian!” his wife shouted, but there was nowhere to run.

Rick Bruya planned to ambush Schultheis in an airport. He tracked down his flight and even found a driver waiting with his friend’s name on a card. It turned out to be a decoy. “It cost me a hundred bucks, but it was worth it,” said Schultheis.

What happened next for Father Raftis, after getting tagged in church? “After a week, I drove over to Spokane and went to where Mark Mengert works. I snuck in right around quitting time and tagged him.”

 

Masculine Friendships

Father Raftis brings the whole thing back to friendship and the need for men to have friends.

“Konesky had a great line: He said in this age of social media, where things can be so impersonal and your ‘friendship’ can be a click away without ever meeting someone, this game has allowed our ‘tag brothers’ to continue to build our friendship,” he said.

He pointed out that the mission of Jesus Christ to save the world began as a group of friends — the Twelve Apostles — sticking together. The great religious orders began the same way.

“This has happened several times over the last 20 years, through the ups and downs of life. It’s great to have just one friend. But that great movie — Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life — is profound. At the end, he [Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey] pulls out a book, Tom Sawyer, which was [the angel] Clarence’s book. In it, he wrote, ‘Remember no man is a failure who has friends.’”

“I’m proud of the fact that I still keep in touch with 10 really good guys,” Dennehy said. “If that’s not the definition of maturity and loyalty, I’m not sure what is.”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.