COLUMBIA FALLS — Every Jan. 31, Sean Raftis, the Catholic priest at St. Richard’s Parish, starts feeling the pressure.
It’s not his church schedule — by this point in the year, the holiday masses are over and priests get a bit of a breather. No, this feeling of being sharper, being more aware, being more in tune with his surroundings — it’s a game strategy.
Because every February, from midnight on Feb. 1 to midnight on the final day of the month, it’s open season for a game of tag that Raftis played with his friends in high school and brought back in 1990 and is now the subject of a major motion picture.
“Tag,” featuring Hollywood heavyweights Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher, Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, and many more, opened in theaters June 15.
Raftis was in Spokane for the premiere, the city where all this started.
“It’s been such a laugh,” Raftis said last week before heading to the premiere. “In high school, we used to play tag. After we graduated, we got together less frequently and saw each other less, so in 1990, we said let’s resurrect the game of tag.”
For Raftis and his friends — Brian Dennehy, Bill Akers, Chris Ammann, Joe Tombari, Patrick Shultheis, Rick Bruja, Joey Caferro, Mark Mengert and Mike Konesky — the game is about competition and cunning, but it’s also about getting together with the people who saw you become who you are and have been there throughout your life. The men attended Gonzaga Preparatory High School together, and the game has seen them through careers and families, triumph and heartbreak, making them Tag Brothers.
Check-ins with friends like this are an important part of life, Raftis said, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also be absolutely hilarious.
There are three rules for tag, which were memorialized in legalese back in 1990 when Schultheis was a first-year lawyer and are now kept in a safe: The game is only played in February, whoever is “it” has to be honest about it, and there are no tag-backs (meaning, you can’t tag the person who just tagged you). Whoever ends up it at the end of the month is it for the rest of the year.
Other than that, it’s about planning and preparation. Raftis said the person who is it throughout the rest of the year has months to plan their ultimate move, and the other players just have to stay wary. But even sometimes that’s not enough, Raftis said.
One February before Raftis started seminary school, Akers offered to take him to lunch. Given the month, Raftis asked if Akers was it, and Akers said no. After the men ordered, Akers went to the restroom, where Mengert, who was it, was waiting.
Mengert tagged Akers without Raftis knowing, and when Akers came back to the table, he tagged Raftis.
“We call it the ‘Michael Corleone tag’ because it’s not personal, it’s business,” Raftis said, laughing. “It happened to me again in Tacoma like 10 years later.”
There was another time when Raftis was it, and he hid in the trunk of Konesky’s Honda Accord while Konesky drove over to Tombari’s house. When they arrived, Konesky told Tombari he bought some new golf clubs and that he should check them out in the trunk of his car.
When the trunk popped open, Raftis’ hand shot out at the sweatshirt he saw, which actually belonged to Tombari’s newlywed wife, who was so startled she fell backward off the curb and tore the ACL in her knee.
“I felt so bad about it,” Raftis said.
But he got Tombari, and they all went out for pizza and beer, and Raftis said that was when he really got to know his friend’s wife better as they laughed into the evening.
Another time, Raftis was living with roommates in a large, old house in Seattle with big windows. He received a call from Caferro, who was it and said he could see Raftis alone in the house. Raftis spent the next three hours hiding away and trying to find an entrance point before Caferro admitted he was actually 30 miles away.
“It was psychological warfare,” Raftis said.
There are years of stories like this, including one memorable tag during a Gonzaga University basketball game when one of the Tag Brothers dressed as the Gonzaga Prep mascot and gave a handwritten note to his target informing him he was now it.
Raftis was working at a parish in Townsend, Montana when the Wall Street Journal piece about the game came out in 2013, which was then published in nearly every language in the world.
People responded to the story because it was funny, he said, but also because it showed the love these men have for each other. Such displays of friendship and genuine fondness and care for one another feel like they’re getting rarer, he said, when they’re more important than ever.
“We live in an age when things are pretty cynical and polarized,” Raftis said. “But everybody is glad to have a friend.”
“Tag” is playing at theaters in Kalispell and Whitefish. Check online for show times.