At the start of the movie “Tag,” viewers see this: “Inspired by a true story.” In his office in Mountlake Terrace, Bill Akers tells of living that story. He’s one of 10 real-life Tag Brothers. All are still in the game.
Akers, 53, is a senior vice president at Premera Blue Cross. He oversees a half-million customers statewide who have Premera group coverage. That’s not what matters here.
“I am ‘it,’ ” Akers said. The Edmonds man was the last one tagged, by his high school buddy Mike Konesky, the night of Feb. 28.
Starting at Gonzaga Preparatory School, a Catholic high school in Spokane, Akers and his friends have kept their madcap game of tag going since the 1980s. They set aside a month each year, February, for what’s gone far beyond child’s play.
Like the playground game — although these days, many schools ban it — the aim is for the one who’s it to tag another player. It’s all-important to avoid that tap, that fateful tag or to pass it along if you happen to be it.
There have been sneaky plots to ambush friends at work, secret collaborations, kooky disguises and the recruitment of wives or kids.
“When we’re around each other, we act like we’re 17,” said Akers, a 1983 Gonzaga Prep graduate along with eight other habitual tag players. One friend, Patrick Schultheis, graduated in 1982.
Along with Akers, Konesky and Schultheis, the Tag Brothers include Mark Mengert, Chris Ammann, Brian Dennehy, Joe Tombari, Rick Bruya, Joey “Beef” Caferro and the Rev. Sean Raftis. A Catholic priest, Raftis leads St. Richard’s Parish in Columbia Falls, Montana.
All nine others now live in Washington, Akers said, although for a time they were far-flung, with homes from Boston to California’s Bay Area. Tombari, now a Gonzaga Prep math teacher, was tagged it before high school graduation. Rather than accept that game-over result for life, they decided to resurrect tag during a 1989 get-together.
Rules were drawn up, among them the choice of February as tag month. In the movie, the month is May, and it’s just five guys. Actors Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress play the taggers in the film that’s long on slapstick and salty language.
With a screenplay by Mark Steilen, an older Gonzaga Prep grad, and Rob McKittrick, and directed by Jeff Tomsic, “Tag” is meant to be set in Spokane but was filmed in Atlanta. Akers and his tag buddies were in Atlanta for some filming this spring, and attended the film premiere in Los Angeles. Renner hosted a dinner for them.
“Back at Prep, tag was just them being goofballs,” said Konesky’s wife, Jacki Konesky, in a recent interview for the Inlander, a Spokane-area publication. Later, she said, the game “was them staying connected because they missed the whole goofball thing.”
Grownup goofballs just one month each year, the 10 also include executives, engineers and a lawyer. They are husbands and dads.
With their tricks and trips, they played tag in relative obscurity until 2013. That’s when The Wall Street Journal had an article about the game. On Jan. 13, 2013, Russell Adams’ article was published. At the time, Dennehy had just started as chief marketing officer of Nordstrom Inc.
By the following month, an ESPN crew was following their antics. The CBS News “Sunday Morning” program also featured the Tag Brothers.
Then came dozens of interview requests, plus inquiries about books or movies. They sold the rights to their story, and will split “a small portion of the box office 10 ways,” Akers said.
“It’s been nice,” he said. If the film does well, his allotment could add up to six figures. It has also been nice for his alma mater. The friends have donated some of their film earnings to a scholarship fund at Gonzaga Prep.
In negotiations, Akers said, they asked that their real names not be used as characters. At the end of “Tag,” real-life scenes of their pranks are shown, and they are listed and thanked in the credits. They shared with filmmakers some of their tagging tactics, but mostly emphasized that “friendship was most important,” Akers said.
He’s uncomfortable with some of the film’s crude language and wishes it had been filmed in Spokane. But “the sweetness of the game” comes through, Akers said. “We appreciated that.”
Friendship is sweet, but tag can be ruthless.
In 2013, Schultheis was tagged during his father’s funeral Mass as friends came forward for Communion. One of their wives was hurt when she fell back in surprise as Raftis, the priest, popped out of a car trunk to make a tag.
Akers is proud of his 2015 tag that came after what they call the “Zag tag.” At a Gonzaga University basketball game, Mengert had dressed as a mascot and “Brian got tagged.” Akers was also in the arena. Most everyone else went to celebrate, but Mengert — “so proud of his tag on the last day” — went to the restroom. “He came out, it was 11:30 p.m. and I tagged him. He was it the whole year,” Akers said.
Now he is it. Unlike the movie, where one guy had never been it, “everybody’s been it a lot,” Akers said.
He tries to see every Tag Brother each year. And the game won’t stop.
“We picture ourselves playing tag in nursing homes,” Akers said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@herald net.com.
“Tag” is showing in Snohomish County at these theaters: AMC Loews Alderwood Mall 16, Cinebarre Mountlake 8, Regal Everett Stadium 16, Galaxy Monroe, Regal Marysville 14 and Stanwood Cinemas.
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