When Cameron Miller stepped onto the muddy grass at an Atlanta park Sunday to officiate a football game, he wasn’t wearing the traditional black-and-white referee stripes.
Miller took the field looking suave in a mustard-colored suit.
Two groups of football players charged each other in war paint and dandy fashions, a kaleidoscope of velvet, silk and polyester looks. These dapper athletes scour thrift stores to prep for games, reveling in the mismatch of gladiatorial action and finely threaded elegance.
They shop with ferocity ahead of the Saturday before the Super Bowl, when everyone gathers for a charity tournament called Three Piece Suit Football.
Forget about helmets and shoulder pads. We’re talking top hats and wingtips. Comically overdressed men and women, ages 18-45, play tackle football with flair to raise money for veterans’ organizations.
Miller, a psychology professor and Atlanta Falcons fan, got the idea put a foppish spin on the sport a decade ago. One of his friends turned up at a birthday bar crawl in an old-timey vest, tie and slacks, retrieved from his grandfather’s wardrobe. When Miller and his friends reconvened days later to play football, they were still discussing the outfit, and an unlikely fusion took root.
“The first year, there were 14 of us and a handful of spectators,” said Miller, 35, of Atlanta. “It’s grown because people love football and the ridiculousness of playing football in fancy suits. It captures the imagination.”
For all the frills of the clothes, the game is anything but genteel.
“If your suit is not muddy and ripped by the end of the game, you’re not doing something correctly,” said Austin Robertson, 33, of Atlanta, a project manager at a pharmaceutical company.
TPSF VIII, set for February 6, will be a pigskin extravaganza complete with live music by the Wasted Potential Brass Band, a Frisbee dog halftime show and entertainment by Peaches, the dancing mascot. This year’s charity is Pets for Vets, an organization that trains rescue dogs as companion animals.
Players buy new suits for each tournament, emulating everyone from Don Draper to Uncle Sam to Elvis. Two semi-randomly selected teams compete for the Champions Cup, a tower of repurposed Miller beer cans.
“People might have this misconception that we’re just out here drinking beer,” said Ming “Jessica” Hii, 27, of Atlanta, a counselor at a state psychiatric hospital. Last year, her 11-month-old son, Carter, wore a mini three-piece suit to the game. “TPSF embraces the cultural value of being around friends, loved ones, having a beer if you want, or two or three, playing football and, most importantly, contributing to a good cause.”
Three Piece Suit Football has raised more than $7,000 for United Military Care, a Georgia nonprofit that provides assistance to the families of service members, through merchandise sales and gatherings like tailgate parties.
“This is a group of people who have professional careers, but they’re also kids at heart,” United Military Care President Kim Scofi said. “You don’t often get approached by people who say they’re going to raise money for your organization by playing football in outlandish costumes. Some of our veterans and active-duty soldiers have gone out to cheer them on.”
There are no tryouts for the football teams. Many players start out as volunteers.
“Some people are in great shape, and some people aren’t in great shape, but this is their release,” Miller said. “It’s not about how athletic you are. It’s about giving your time and helping to support our charitable work.”
Unlike in pro football, women have been involved with the sport since the beginning. Shannan Edwards, Miller’s roommate from grad school, participated in the first game. For her, showing off the suits is as thrilling as the game itself.
“I try to outdo myself every year,” said Edwards, 34, a clinical psychologist. “The best thing is stopping for gas wearing a crazy outfit. If you’re wearing a lime-green zebra-striped suit in the middle of the afternoon, people are going to ask questions.”
In 2014, Three Piece Suit Football expanded to Boston, where a group of local players, as well as visitors from Atlanta, competes on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Ryan Ludwyg, a student at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, plays in Boston and flies down to Atlanta for games.
“The women encourage each other,” said Ludwyg, 18. “There was an ex-military woman in Boston who inspired me. … I tried taking down a 280-pound man, which wasn’t a great idea, but it made for funny pictures.”
Ronnie Gupton, a construction worker and self-described fashion maverick, wanted to get involved with the sport but was reluctant to play because he feared injuries. Miller invited him to be the mascot and named him Peaches, a hat tip to Georgia’s signature fruit. Gupton embraced the moniker, even though he lives in Massachusetts.
“Cam knows I’m good at riling up crowds, so he said, ‘This is your opportunity,’ ” said Gupton, 47. “I can rip out some decent dance moves. I can get out on the dance floor and take over the circle for a hot beat.”
Injuries are common. Footballers have suffered broken arms, cracked ribs, fractured wrists and dislocated knees. Concussions, however, are relatively rare.
“It sounds strange, but it makes sense,” said Ryan Tomlins, a sports medicine physician at Piedmont Newton Hospital in Georgia who is not involved in the three-piece suit league. “When you wear a helmet, you are more inclined to use your head as a weapon or tackle inappropriately. Playing without helmets, they may be much more cognizant of not using their head in that way.”
Players debut their new duds the night before the game during a ceremony called TPSF Eve. Each participant makes a grand entrance, with a professional wrestling-style introduction and theme music of their choice.
After the game, members of the winning team take turns holding the Champions Cup in a tradition modeled after the NHL custom of hockey players passing around the Stanley Cup.
“People have taken the cup to the beach,” said Miller. “They’ve staged photos where it’s in a hammock. Maybe they’ll put a baby in it or their cat in it.”
Miller’s brother and girlfriend are players while his mother, Paulette, works with the charities and distributes patches. (Participants get a tie-shaped patch for each game they’ve played).
“I am a helper in any way I can be,” said Paulette Miller, a retired teacher. “At 70, I should be totally retired, but I don’t see that happening. After my husband passed away in 2009, I started getting involved with this, and it helped me through a tough time. My friends, family, they all understand the commitment I’ve made. I’ll wear the shirts, hoodies, and if anybody asks, I’m right there explaining what it’s about.”
She’s seen the injuries and knows that Cameron and his brother, Matthew, 36, are taking risks.
“I don’t think any parent wouldn’t worry, but fear shouldn’t control our lives,” Paulette Miller said. “I’m just so proud of these guys being willing to do this. We’ve got such an eclectic group of individuals. They’re a special group to me.”