GLENDALE – Who knew that former NBA star Tracy McGrady is the Tom Brady of celebrity flag football?
A day before quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes battled it out in Super Bowl 57, the 6-foot-8 McGrady faced former NFL and Heisman Trophy quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 2023 Celebrity Flag Football Game at GCU Stadium.
“It’s the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl!” Griffin III said minutes before he and 29 other celebrities took part in the event, which benefits organizations that benefit service members and veterans such as the Pat Tillman Foundation and United Services Organizations (USO), first-responder support organizations such at the Tunnel to Towers Foundation and local youth organizations.
RG III was making his debut in the flag football charity event, but McGrady is a seasoned veteran of the game. His team of celebrities beat Griffin’s squad, 80-74, as McGrady won for the fourth year in a row in the “Super Bowl before the Super Bowl.”
But the game’s outcome wasn’t important. Its mission is.
“The best part of this is who we’re doing it for,” Griffin said. “Being able to do this with first responders and our military, benefiting them through his charity is something that I couldn’t turn down.”
Titus O’Neil, a professional wrestler and former Arena Football League lineman, agreed, and added that the game gives people who don’t have access to the real Super Bowl a chance to be part of the Super Bowl week experience.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys using their platform to help bring more awareness to what we’re doing,” O’Neil said. “This is just an amazing opportunity during Super Bowl weekend every year to find a way to try to give back, and I don’t feel like there’s no better way to do it.
“A lot of these people may or may not go to the actual Super Bowl, so this is our actual Super Bowl.”
O’Neil saw a lot of touches from RG III and scored a few touchdowns, which probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who know his history. O’Neil is best known as a wrestler in the WWE, but was a college football standout and played several seasons of arena football.
He played defensive end for three years at the University of Florida in the late 90s when he was known by his real name, Thaddeus Bullard. O’Neil – or Bullard – played against the likes of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning and Kentucky’s Tim Couch. Like McGrady, he was playing in the celebrity flag game for the fourth time.
Actors, former and current athletes and social media influencers took to Grand Canyon University’s soccer field-turned-football gridiron for the event.
The teams were separated into squads of 15 celebrities, “Team McGrady” versus “Team RGIII.”
McGrady’s team included comic actors Rob Riggle and Hannibal Buress, former Suns star Shawn Marion, and mixed martial artist Justin Gaethje, among many others.
Griffin III’s team included former NFL legends such receiver Andre Reed and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie as well as active Minnesota Vikings receiver K.J. Osborn. Team RG III also included actor Frankie Muniz, former Coyotes star Jeremy Roenick, social media influencer Josh Richards and O’Neil.
Muniz, a former Scottsdale resident who starred in the hit sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” when he was a child, said he couldn’t say no to the offer to play in the game to benefit service members and to play against some of his favorite celebrities and athletes.
Muniz, an aspiring NASCAR driver stands just 5’5’’, not exactly a prototypical athlete even for celebrity football. However, Muniz was more than ready to hit the field – even if his top priority was to avoid injury.
“I played Pee Wee Football when I was little, and I was pretty fast,” Muniz said, joking. “Unfortunately, I never grew and everyone else got really big. When I got, like, my ninth concussion, I realized that maybe football wasn’t OK for me.”
The game started with a spectacle topped only by those at the real game 10 miles away at State Farm Stadium. After the National Anthem, a team of three parachutists from the Frog-X Parachute Team landed on the field trailing smoke and carrying flaming flares, setting the tone.
And the celebrities didn’t disappoint.
Team RGIII needed only three plays to score, and Team McGrady immediately struck back. Fans were shocked to see how McGrady throw the ball 40 yards down the field with ease to set up his team’s first touchdown.
And that’s how the game unfolded, with the teams trading touchdown after touchdown.
The diminutive Muniz drew an ovation, along with some laughter, whenever he took the ball. Flutie was playing with no shoes on by halftime.
The goals for most of the celebrities were to have fun and get out of the game without an injury.
By halftime both teams had combined to score more than 50 points with Team RGIII leading by a touchdown and the celebrities needed the 20 minutes to recuperate and most took advantage by interacting with fans and retired military members in the audience.
When the celebrities got back out on the field, a switch seemed to flip for Team McGrady and they immediately tied the game out of the break. Quincy Wilson, an NFL free agent cornerback who has played with several organizations, caught touchdown after touchdown for the McGrady-led squad to win the 2023 game Most Valuable Player Award – and give McGrady another victory.
Griffin III, now a football analyst at ESPN, wasn’t disappointed over the loss. He was just glad to enjoy the experience with other celebrities and do some good for others.
“I’ve been trying to get out here to do celebrity work for a while.” Griffin III said. “As a player, it was hard to do. So now as a broadcaster, I have more opportunities to do more events like this and I’m very glad.”