Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Turkey Bowl

I have some great football memories from over the years. I never played organized football with helmets and pads (Mom wouldn’t sign the permission slip), but I played with friends growing up. I remember competing in brutal games during recess in elementary school. Despite wrecking each other, nobody ever really got hurt.

As we got older, games grew more intense. Things settled down after one of my friends, trying to catch a deep pass, lost his two front teeth running into a UPS truck.

In college, I had the worst injury of my pick-up football career. It was intramural football—my fraternity (the preppy Jews) versus the lacrosse fraternity (the big, strong guys.) Their captains asked if we would play tackle. My fraternity brothers whimpered and were adamantly against it. My manhood hung on the line, and I was not going to back down. We would play tackle.

I then played the game of my life. I weaved in and out of traffic. I escaped tackles. I could not be stopped. I was Barry sanders, Danny Woodhead, and Rudy all rolled into one. We were crushing them. And that’s when “the play” happened.


It was a 4th down. I pulled a Keyshawn Johnson and said: “Just give me the damn ball!” And they did. I broke two tackles, sidestepped another one, and then I had to make a brave choice. To my left were four guys ready to destroy me. To the right was the sideline, and directly in front of me was Bluto. He was a large mammal who resembled a bigger, stronger (less drunk) version of John Belushi from Animal House. I weighed my decision and ran directly towards the monster.

My eyes lit up and so did his. It was like a punch buggy running into a mack truck at full speed. I didn’t care. I was going to take him down. We collided and our momentum pushed us out of bounds. Bluto collapsed on top of me, and my shoulder slammed into the ground. CRACK!

I quickly popped up to my feet in order to show off my toughness. I even helped Bluto up with my left hand. But when I got up, something seemed off. It felt like my right shoulder was hanging off of its socket. That’s when I felt it move.

My collar bone was shattered to pieces and I could actually feel it dangling inside of me. I turned white. People asked me if I was okay. Their voices faded from me. I walked across the street like a zombie to health services with mud smeared across my pale face, and my collar bone broken to pieces.

I went to the hospital, and it was confirmed that my collar bone had broken in three places. I slept sitting up for 6 weeks. Then I did physical therapy for 6 weeks. I still have shoulder issues. But the worst part of the experience is that we inexplicably lost the game.

Despite the setback, I still crave playing football. The last few years, I’ve been a member of the LES football game (now called the Goose League.) It’s a group of camp friends, college friends and friend’s friends. We don’t play tackle, and there’s still a fair share of injuries (I tore a ligament in my finger in one of the first games.) But I love the intensity, the competition, the storytelling during huddles, the complaining, the arguing, and the good natured trash talking. And I love how we all brag to our girlfriends, wives, and facebook friends about how many touchies we scored that day. I love that we now have a traditional game because it was something I always wanted. Because growing up, I desperately wanted to be a part of the greatest football tradition in America:


All over the country, old friends reunite for a game of football over Thanksgiving. Some play tackle, some have flags, some play two hand touch. Some have five Mississippi, some have six. Some have first downs, and some have score or you bust. Some have blockers and some have blitzes. But I don’t know how other games work, I only know about THE Turkey Bowl.

It all started in Sharon, MA sometime in the mid to late 1980’s, and I had nothing to do with it. In fact, my first appearance in The Turkey Bowl was not until a few years ago. It’s unclear how it started, and it was never initially intended to be an ongoing tradition. But each year, the event happened and it ultimately became more than just a football game.

My brother Jon and his friends started the game back when they were in junior high school. They played over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and whenever they could get enough people together. And over the course of time, Thanksgiving was the holiday when everyone was around.

I was always envious of my brother and his friends. They were six years older than me, and I looked up to them. Sometimes, they let me go bowling with them or to Burger King, but no way was I ever involved in the Turkey Bowl. I had my own friends, but there was something special about this group of guys. While my friends were scattered all over the place, these guys were one giant clique. It was really a remarkable thing.

As the years passed, the Turkey Bowl made a name for itself. While my Mom made sure the Thanksgiving feast was in place, my brother and his friends made sure The Turkey Bowl was ready to go as well.

There were two captains (usually the two QBs) chosen in October, and then the teams were picked from there. Once the teams were constructed, the trash talk began. Phone calls and letters (remember, this was well before e-mail) constituted for smack talk. It was rumored that teams would have secret meetings to set up trick plays, audibles, and touchdown dances.

The game was on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. A dozen guys showed up every year around 11 am. There were other games going on, but somehow the field always seemed reserved for this Turkey Bowl. As time passed, and one of the players became a cop, the field was officially reserved. When he flipped his siren and parked his cop car in front of the field, it was clear these guys should not be messed with.

Other evolutions included uniforms and touchdown dances. At first, guys donned random football jerseys including Brian Bosworth, Bubby Brister, and Drew Bledsoe. As the game became more traditional, players were given official, custom made, reversible black and white Turkey Bowl jerseys. And the touchdown celebrations were a product of the era—in the 80’s it was the Icky Shuffle; in the 90’s it was the Terrell Davis salute, and in the 2000’s it was something inspired by Ochocinco or T.O.

As the game progressed so did the fans. Friends and families watched and cheered from the sidelines each year. People took pictures and stood patiently awaiting a triple-reverse lateral flea-flicker to finally work.

Like I said before, I never played in the game, I was only a fan. But when I was 15, I became a part of it. I was nominated to be the camera man. It didn’t take much arm pulling for me to volunteer. Heck, I wanted to be included in The Turkey Bowl since I was a little kid.

I stood in the freezing cold, rain, and wind and pulled off my best Scorsese/Spielberg impersonation for the next few years. I hoped my work would somehow end up on NFL Films. It didn’t, but Matt, one of the co-founders, cut/edited my work to create The Turkey Bowl Plays of the Decade set to the soundtrack of Rocky IV.

And after the game, that night, the guys threw some cash my way, introduced me to alcohol and older women, and even bought me my very own Turkey Bowl jersey. The after-Turkey Bowl parties were legendary at one point. Everyone showed up. As they complained about controversial calls and how sore they were, they watched The Turkey Bowl film footage, and also voted on the MVP. As the camera man, I got in on the action, and even garnered a few votes myself.

Over the years with technology, the games were a little easier to arrange. The Turkey Bowl could be organized through the internet, and the trash talking could be done online. The fan base grew—friends and family showed up in the freezing cold because after all, it was The Turkey Bowl. There was even an article published in the famous Sharon Advocate.

It was four years ago when I got the call. They finally needed me to play in The Turkey Bowl. I had been licking my chops for years to play in the game. I would officially be part of it in its 20th year.

In my four years of play, I’ve scored a few touchdowns and let up a few as well. Even though these guys were older than me, they could still play. My favorite personal memory was a 50 yard end around for a touchdown. My lead blocker, Lee (another little brother), paved the way for me, and I rumbled untouched along the right side of the field. We slapped five mid-run, and I smiled widely as I ran into the end zone. Touchdown! It was pure bliss.

The 24th year of the Turkey Bowl is in place for this Saturday. My jersey hangs in my closet at home ready to be worn. The same dozen or so guys will be ready as well. Everyone will be a little slower, a little fatter, and a little more out of shape. But we’ll all be ready to play.

And we’ll all be ready for the after game brunch which has taken the place of the Saturday night kegger. It’s a great time for friends and families to catch up, talk about football, and reminisce about tradition.

And even though the fan base is not as passionate as say ten years ago, it must be noted that the fan base has expanded. It’s not just parents, sibling, and old friends anymore. Now, it’s children too. They watch proudly and hope to one day follow in their Daddy’s footsteps and play in The Turkey Bowl. And if these guys can last another 10 years or so, that’s exactly what will happen.

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