All around the country, old friends reunite for a game of football during 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, Mass., sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, 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 older brother Jon and his friends started the game back when they were in junior high school. They played at Thanksgiving, Christmas and whenever they could get enough people together. And over 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 email) 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 a.m. 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 90s it was the Terrell Davis salute; in the 2000s it was something inspired by Ochocinco or T.O; and in the 2010s the Gronk Spike took over.
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 cameraman. 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 cameraman, I got in on the action, and even garnered a few votes myself.
As technology improved, 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 seven 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 18th year.
In my seven 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 25th 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 older, but they’ll still be ready to play.
And we’ll all be ready for the after game feast at the local pizza spot, Town Spa, 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, siblings, 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 few years or so, that’s exactly what will happen.