November 24, 1983: Muddied combatants pose before heading home for Thanksgiving dinner.
It was a sacred tradition for a number of years, a ritual no less important to its participants than the national holiday on which it occurred. Every Thanksgiving morning at 9:00, a ragtag group of brothers and friends assembled on a frozen field at Robb Park for a spirited game of touch football. Victory with all of its bragging rights was awarded to the first team to score five touchdowns. By that time, great patches of dormant grass would be stripped away, leaving a muddy pit as testimony to the annual battle. Soaked through, sore, and grimier than any other time of the year, the players trudged home to clean up in time for heartily appreciated turkey dinners.
The Turkey Bowl began as a smaller affair, nothing much more than my three older brothers and a few of their friends running some plays on Thanksgiving morning. Things changed when my brother Richard taught 7th and 8th grade math and science at his alma mater, the same Catholic school that I attended.
“I told students I was a tight end at Cal Poly Pomona,” acknowledges Richard. “They didn’t know any better.”
Thus the game was transformed into a contest between two mismatched teams: the students against the Hunt brothers and their friends. Although all of my peers played on the student team, I tagged along as a member of the Hunt team by birthright. Given my athletic skills, my peers must have been delighted.
“Oh, the memories,” recalls student team veteran Dave Ruen, who lived just down the block from the Hunt household. “Years and years of training, defeat after defeat. That was enough to motivate us youngsters against the elders. It was classic David and Goliath stuff.”
Teammate Dave Moskwinski concurs that the middle schoolers were fighting an uphill battle in those early days. “I remember Mr. Hunt being like a lightning bolt when he got the ball! We were fast at our age, but he was a step faster!”
As years went by and the game got bigger and bigger, so did the student team players. The age advantage enjoyed by the Hunt team was leveling out, well on its way to becoming a liability. One year during that transitional era, my brothers and I were rummaging through an overstock discount store looking for the warmest hats and gloves that we wouldn’t mind having caked with mud. To our delight, we discovered a cache of cheap football cleats. Not only did it enhance our traditional, two-block walk from our house to the park with the staccato cadence of a military march, it helped us on the field.
“The only thing I remember,” student team member Dan Hickey told me, “is not having any cleats and the field being six inches of watery mud. During one play, your brother David pushed me completely off the field, which at the time was embarrassing since David was only about half my size.”
Ah yes, the mud. No one forgets the mud. “The weather always played a big part of any Turkey Bowl I was a part of,” says Joe Landwehr, who played for the Hunt team. “The weather was never good; snow, cold, rain or mud. Sometimes two or three of them.”
“How could I forget the endless number of prayers I would start saying the week of Thanksgiving just for snow or rain?” asks Ruen. “The crappier the weather, the better the walk of fame…or shame. The endless times my mom would ask about getting all muddy and then having to wash the clothes two or three times.”
My brother David speaks of the messy aftermath back at the homestead. “We’d be covered in mud and go straight down to the basement to get out of our muddy clothes.”
Though the mud was a constant, a victorious Hunt team was not.
Neighbor and Hunt team perennial Jeff Felkey remembers the tide turning for the elders. “I recall beating the students Richard taught until they got bigger, stronger, and older; then they kicked our butts.”
Richard Hunt agrees: “Once they went to LCC (Lima Central Catholic High School) and learned how to play defense, we were cooked.”
Indeed, a proper defense proved to be a daunting obstacle for the Hunt team, which had often profited from distracting the opposition with strange and unpredictable formations. The Turkey Bowl was notable as much for its unconventional plays as it was for its utter lack of officiating.
“Penalties? What penalties?” Ruen summarizes succinctly. He recalls a game rule that required the offensive line to count off five seconds before rushing, observing that it was never followed. When it came to the Turkey Bowl, there were few prohibitions and even less enforcement.
“The adrenaline and excitement to try plays and positions that may not have been allowed on an organized team,” rhapsodizes student team player John Gillotti at the thought of some of the ploys that were well outside of regulation football.
One gem involved Hunt team offensive lineman Dave Shine, who purposely fell to the ground at the start of the play, waited until his defensive counterpart dropped his guard, then sprinted forward to catch a pass as planned. Then there was the classic Roman Candle, a single-file vertical formation that dispersed all but the quarterback into wild receiver patterns. When things got really desperate, juvenile humor was occasionally effective.
“My favorite play was the ‘Balls, Balls, Balls’ play,” admits Felkey,”where upon the hike we all stayed still and chanted ‘balls, balls, balls’ while covering our privates with our hands, before going out on our routes.” It may not have worked in the NFL, but it was novel and naughty enough to incapacitate a few adolescents.
The Turkey Bowl continued to grow in popularity, especially as the student team began to trounce the Hunts. One year, more students showed up than there were members of the Hunt team. To even things out, one of the extra guys was handed over to play for the Hunts.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of this,” confided newcomer Mike Saylor, “but I’m the LCC quarterback.”
“That’s okay,” deadpanned Richard Hunt, “we’ll take you anyway.”
Tongue-in-cheek trash talk was all part of the game. Student team player Garry Tabler (TAY-BLER) was routinely put down by my brothers, who made a habit of mispronouncing his last name and referring to him as “the Tabbler girl.” Garry always took it in the spirit with which it was intended. Whether it was verbal sparring or the game itself, a lighthearted atmosphere prevailed. “Nobody took it seriously,” says Richard. “Everyone was just out to have fun.”
I can attest to that. I had no business being on a football field, but no one ever gave me a hard time about being there. The better players ragged on each other and let the worst players alone. “It was inclusive and fun,” remembers Gillotti.
“As I recall, I was always the MVP,” proclaims my brother Brian, demonstrating the swaggering confidence that was part and parcel of the experience. He describes a play in which he rushed the quarterback, tipped the ball into his own possession, and continued downfield for a touchdown. “It sounds more impressive than it was,” he adds, explaining that one of the least experienced students had been permitted to step in as quarterback on the play.
Even so, the Turkey Bowl was a game that sometimes granted genuine elation to its players, as well as genuine suffering. David Hunt experienced, if not the ABC World Wide of Sports’ thrill of victory and agony of defeat, at least the joy of a perfect play and the searing pain of injury. As for the joy, David remembers a touchdown pass that Brian threw to him. “What made it special was that as we lined up, I told the defense what my route was going to be, and that Brian was passing to me. At the snap, I ran straight ahead, and when I passed the goal line, I went right five or six steps, turned, and the ball was right there. I dropped to my knees and caught it. Touchdown!! Brian threw a perfect pass. The best thing about it is that after all these years, we still talk about it whenever we talk about the Turkey Bowl.”
But all was not roses for the star receiver. One year, “I broke a bone in my left hand. An innocent enough play, but I stumbled forward and fell into an opposing player, my left hand split on his thigh – instant pain. And for the rest of the game, throbbing pain, especially if my hand was below my heart. I sucked it up and played the rest of the game, but later that day I went to the ER and found that I’d broken a bone in my hand.”
Eventually, like all good things must, the Turkey Bowl came to an end. I was one of the first to bow out, leaving sometime in the late eighties, my lack of athleticism having rendered me increasingly ineffective even though I was the youngest member of the Hunt team. Others retired not long after, though some carried on for the long haul.
“I bet we played for twenty years,” estimates Felkey. “I think my last one was circa 1997 or 1998. Forget what I did, but it was at least a bruised rib. I think it was then that my body was saying enough is enough.”
Though the cherished tradition is long gone, it has not been forgotten. “I remember it was magic!” says Gillotti. “Especially as a young kid, being able to take on the mysterious and magical elder Hunts.”
“The Turkey Bowl was the most fun we all had as young men!” enthuses Moskwinski. “It would be fun to have a Turkey Bowl Reunion – Old against Older!”
“It was always fun playing in the mud,” recalls Richard Hunt.
Perhaps Ruen puts it best. “Man, did I love the Turkey Bowl.”