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Where the Boys
Bonding out Back
In the Turkey Bowl
They Did in Their Youth,
They Play Football, Plus,
Days, Break Bones
By Gary Putka
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Last year, Michael Brennan pulled a hamstring while
quarterbacking his team to victory in the annual Thanksgiving
game among alumni of the St. Pius V grade school in St. Louis.
A few years back, his friend Patrick Zarrick separated his
shoulder diving for a pass and wound up in the emergency room.
But the game that caused the most damage, Mr. Brennan says,
took place in the late 1980s, when the temperature was zero,
the wind chill 50 below, and "we would play for 15 minutes, go
to our cars, warm up, and then go out again."
Mr. Brennan, who is 38 years old and helps run the local
Evangelical Children's Home, says the injuries weren't too
bad, but domestic relations were badly strained. "I remember
my wife being totally disgusted," he says. "The women couldn't
really understand why we were out there in that kind of
The winner's prize is nothing more than bragging rights or
a couple of beers. The carnage is often frightful.
But tomorrow, following a cycle that closely tracks the
annual appearance of the candied yam, hoards of smart-aleck
younger brothers, halcyon high-school greats and other
stalwarts will take to their backyards and nearby fields in
what may be the year's biggest, most-awaited day of
They play, of course, for fun. They also play as a holiday
rite. "It sounds ludicrous to use a term like `Easter
baseball' or the `annual Christmas basketball game,'" says
Eric Arnould, a marketing professor at the University of South
Florida in Tampa, who has studied Thanksgiving habits. "But
the words ` Thanksgiving football ' go together
like turkey and dressing." The games help affirm family
togetherness, one of the primary functions of Thanksgiving
rituals, Prof. Arnould says.
Some pigskin hurlers may also harbor a primeval need to
earn the meal they eat but no longer hunt. Enduring a
preprandial ordeal with the risk of injury is linked "to the
old Puritan heritage of deservedness," says Prof. Arnould.
"You have to do something to deserve the meal."
Given the frenzy of preparations before the meal, another
obvious motive is escape. "Your mother was always a basket
case inside the house, so the only thing you could do was get
out on the street to play football until everything was
ready," says Jeff Whelan, 36, once a regular in a Thanksgiving
pickup game on Third Street in New York's Brooklyn borough.
Owen Astrachan, 41, a Duke University computer professor,
started playing a two-on-two game with his brother and cousins
when he was nine. Tomorrow, he expects to be at his Aunt Pat's
house in New Canaan, Conn. But before dinner, he and family
members of all ages will stroll down the street to play by the
house where she used to live, the site of earlier games.
"The highlight of our game is usually the field goals," he
says. "You've got to kick it over the pine tree into the
neighbor's yard. It's getting a little trickier as the pine
tree gets bigger." Mr. Astrachan never remembers the score, he
says, but "trick plays are usually the key." After 31 years of
futile family efforts to pull it off, last year his cousin
Alex Stoddard completed a pass by bouncing the ball off the
roof of the old barn at the end of the yard -- perfectly
legal, Mr. Astrachan insists, under traditional backyard
About 20 miles up the road in Trumbull, Jay Verna is
expecting about 28 players, the biggest turnout ever for a
somewhat more serious game among old high-school and Syracuse
University friends. The 24-year-old printing supervisor once
referred to it as the Turkey Bowl. But that is the informal
name for a lot of other ad hoc Thanksgiving matches, and
proved "a little too generic for us," he says. "As the game
got a little dirtier, and we got a little older, we renamed it
the Toilet Bowl."
Ostensibly, the Toilet Bowl is played according to
low-impact, flag-football rules: Opponents grab the
ball-carrier's flag to end the play. But last year "my cousin
and I tried to take some guy down and grab his flag," causing
his cousin to "brush his knee against my head," says Mr.
Verna. "I had to go into the walk-in clinic for 10 stitches."
Brief thought was given to canceling this year's game in the
name of safety, but that was rejected. All in all, over the
years, Mr. Verna says, "we've had a couple of knees blown out,
a shoulder or two -- nothing serious."
Rules and field dimensions vary widely. Some play tackle,
others play touch. But one thing can usually be counted on: As
the losing side grows desperate, and the winners begin to
smell the giblets, quality of play deteriorates.
Bruce Truesdale, 36, of Marblehead, Mass., says that as
youngsters, he and his brother were shorter than their cousins
the Boyntons, their archrivals in a game always played on
Nantucket Island. "We would always have to play dirty to
negate their height advantage," he says. "We'd hit them in the
air. Sometimes there's a lot of pass interference."
Even this wasn't always enough. One year, their cousins
"showed up with written-up plays in a book," Mr. Truesdale
says. Xs, Os, arrows -- "the whole thing. Trick plays. They
killed us." In recent years, as some of the Boyntons have
moved away, the Truesdale clan has kept intact, occasionally
pulling out a victory.
Worse off are the Dow brothers, Charles and Ed, who have
been on the losing end of their Thanksgiving game in
Brookline, Mass., for more than a decade. "It's been an
onslaught by us," boasts Thomas Barrett, 34, a mutual-fund
salesman in Boston who is a cousin of the Dows and anchors the
The Dow-Barrett Bowl, as it is called, is often marked by
bloody gashes, knees to the head, and a lot of pushing and
fights. "I pulled a muscle in my hip once," Mr. Barrett says.
"Jeez, it was out of whack for months."
Mr. Dow's fiancee asked him to forgo the football tomorrow
to make time for dinner with her family. But the game, he says
"is bigger," so he is "blowing off" the invitation. "They have
the upper hand now," he says of the Barretts.
"But we're going to get 'em this year. I'm bringing a