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Where the Boys Are:
Bonding out Back
In the Turkey Bowl
As They Did in Their Youth,
They Play Football, Plus,
These Days, Break Bones

By Gary Putka
The Wall Street Journal
Page A1
(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 weather."

Why indeed?

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 recreational football.

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 rules.

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 opposing team.

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 ringer."


Copyright © 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.