Friday, November 25, 2016

Turkey Bowl-- America's Finest Tradition

Something is off today.

It's a quarter 'til noon and I'm not crippled by sore muscles and bruises.  I'm not soaked with sweat, covered in mud, and freezing.  I haven't made any unexpected trips to the emergency room today.

I'm at home in (clean) sweatpants, drinking coffee and watching football on TV.  For the first time in 18 years I'm not participating in the all-time greatest American pastime.  I have officially retired from Turkey Bowl.

It's a strange feeling.

For the past 18 years, I have spent every Thanksgiving morning playing tackle football.  My best friends, acquaintances and strangers would split into teams and beat the shit out of each other for the better part of two hours. There were a few guys that I wouldn't see all year, except on the field at Turkey Bowl.

Turkey Bowl is played all over America, in various forms and formats, every year on Thanksgiving. I have never understood why we do this, but for some reason we honor the game we love with low-rent reenactments on the same day we gather our loved ones and gorge ourselves on comfort food.

Our Turkey Bowl was of humble origin.  My two best friends took on myself, my best friend's little brother and my younger cousin at Liberty High's softball field back in 1997. The field dimensions were too large for how few players we had, but we have since learned from those lessons.

After a couple of hours of running around and beating each other senseless, we decided to run one last play to determine the winning team. I lobbed up a prayer and my teammate caught it, only to have the ball stripped away from him.  The opponent scooped it up and headed for the game winning touchdown, but I closed in and grabbed him by the shirt.

As soon as my hand had closed around the fabric of his shirt, he twisted and the shirt formed a tight tourniquet around my left ring finger and swiftly snapped the bone. I fell to the ground with a sharp pain burning through my hand.  I looked down at my hand and my finger was facing backward.

I remember having my Dad stick a baseball bat through the chain link fence to provide me footholds as I climbed, one-handed, the fence that was intended to prevent us from playing in the first place.

I remember my hand throbbing with pain and the worried looks on my friends faces.  I remember taking my first trip to the emergency room on Thanksgiving and waiting for the Novocain to set in before I would permit the doctor to twist my finger back to its natural position.

You would think an ordeal like that would put an abrupt end to our turkey day shenanigans, but no. Our tradition grew exponentially every year.

Word spread fast.  Every year saw more and more people turn out, spectators and players alike.  As we approached the decade mark, I began to realize that we had something special that was meaningful to a lot of people.

It wasn't about winning. I couldn't give you an accurate recount of how many games I won or lost. Similarly, I never felt defeated after any of our games.  I felt pain after all of them, but it was always overshadowed by feelings of immense joy and unity.

I began to get more sentimental the older I got and as the game grew, I knew something had to be done to preserve the memories we were making every year with our new tradition.  After all, we would spend weeks reminiscing about the highlights after the game. Right around Halloween, the excitement would build for the upcoming game.

Turkey Bowl X was sure to be a milestone. Ten years meant we had a legitimate tradition on our hands.  I wrangled up as many camcorders as I could get my hands on, armed our girlfriends and set up tripods.

That game was particularly memorable because a dozen or so of my friends and I ran into a group of guys, who happened to be part of a rugby team, that were also looking to play.  We played 'Us versus Them' and even though they beat the ever-loving piss out of us-- it might have been my favorite game. I'm fairly certain I got at least one concussion in that game.

I had just started attending The Art Institute of Seattle for Audio Production, so I was equipped with a top-of-the-line Macbook Pro and enough knowledge to slap together a Mockumentary video for me and my friends.

I knew I wouldn't have much in the way of 'highlights' given the outcome of the game.  So I took the footage we had and put it to the classic NFL Films audio of the legendary Sam Spence & John Fascenda. My friends were thrilled with the result and every year thereafter, we would hype ourselves up by watching the video before every Turkey Bowl.

We tried to replicate our success of the initial DVD every year, but it became increasingly more challenging.  I was having to coordinate the game every year amidst the chaos of the holidays and increasing responsibilities in my personal life.  Plus, I was playing in the game and wanted to enjoy the experience in real time without having to worry about the production value of the video.

A few years ago, I decided to throw up a Craigslist post in hopes of enlisting a videographer to our cause.  Funds were limited, so I wanted to find someone that might be satisfied with a small financial compensation to be part of something that was really cool.

I received a surprisingly high volume of responses but there was one that stood out among the rest. He had an impressive portfolio and seemed genuinely excited to be a part of what we had created. More importantly at the time-- he was willing to work for cheap.

What we got was something you couldn't put a price on.  Egan Kolb showed up that chilly Thanksgiving morning ready to capture the magic of Turkey Bowl. Egan is as brilliant as he is kind.  He shared our vision for what we were trying to do: emphasize the lore that we had built over the years.

Egan filmed our last couple of games and the videos that came out of them were nothing short of incredible. They were theatrical, professional and hilarious.

The final Turkey Bowl last year had an incredible turnout.  We had 4 teams, which took their names from Game of Thrones houses.  A perfect representation of the eclectic individuals that made up the teams.

We took all sorts.  We had guys that were tremendous athletes and we had guys that had never played team sports, let alone football, in any capacity throughout their lives. We had jocks, nerds, stoners, preps, and everything in between.  Every game was hard fought but they always ended with hugs and handshakes.  If we weren't distracted by a medical emergency, we usually took a group photo, too.

We were always pretty fortunate when it came to injuries.  In almost two decades, we only had a handful of serious injuries, and they were almost exclusively on non-contact plays.

My buddy Greg once blew out his knee on a play where he was heading out of bounds after making a reception.  He hurdled over a player and his knee buckled coming down onto the lousy field surface. City of Renton Firefighters had to come haul him off the field-- but not before we had them pose for pictures with us and the injured party.  I'm sure Greg was thrilled with that.

Some years later, the opposing quarterback was under pressure and trying to get the pass off when I jumped the route to make an outstanding catch for the interception.  As I was going to the ground, I landed squarely on my right shoulder.  I heard a crack and felt a shock of pain engulf my shoulder.  After a trip to the ER, it was discovered that I had separated my shoulder.  It's important to remember that I did, in fact, maintain possession throughout the catch.

Just last year, a friend and coworker of mine blew out his knee when he was hit while planting to make a cut up field.  He had to have surgery and was on crutches well into the new year.

I was a 15 year old boy when I started this.  Today, I'm a 34 year old man.  I'm out of shape and the games have taken their toll on my body.  Perhaps I'll play again next year, providing I find the time to get in better shape ahead of Thanksgiving, but it would be foolish to think that is going to happen.

If I never play again, I'll still have the memories we made and the excellent video keepsakes will live on in digital infamy. Maybe that is for the best.  The text exchange I had with my Dad this morning might sum things up perfectly.

ME:  It's weird not being crippled by 11am...

DAD: Are you playing football?

ME: Nope-- the 18 year tradition has come to an end

DAD: I guess what they say is true, we get smarter as we get older.

I hope you guys have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Whatever your tradition is for today-- make it a great one.

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