My earliest recollections of Thanksgiving go way back to 1966. Growing up back east in Western Pennsylvania, the month of November always brought the start of a new season with the most colorful backdrop of leaves displaying vibrant colors.
Fall was in the air and there was just something extra special about this holiday. And a four-day vacation from school and homework was always a relief. It was a ritual before the ritual. A lot was at stake. Pride took center stage.
Thanksgiving morning only represented one thing: The Turkey Bowl. The Turkey Bowl was a football game created by our classmates to challenge upperclassmen to a no-holds-barred, rough-and-tumble, no-pads tackle football game.
This contest represented the toughest of the tough and kids were ready to rumble. The game was held in a park wide enough for a small village and we made the boundaries and goal lines per our specifications.
Games were a war, bloody and hard fought. You had to have eyes behind your head. Every hit was a crucial one and came from out of nowhere. One bad move could cause injury. We had no protection, just an attitude of superiority.
These 13- and 14-year-old kids came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Our fathers were steel workers and most of my classmates were German, Polish, Yugoslavian, Serbian and Croatian. They were big-boned, raised tough and played stronger than you could imagine.
There were no “gimmes.” You earned every yard, every point. Scores like 68-54 and 76-53 were normal.
The game drew the attention of many bystanders and fellow classmates, some of whom parked their cars and watched our tug-fest from the street. Some took bets.
These games were instant classics and better than advertised. Legendary performances established long-lived reputations. And it happened way before we ever sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.
Around noon, we decided the game’s length, which typically came down to persistence, determination and having players healthy enough to play.
Bloody noses, cut lips, ankle injuries were not uncommon. We just had to make it back home to the family in one piece. Our only goal was to beat the older boys.
The reward for victory was knowing you were ready for a celebration. And while we always acknowledged our gratitude and thankfulness, we always celebrated as Turkey Bowl victors.
Those memories and the ones of those who have passed on are a small part of history designed for fun and competition. The games brought you together as a team. No one ever replaces your first friends.
There may have been other games played on Thanksgiving, but we all knew the real game was the Turkey Bowl and nothing else mattered.
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