Thanksgiving and football go hand-in-hand, from Detroit and Dallas on down to grandma’s backyard. Across the U.S. and even to the north, it’s a day for pickup football among families and friends. These are your tales
The MMQB asked readers to send us stories of how football has shaped their Thanksgiving traditions. We received many great submissions and wish we could print them all. Here are a few of our favorites.
Thirty-four years ago a group of classmates and I played a game of pickup football at our junior high school over Thanksgiving weekend. That pickup game has continued each year since, and is now called the Oceanside High School Class of ’84 Turkey Bowl. No one had the heart to stop playing, and the tradition survived us going off to college, starting careers, getting married and having kids, dealing with middle age aches and pains, and moving out of town. Friends have traveled from as far away as London and Switzerland to join the fun. My Turkey Bowl co-chair Mike Tricarico and I have played in every game.
For the last seven years, the game has had its own Facebook page, with pictures, game recaps and an annual video. We have included a charitable element from time to time, raising money in support of the wife of a classmate battling cancer and collecting funds and relief supplies for Oceanside families devastated by Superstorm Sandy. Most importantly, the game has allowed us to stay connected after all these years. After the game ends we all go to Kasey’s, a local pub, for burgers and beers, and to catch up. We are nothing short of a brotherhood now!
As we have moved on from our teen years to our soft-around-the-middle desk jobs, we have had to change the rules quite a bit. For the first decade we played full-on tackle football (no helmets or pads of course). When we started to hit the workforce, we switched briefly to flag football and then to touch. By the time we were hit our 40s, we decided to do away with kickoffs (one too many pulled hammys).
As we now near 50, the most rewarding development has been the addition of our sons and nephews to the mix. My favorite moment was several years back when my good buddy Kevin connected with his teenage son Zach for the game’s first ever father-to-son TD. With each passing year the ratio of second-generation Turkey Bowlers to us first generationers increases, and soon hopefully it will be their tradition to continue. The Class of ’84 would like nothing better.
— Joe Cuomo, 49, Manhasset, N.Y.
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The Stupor Bowl
I grew up in the cradle of “football is a way of life” Pennsylvania and went on to a very mediocre Division II football career at a state school. Before I became involved in organized football, you’d find me and my friends playing tackle football every Thanksgiving morning (as well as any snow day!) at our local high school. Fast forward twenty or so years: I met my wife (a politico) while working for the Redskins in D.C. She is from Arizona, so when a position became available to head up the Arizona Cardinals broadcast department, I jumped at the opportunity.
One of my biggest reservations when moving here was raising a family in a much different environment than where I was raised. I lived in a neighborhood where everyone knew one another—it was safe, secure and felt like home. Would my children grown up in a sunny, sterile “land-of-strip-malls” only knowing friendship through social media and organized sports? I was nostalgic for where I spent my childhood, worried they’d be robbed of a similar experience.
My concerns were unfounded. I am so thankful we bought a house in the Tempe neighborhood we live in now. It’s made up of predominantly young families, almost all of which are from somewhere other than Arizona. It’s a melting pot, so much so that when we began our Thanksgiving game tradition, we divided the teams up into a “U.S.” Squad and an “International” squad. Our close-knit group of neighborhood friends is comprised of a guy from Philly (yours truly), an Iowan, a couple native Arizonans, a South Dakotan, three Mexican Americans, a Filipino American, an Afghan American, a Lebanese American and the social-chairman of the neighborhood, an Irish immigrant (and now American citizen) who came to the U.S. 18 years ago on a Division I basketball scholarship to Robert Morris.
Our annual Thanksgiving football game is called the “Stupor Bowl.” We always play on Friday after Turkey day at 3:00 p.m. in the common greenway in our neighborhood. Everyone brings all of their Thanksgiving leftovers and beer (for after the game… we take this seriously!) Spouses and children ring the field, which we prepare as if Notre Dame/USC were about to play (complete with logos and painted end zones).
We are a competitive bunch. Winners get bragging rights for a year and get to pass around our version of the Lombardi trophy, much like the Stanley Cup. Much like I’ve seen Phoenix become a Cardinals town since I’ve moved here, I’ve seen my neighborhood—full of people from all walks of life—fall in love with the game of football. It’s a great tradition, something I’d never thought I’d find in Arizona. It’s “family” for all of us who now live far away from our family.
— Tim Delaney, 42, Tempe, AZ
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Lamenting the Lions
I grew up in metro Detroit as a Lions fan, always watching the game every Thanksgiving (and the rest of the season). At the age of seven I wrote this poem regarding the Lions and my father’s commitment to the team. Pardon the typos but I still think it is a great poem that unfortunately is still relevant today.
— Claire Kooperman, 24, San Diego
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A “Typical” Thanksgiving
During my childhood, my uncle, Paul Naumoff, played linebacker for the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1978. Each Thanksgiving, around 30 or 40 Macedonian-Americans (my father immigrated from Macedonia to the U.S. with his family) gathered at my grandparents’ house to eat and to watch the game.
The Lions would frustrate us every year, win or lose. In broken English, second-generation English, and no English, we would all yell at the TV and curse the NFL for making Paul play for the Lions. Even when the Lions won, we were unhappy because he could’ve been playing for the Cowboys, or the Redskins, or the Browns—or anyone at all other than Detroit.
The yelling was so loud that neighbors would come by to make sure that everyone was OK. After a Greg Landry turnover, cousins fought cousins. When O.J. Simpson ran wild, brothers argued about defensive draft picks. The youngest learned to leave and to play outside so that we weren’t within striking distance of the old-timers when disaster inevitably struck. And until Paul retired when I was 13, I thought that this behavior was normal and a typical American Thanksgiving…
— Scott Naumoff, 50, Charleston, S.C.
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A Canadian Football League
I am the commissioner for a fantasy football league of a group of 12 guys in Alberta, Canada. We’re a dynasty-style league that has been together for 10-plus years, so we have a strong sense of community amongst the 12 of us. Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October. Football is NOT a Canadian Thanksgiving tradition. Our group has always envied the football culture surrounding Thanksgiving south of the border, so five years ago we decided we would do our own. For American Thanksgiving, we each take the day off work and gather at one of our places to watch the three games. It’s great! No worries about the kids or family commitments, just football, food and camaraderie amongst the guys. The 12 of us represent the Chargers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Bills, 49ers, Colts, Bengals and Dolphins. The jawing between our Dolphins fans and our lone Bills fan always keeps it fun.
We start the day off with a brunch of waffles, bacon and fruit before we start the first game. Before the third game we eat dinner together. We usually deep-fry a turkey or hire someone local to cater our turkey dinner. but this year we have decided to order Chinese. As a rule set in our league constitution, our trade deadline is extended to the end of the day. It can make the day really interesting, considering how late in the season we are. Unfortunately we don’t play football outside (we have our annual game at our draft day barbecue in August, and at the end of November it is usually pretty cold up here). This year one guy accidentally mixed up his dates and booked a holiday to Mexico. He is being crucified on the message board for his faux pas.
That’s the tradition of a handful of Canadians who celebrate your Thanksgiving. It might not have the same warmth of a family story, but for a handful of guys who love each other and love the NFL, our annual reunion means a lot.
— Rob McArthur, 37, Red Deer, Alberta
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I grew up in southern Indiana in the ’70s. I was a football lover in basketball country. My dad was a full-time pastor of a church, and as a result we had few material items. But we always had a football. He managed to deck out my brother and me in full pads and jerseys when we were in single digits and taught us to hit, and hit properly, I might add—not the big hits, but wrap up and bring down. Football was our sport, no matter the area we lived in.
All the kids in the neighborhood played a pickup game each Thanksgiving called The Toilet Bowl. We played on low “field” across from my house, and while the food was cooking we would meet to join in a friendly football game that would most definitely turn serious and less friendly before the turkey was ready. We are lucky there were no serious head injuries because the game was full tackle, and the league we played in was not at all concerned about head injuries. The league was also indifferent to the field conditions, which were usually either muddy or frozen depending on when winter decided to arrive.
The women and wives would always caution the “grown ups” ( I use that term very loosely) to be careful of the kids. But after an hour of beating and banging, I honestly think the “grown ups” had a much harder time getting out of bed the next morning than the kids did. There was blood, bruises and tears. But there was also ringing laughter, raucous cheers and many “attaboys” from our fathers. Then we would get back to the house, gather around the antenna-fed TV and watch the Lions and the Cowboys, much to the delight of my dad (a Cowboys fan). No NFL Sunday Ticket, no RedZone, and no 60-inch TV either.
Even though we no longer live in Indiana, it is a memory we still talk about to this day. My brothers and sisters have scattered but we still keep in touch with one of the families we played with. There is seldom a Thanksgiving that passes that someone doesn’t mention those Thanksgiving Toilet Bowls.
— Chris Humphrey, 49, Clayton, N.C.
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In Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving a month earlier than the States do. However, when I was growing up, it was always the American version that my Dad and I looked forward to most. For as far back as I can remember (at least fourth or fifth grade), my Dad would call in to my school that morning and report me as sick, letting me miss the day to stay home and watch the games. We’d have take-out at lunch and a family dinner, all around the TV. We continued this tradition all through university and even after I was married and out of the house. I lost my Dad five years ago, and now find American Thanksgiving Day to be one of the days where I miss him the most. I would do anything to be able to have one more afternoon like that, predicting how badly the Lions would lose, or how many legs John Madden’s turkey would have this year.
— Dave Allston, 36, Ottawa, Ontario
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A Trick Play
My seven brothers and sisters, assorted cousins and friends would all gather at my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving. The cars parked on the circular drive marked sidelines of the “field,” and yew bushes formed one end zone. My team always ran a play that the other team fell for every time, and it boggles my mind. My sister (at age 8 through 14) would be out wide at receiver and another brother as split end. As soon as the ball was hiked, my sister would fall down and scream bloody murder. Everyone on the other team would go to check on her. Meanwhile my other brother would go to the end zone, and I would pass to him. Touchdown. Suckers, every year.
— Brad Sher, 56, Houston, Texas
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A Golden Trophy
My family plays an annual Thanksgiving football game every year at Dwight Englewood High in Englewood, N.J. It’s a brief walk down the street from where my father and his three brothers grew up, and where my grandparents still live to this day. My dad, his brothers and their friends from down the street started the game back in 1973, so this is the 42nd year. We call it the Toilet Bowl because the MVP is awarded a golden toilet seat, and the top defensive player gets a golden plunger.
It’s such a meaningful tradition because it’s really the only time of year when the entire family and all of our friends get back together and catch up. Now the players are mostly families and children of the original players. We typically play in the morning—rain, shine or snow—and head back to my grandparents’ house afterward to watch football and eventually eat dinner.
It’s always tougher to get together now since many of the second-generation players (like myself and my cousins) are in college. But we always find a way to get together for that one morning to enjoy each other’s company and shake off the rust from a year of not playing football.
— Andrew Scaglione, 21, Basking Ridge, N.J.
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My family has a long-running tradition of touch football in the backyard on Thanksgiving. My mom was the youngest of six kids, so we have a big family. Two of my uncles are always opposing captains, and Uncle Petey can be counted on every year to throw a flag (actually just his handkerchief) for a delay of game penalty.
Grandma’s backyard used to seem so big to me—it made for the perfect football field when we were young. But as the cousins have all grown up (and had kids of their own) Grandma’s yard feels smaller and smaller every year.
When I was young, the best part of the tradition is that once a year I got to be a shutdown corner on my little sister. I’m almost three years older so it wasn’t really fair, but I got to bust out the Mutombo finger-wag every now and then after a pass deflection. It was definitely one of my fondest childhood memories.
—Alex Armstrong, 29, Washington, D.C.
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The Three F’s
Thanksgiving Day features the three ‘F’s: Football, Food and Family. For my family, the football part of the trifecta is a pickup game we play, and this Thanksgiving marks our 45th year. I only play football one day a year, and Thanksgiving morning is that one time. The tradition began when some of my high school buddies and I played a game as teenagers, and it amazes me how long it has survived.
We all got married and had families, and that brought changes. Sometimes guys would only come into town every other year as they cycled through in-law visits, but everyone always knew that they should show up at the Richardson High School football practice field at 9 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. As we changed, so did the game. It became less physical; less athletic. Our sons joined the player mix. There were years when the game wasn’t particularly competitive, and there were the occasional weather-related challenges as well, but snow, wind and rain have never stopped us. Somehow our tradition survived.
Several years ago, due to an unrelated act of vandalism, the Richardson Independent School District closed all their athletic facilities to non-sanctioned use, including the practice field where I had spent countless hours in both football pads and soccer shorts while attending Richardson High. Our field was gone. I spread the word and actually taped up a couple of signs on the fence surrounding the practice field early that Thanksgiving morning, to let everyone know we had moved the game to a nearby public park. We were more than 30 years into the tradition by that point, and the closing of the practice field wouldn’t stop us.
As we reached 40 years, I began asking the guys if they wanted to come back again the following year. Was it time to end this impressive streak? At that point, over half the players were second-generation participants. Of course, there was no way they were going to pull the plug. Still, I asked the question for three consecutive years. I haven’t asked it for the past two. I already know the answer.
My arm is still pretty decent for a 60-year old, but the pain the day after Thanksgiving is a reminder of the inexorable march of time. This year will be my first Turkey Bowl in my 60s. I know my streak will eventually come to an end, but I hope it won’t happen until we at least reach number 50. That will be a sad day for me, but I’m proud of the special Thanksgiving tradition that I’ve gotten to share for all these years with my family and friends. It’s one of the blessings I am especially thankful for on this particular holiday.
— Rick O’Connor, 60, Frisco, Texas
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