Of Turkey Bowls

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In the black-and-white photo, I’m standing on our back patio as a 10-year-old, a wet, baggy sweatshirt hanging on me like rain-forest moss. The sweatshirt’s arms are so long — half-way between my waist and knees — that I look as if I’m Gumby without any hands. I’m wearing a pair of muddy football pants that balloon out at the bottom like the wax buildup at the base of a candle, giving me that George-walking-Mary-home-from-the-dance look in It’s a Wonderful Life. The concrete patio is wet; this is, after all, winter in Oregon. The photo border says, “Nov. 64.”

But, look more closely, and you realize it is the Mona Lisa of childhood photographs. For beyond all that bespeaks misery is an undeniable upward crease in my lips, a slight smile that conveys, if only to those who understand the sweet smell of winter mud, a historic truth: I’ve just played in my first Turkey Bowl football game.

We all have our touchstones of the years, benchmarks that remind us that, for better or worse, we’re growing older. Turkey Bowl football games are mine.

I am to Thanksgiving football games what the swallows are to Capistrano; I return to them faithfully, year after year, despite rain or hard rain (the only two Oregon options). I’ve played in them now for nearly five decades. In fact, my Turkey Bowl life — like geologic time — can be separated into four eras: the Youth Era, the Macho Era, the Family Era and the Pathetic Era.

Beyond our muddy kids-vs.-kids games, the Youth Era meant two-generational street football — games that pitted us fleet-footed whippersnappers against fortysomething has-beens. My father always played in wingtips. His passes fluttered like sick birds, but I’ll say this: He got out there every year and gave it his best shot.

Next came the Macho Era, in which we home-from-college kids, now steeped in intellectualism, distanced ourselves from the Oppression of Family and once again played our own muddy games. Games accented by a touch of Oregon-Oregon State rivalry. Games in which, for all our freethinking new ways, winning became more important than life itself. Games in which the opposition was not only the man you were blocking — or, in my case, pretending to block — but your shoulder-length hair that kept getting in your way.

It was not, of course, enough to simply play the game: We had to publish our own eight-page newspaper, The Turkey Bowl Tribune, which was 90 percent trash-talking and 10 percent semi-trash talking. And, of course, take group photographs, one of which wound up on the cover of this book.

Soon we all went our separate ways to become doctors, accountants, Nike executives, attorneys, ministers, socialists, tree planters, journalists and cowboys singers who would ultimately be the opening act for Garth Brooks.

For me, the Family Era arrived; I had a wife and kids of my own, and on Thanksgiving the four of us continued the yearly tradition. My fondest memory came after a Seattle TV news station offered to show scores of Turkey Bowl games. Being a benevolent father, I purposely took it easy on my sons so they would win. And there it was on the 6 o’clock KIRO sports news: Ryan & Jason 35, Mom & Dad 28. (Hey, I wasn’t going to allow a wipeout.)

This Era also produced a post-game photograph I’ll never forget: Our younger son, Jason, then 4, is awash in the agony of defeat, tears streaking his face as if he’s been stung by bees. Our then-7-year-old, Ryan, towers next to him, arms crossed, face smug: the Victorious Older Brother. She Who’s Game comforts her youngest with a mother’s compassion.
Me? I’m safely behind the camera, being the guy who probably dropped the would-be game-winning pass that turned the tyke into emotional jelly.

The years passed. Times changed. I began showing up for church turkey bowl games still nursing pulled muscles that I’d re-injured the previous year. My opponent would zig, I would zag, missing the tackle completely and slipping onto my anguished face. Once, I pulled into the parking lot before a game and there was the 19-year-old son of a friend of mine taking out his nose rings. I knew I was growing older.

Suddenly, I was the receiver the quarterback would throw a pass to only if the other 15 receivers (our church has big games) were covered. I was the fiftysomething has-been, the comedy act slipping around in tennis shoes while fearless teens in deep-cleated football shoes cut and slashed. When covering me, my sons purposely took it easy on me.

The Pathetic Era had arrived.

In recent years, I realized I was the oldest guy on the field — by nearly 10 years. My youth was, in Paul Simon-esque terms, slip-sliding away. Maybe it was time to hang up the mud-tinged tennies and spend Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s parade, not falling face down in the mud.

Then came the e-mail recently that forced my decision. It was from John Mills, a good friend my age whom I’d played against in the Macho Era, a guy who could zip a wet, cold Turkey Bowl football like nobody I’ve ever seen. And had the mouth to back it up.

“I went out and threw the ball with my son the other day,” he wrote, “and for the very first time since I was 13 years old, I did not feel like I could throw that thing with a spiral, velocity and accuracy. Very hard to accept this getting-older stuff.”

Though simple, it touched something deep inside me. I realized the time had come. I was 50 years old. Time for a change. Time to do the only thing I could do, given the circumstances:

I bought a pair of football cleats.

I don’t expect to keep up with the fleet-footed whippersnappers in this year’s game, but it’s Thanksgiving. Now 58, it’s no time for me to be sliding into remorse, lamenting that we’re not what we once were.

Time, instead, to go out there like my father and give it my best shot.

Time, instead, to be thankful for what we are — and still might be. Time for Turkey Bowls and the traditional post-game photo, last year’s showing me surrounded by two grown sons, my face creased with mud.

And a smile that I haven’t surrendered to the years.

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