At this moment I find myself feeling whimsical about the greatest series of football games played in the second half of the twentieth century. Better than the Bears v. Packers, Giants v. Cowboys, 49er's v. Rams. Even Better than UCLA v. USC, Alabama v. LSU or Notre Dame v. William & Mary! This series of games, played over a twenty five year period, had it all. The occasional blowout, close games, last second wins, long runs, long bombs, fights, blood and lots of bruises. With legendary names like Gabourie, Doering, Deluca and yes, even Young to name a few. "Who??? What amazing series of games are you talking about Don?" I am referring to the yearly Turkey Bowl at Villa Park Elementary from 1973 until 1998. "Oh! Those legendary games! Not!"
We all moved in across the street from Villa Park Elementary (VPE) in 1973. The core group was made up of Ron Gabourie, 10 and his dad Fred, ageless. The Doering's, Tim 14, Tom 13, Jim 12, Donal 8 and, later, John 5. The Deluca boys (who joined us in the eighties) added at least five to every Turkey Bowl. Then there was little ol' me, 9. We played touch football every weekend, usually twice. So the first few Thanksgivings were just another opportunity to play another football game.
By the time I was in middle school the Turkey Bowl began to take on a bit more significance. The older Doering boys were in high school and they would invite other high schoolers to play on Thanksgiving.
In the 3rd Turkey Bowl I was 11 years old, 4' 11" and weighed 90 pounds. That year, a high schooler who I will call Todd (I can't remember his name) played with us. He was a bit bigger than me but not much. For some reason he decided he didn't like me so wherever I was on the field he had to cover me. I was a bit intimidated by him, since he was a lot older, and he picked up on that. If he wasn't throwing forearms he was throwing punches when people wouldn't see it. I was relieved when the game was over and we all went over to the Doering's to have, what later became, a traditional drink. He continued his bullying of me at their house. It got so bad that the oldest boy, Tim, threatened to beat him up if he didn't leave me alone. Tim, at the time, didn't care too much for me either. Disheartened, I decided to go home after that.
By the time Turkey Bowl four rolled around I had gone through a growth spurt. I was five foot six inches tall and 130 pounds and almost as big as the older boys. That year Todd came back to play with us and he decided that he wanted to pick on me some more. On one of the early plays in the game, I was blocking and Todd decided he was going to rush the quarterback so he could hit me. I laid him out on the ground with the forearm to his chest. I can still remember everybody teasing him. He said that he had only slipped. Tim was laughing so hard in the huddle that he called the same play hoping that Todd would come in again. Sure enough, he came in again this time throwing a punch at me but I blocked it. The next several plays I continued to pummel him with forearms to the chest and, on occasion, one to the neck. He continued to get more and more angry and somewhere in the middle of the game he decided to fight me. At this point in my life, I liked to fight so I took care of him. The fight only lasted one or two punches but he got the message. I don't even think he bothered to go over to the Doering's for the traditional drink after the game. He never played with us in the Turkey Bowl or any other game after that.
That game was a turning point for me and how I handled myself in future games (Turkey Bowl or not). Up until this point I was used as a blocker or a rusher and rarely got the ball passed to me. At the same time, Donal, the youngest Doering boy was starting to show that he was fast and could catch the ball also. We both were utilized a lot more after that. Each and everyone of the boys had a seminal event like this one. Some I know the story of, others I don't have a clue as to what happened. But I don't think any of us regret anything that happened in those games.
Through my junior high and high school years we all continued to play every weekend with the Turkey Bowl being the penultimate game of the year. A couple of times we showed up to the school and another game was going on. No problem, we would just challenge them to a game. The poor suckers never knew what hit them. Around the time I entered high school we changed things up a bit. Mr. Gabourie, Fred, had a few friends around his age who wanted to play us young guys. So we would have kids against adults basically. These were hard-fought battles that we lost the first year. Fred's brother in law was a huge guy and we had no way to stop him from getting to the quarterback. We had a three count rushing rule in order to give the offense a little time to prepare for the attack. This guy, even with that rule, would just bulldoze right through us. Tim was always pressured and could not get the ball off the way he wanted to. By the next year, I had a year of high school football under my belt and was quite a bit stronger. The game plan was simple, I told Tim that I would block this guy the entire game and that all he had to do was go the opposite direction that I took him. I would let him rush in and I would just run with him deflecting him away from the quarterback. Tim had all day to pick the defense apart. We won that Turkey Bowl fairly easily. The welts, bruises and sore muscles were worth it.
We continued to play football on most weekends through high school and never missed a Turkey Bowl. By this time the DeLuca boys had begun to join us in the Turkey bowl. The cool part was some of their hot sisters would come and watch too. I was usually one of the biggest guys on the field by this point. I had developed a rushing style where I would start running from 5 yards from the line of scrimmage counting to three as I would run to it. I would then blow by the offensive lineman without even noticing them touching me. They would accuse me of cheating but if I got to three by the time I got to that line how could I be breaking the rule. Bending it, yes, breaking it, no! I didn't see a difference since the quarterback still had the same amount of time to throw the ball. The Deluca's remedied this by lining up on opposite sides of the ball and as I would rush in, one would hit me high and one would hit me low and I would just go tumbling. The Deluca clan were all small but they were some of the toughest and smartest guys I've ever come up against. Even with that, I never changed the way I rushed because it was just too effective. On offense, I became one of Tim's favorite receivers (we had become good friends by then). I just had really good hands and I excelled at cutting and losing my defender. The truth is we all had become really good players. The core group knew what the other guy would be doing at any given time. It made for some great competitive games. Donal and I would play other pick up games in high school, sometimes touch, sometimes tackle. We always were some of the better players on the field in any given game. These Turkey Bowl games were so different from the organized football I played in high school. Due to my size the coaches wouldn't even let me play receiver on those teams.
As we got older we moved out of our parents homes. Even though we didn't play every weekend we would always get together for the Turkey Bowl. After college many of us moved farther and farther away from Villa Park Elementary. We would still have turkey bowls but not everybody could make it. We still continued to play through the late 80s and as sisters got married their husbands would join our games. They were usually pretty blown away by how competitive and physical these games were. But they always stepped up and enjoyed themselves.
These games seemed to get more and more brutal as the years went on. Some years it would take days for the aches and pains and the bruises to subside. Heck, who am I kidding it always took days for all of them to subside. We all were getting older and we just didn't want to admit it.
Eventually, by 1990 some of the guys had moved out of state and had missed the Turkey Bowl for years on end. But we never stopped playing the game! Tim, Donal, John, the Deluca's and I would show up to play with wives and kids in tow. They didn't understand why we would abuse our bodies so much but they did stand behind us and cheer their once a year gladiators on. Then chastise us the next day when we couldn't get up and do the chores around the house.
By the mid 90s, the core group of players had been decimated. There was Tim, myself, some of the Deluca's maybe another Doering but that was it. We would fill in with other guys but it was not the same. The Turkey Bowl had lost some of its luster. We still played but it wasn't the same.
In 1998, Tim and I decided that we would try to get all the brothers and all the old players back together for the 25th Turkey Bowl. Tom was living on the east coast, Jim, I believe, was living in Arizona and Donal, I recall, had moved to Idaho. In regards to Ron, we had no idea where he was. The Deluca's were still celebrating Thanksgiving at their parents house every year and would be there. We managed to get everyone there except for Ron and Fred who had already retired from the game many years before. At 34, I was one of the younger guys in the group. It took us quite a while to limber up and get ready for the game but once we kicked off, it was on! We played like we were kids and the game was tight. Everybody was just as competitive as they ever were. We were just quite a bit slower. Though some of the Doering's were still running in 5k's and I believe Donal coached cross country for high school. The Deluca's were always in good shape.
In all of the previous Turkey Bowls, the one position I had never played was quarterback. Because, at age 15 while playing tackle football, I tore my rotator cuff but never had the surgery to repair it. But, by 1998, I had rehabilitated the shoulder muscles that held the shoulder together. So, late in the game, I announced that I was going to play quarterback on the next drive. I called all of the plays and threw all of the passes and ultimately threw a touchdown pass. I couldn't tell you who won the game but I was pretty proud of myself. Later that day I told my wife I was never playing again. And I haven't!
That was the last Turkey Bowl we ever played and I haven't heard about any other games since. Up until 2012, I had no idea what happened to Ron until I found out about his death of a heart attack in March of that year. Tim Doering and I were the only ones from the group that were able to attend his funeral. I know for a fact that the others all mourned his passing too. I cried as I hugged his mother and with tears in my eyes I shook Fred's hand as I thanked him for being a prominent male figure in my youth. I still think of Ron often, as I do the others as well.
I went to a funeral, near Villa Park Elementary, a few weeks ago for another childhood friend. Afterwords, Dee and I decided to drive by our old houses which took us by the school. As I marveled at how small the place looked I caught a view of the field. In my head I could see the ghosts of my youth. Tim with his smooth pass release. Tom's quirky pass catching style. Jim's jerky running. Donal's leave you behind catch and runs. Ron reaching back to receive one of Fred's lob passes. I recalled a pass Tim threw to me in the flat requiring me to jump and catch it before crashing down onto my belly as the ball knocked the air out of me. Then there was the one time when a girl watching the game was thrown from her horse, landed on her back and her shirt flew open exposing her chest (a first for this twelve year old). She was ok and so were we!
These were not just football games but character building events. I, for one, learned about teamwork, sacrifice and friendship because of these games. We became teachers, an officer in an insurance company, a supervisor at the the post office, a couple of us became doctors, another became a top tier boxing judge and one became a ditch digger. The beautiful thing is I still see everyone of them as they appeared on that Villa Park Elementary football field.
This Thanksgiving I will be reminiscing about those Turkey Bowls and wondering what it would have been like playing this year on the fortieth anniversary of our first. I dedicate this post to all of my fellow Turkey Bowl gladiators. I love and miss you all, my brothers, and I hope some day that we will meet again on our own field of dreams.