Somewhere around 1 p.m. every Thanksgiving afternoon, the cry goes up at Roach & O’Brien in Haverford.
“One more beer!”
The finality of that last cold one is unmistakable. Another Turkey Bowl and its attendant pageantry are over—at least until next Thanksgiving.
This year marks the 42nd Turkey Bowl, and, win or lose, it’s a great day for all involved. OK, so when Jim O’Neill clanged his melon off the Lower Merion High School goalpost in the late ’80s, maybe it wasn’t so fabulous for him. And Michael Maloney’s hamstrings nearly forced him to retire after last year’s game.
There have been pulls, sprains and breaks. Last year, there was surgery. Any game that has lasted 40-plus years will have its fill of misfortune, but the good times outpace the unhappiness. It isn’t even close.
Just as the NFL had humble roots in Ralph Hay’s Canton, Ohio, auto dealership, so, too, did the Turkey Bowl begin modestly. On Thanksgiving Day 1973, four Mayock brothers headed to the Lower Merion field with pals Funky Kent Silvers and the late, great Jay Hilberts—just a bunch of kids playing touch football. Four decades later, it’s a bunch of middle-aged men playing ball.
But don’t be fooled: Once the game starts, we all want to win. And nobody wants to be voted Least Valuable Player on the losing team—a “distinction” that comes with the humiliating appellation: Schwantago. Game historians believe the term originated at Dickinson College, and it comes with a trophy: a pink toilet seat, which must be displayed prominently in the LVP’s home for a year.
Several rituals remain—though no Mayocks do, mostly because of bad knees. Constants include Wolf Boy’s Peterborough Lakers jersey and Moose’s vinyl Eagles helmet cap, which he hasn’t been able to buckle under his chin for years. Bondo will forget his cleats again; the Real Deal will show up with some apparatus to improve performance; and I’ll sport ’80s-era Michigan football pants and a Duluth Eskimos replica jersey.
The game may be the main event, but the day really comes to life once we retreat to the bar. Last year, we unveiled the top 20 moments in Turkey Bowl history. (Johnny Rock’s legendary halftime speech topped the list.) It should be noted that the day isn’t popular with some of the loved ones back home, and no player has proven eloquent enough to explain its importance in a way that’s alleviated the tension.
Granted, we’re playing on a holiday, and some might find it ridiculous that men in their 40s and 50s are still dressing up in ancient gear, slathering on eye black, and lacing up their cleats. We even choose teams by kicking extra points, though a scandal erupted last year when players allegedly missed kicks on purpose.
This Thanksgiving, we’ll be back at the Haverford School, where the game moved to about 15 years ago. As I might have mentioned, it’s Turkey Bowl 42 (no Roman numerals for us), and it’s going to be great—even for Schwantago.