Turkey Bowl Traditions

Whether traveling 4 miles or 4,000 miles, Thanksgiving travel is often filled with joyful anticipation of reconnecting with those for which you are thankful. Many North Central graduates use the holiday as a time to connect with their Panther friends and celebrate the bond of their shared memories and experiences. Jon Glesing (NCHS class of 1985) was in our office recently and mentioned his excitement about connecting with his North Central friends for their annual Turkey Bowl tradition. It is such a shining example of the bonds fostered at North Central that we asked to share his story…

The original Turkey Bowl was played the day after Thanksgiving in 1985 and was born out of a desire for longtime North Central High School friends, home from college for the first time during their first semester, to reconnect.

Throughout high school my closest circle of friends were, in general, an inconspicuous group; each with individual interests and talents but we also had an inherent comradery and interest in sports. Watching and playing sports together – intramurals in school and pick-up games outside of school – was the common denominator that led us to the Turkey Bowl as an annual event sparked from our innate, competitive, good-natured trash-talking bond.

My NC Class of ’85 friendship inner-circle consisted of Dave Bolles, Dave Jackson, Mark Jones and Frank Vukovits. There were several other inaugural Turkey Bowl participants – a full-contact, no pads football game played in the south yard of Greenbriar Elementary School located on Ditch Road – but our quintet was among the most dedicated to playing in the game those early years.

Rarely did Turkey Bowl participation exceed 8-on-8. Team captains were arbitrarily named and an old-school playground draft ensued. The grassroots rules were molded from simplicity. When your team had the ball it had four tries to gain a first down or score a touchdown. There were no yard-markers, just small orange cones or extra pieces of clothing to mark the goal lines and back of each end zone. Two pass completions for positive yards within your four downs moved the imaginary chains to signal a first down. Defense was a verbal, hastily muttered “5 Mississippi” count by the linemen before they could rush the passer, except one blitz was allowed per four downs. Rushing the ball was always an option but not frequently utilized outside the Red Zone. There were kickoffs and punts, but no field goals or extra points. There was no clock or time limit but typically by the time we hit the 3-hour mark, exhausted, daylight fading, covered in mud a little blood and sometimes snow, hobbling but laughing, we all just knew it was time to stop. Handshakes, high-fives, and a promise to hang out over Christmas Break signaled the conclusion of the Turkey Bowl in those early years

My North Central friends were the original Turkey Bowl epicenter but immediately participants expanded to include a new foundation of friends from college. The word was out. The Turkey Bowl had gone viral.

After graduation from college our much larger group that still included Bollsey, DJ, Jonesy and Stanker (we all had nicknames) immediately seized on expanding the Turkey Bowl model. In those early, young-adult years before we immersed ourselves in family life, we played year-round rec-league sports – summertime softball and basketball in the winter. We became weekly regulars at places like The Sports Zone and Midwest Softball. Competing was fun (and we won the league title darn-near every season), but it was really more about being together.

Consciously or subconsciously I believe it was spawned from the Turkey Bowl. And like an annual migration, every November we knew the Turkey Bowl would occupy our Friday afternoon of Thanksgiving Weekend.

We listened to our bodies over the years. Our twenties became our thirties and full-contact, no pads football adapted to flag football, then to two-hand touch. But even that became more “work” than we could sustain for an afternoon. Our bodies were telling us the days of our invincible youth were gone, and trepidation began to creep into our psyche that the Turkey Bowl might end. Would the Turkey Bowl be sacked by Father Time?

Not a chance. Our passion for competition and comradery would not allow that to happen and the modern-day Turkey Bowl era was born…an afternoon of bowling.

I can’t tell you when the shift occurred from a leather ball  to rented leather shoes or who deserves the credit for the idea but our out-of-shape bodies are sure glad it happened. Some original Turkey Bowl traditions remain to this day such as dividing into two teams via a sandlot-like draft. Our relentless sophomoric humor and edgy barbs are sharper than ever. Amid the overtones of bowling alley clatter and pins crashing, catching up with each other’s lives and reminiscing always leads to loads of laughter. Until a beer frame. Be one of the two worst individual scores that frame and the two losers buy the next round. Talk about pressure! Friendly individual and team wagers also helps keep our competitive juices and trash talk flowing just like those original days on the Greenbriar Elementary frozen tundra.

The primary organizer of the Turkey Bowl over the years has been Dave Jackson which seems ironic since the Chicago resident lives the farthest away. In stride with our now decades-long tradition of fun and friendship, the subject line of DJ’s latest Turkey Bowl call-out email was titled, “Turkey Bowl 5-0” in recognition of many of us turning age 50 this year. The opening line of his email read, “Dear Old Farts.” See what I mean? Relentless.

Over the years our families have been wonderful about accommodating our Turkey Bowl tradition. “Death, taxes and the Turkey Bowl,” summarizes my wife of 22 years. Our oldest daughter is a college freshman and North Central graduate. She speaks fondly with her circle of high school friends about dad’s Turkey Bowl tradition, and before graduating helped form an annual “Friends-giving” get-together and gift exchange. She gets it. I hope her tradition is the start of something as cherished to her as the Turkey Bowl is to her old man.

Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there.

We know Bollsey, DJ, Jonesy and Stanker are just four of many NC alumni who will reconnect this Thanksgiving holiday. We wish all those connecting a safe and joyful holiday filled with good friends and great memories.