WASHINGTON – Before I came up north, my Thanksgiving football tradition had nothing to do with throwback jerseys or professional football. Throughout high school, I spent my Thanksgiving mornings watching a much more interesting game. The Turkey Bowl is the annual high school championship game for the DCIAA, Washington, D.C.’s conference for public schools, and it’s the perfect combination of exciting atmosphere, interesting characters and intense football.
I hadn’t been back to the game in more than four years. I hadn’t been forced to watch a football game from Eastern High School’s rickety bleachers in the biting wind since 2001. Hell, I hadn’t even paid for a football ticket in more than a year.
But I quickly realized the Turkey Bowl is worth all the fuss – worth the frisking and the obstructed view. Because of the people who are in the stands and on the field, the yearly contest might be my favorite annual football game. This year, the title match pitted perennial power Dunbar against the Colts of Coolidge.
After finding some standing room near the 20-yard line, I started up some conversation with the guy to my right. He was a Dunbar grad whose son – a 6-foot, 220-pound lineman – played both ways for Coolidge. He was cheering hard-core for his son, but as Dunbar began to pull away, he joked that he might have to switch jerseys. Another guy overheard me talking about Turkey Bowl history and joined in with conversation about my alma mater.
“I went to Wilson too,” he told me, “a long time ago.”
We chatted about previous games and Coolidge strategy. We all pretended that we were good enough to coach each of the teams out on the field. I even got into a semi-heated argument with a guy in a Wizards coat standing to my left.
I have a lot of great memories from games when I was in high school. In 1997, Byron Leftwich battled Cato June, a former Michigan safety and current Indianapolis Colts linebacker, just months before they went off to college. Leftwich’s H.D. Woodson team won 26-22 over June’s Anacostia in the first Turkey Bowl game I ever saw (and the only one I ever watched on TV).
Leftwich is now my favorite NFL player that doesn’t wear the Redskins’ Burgundy and Gold, and it’s at least partially because I remember watching him play at Eastern almost 10 years ago. Even though D.C. isn’t always bursting with Division I talent, there is usually a player or two who is going to make it big.
When I was a senior, it was Josh Cribbs, Dunbar’s quarterback who later went on to lead Kent State and is now a wideout for the Cleveland Browns. At this year’s game – between Dunbar and Coolidge – there were a handful of prospects. Dunbar’s Vontae Davis is being recruited by Michigan State as well as Maryland and Virginia. Even more impressive was the team’s other wideout, Arrelious Benn, a junior who has received offers from Florida, Michigan State and Tennessee among others and is being recruited by Notre Dame, Florida State and more. Benn had two touchdowns in an impressive first half.
The Coolidge Colts were the true underdog story. Just one of the Colts three seniors is being recruited. A powerhouse program back in the ’80s, Coolidge hadn’t been to the Turkey Bowl since 1987; Dunbar had won six of the last seven and hadn’t lost a regular season game in eight years until Coolidge took it to the Tide just a month before the big game. After the Leftwich-June game in 1997, Dunbar won the next four – meaning that, for pretty much my entire high school career, I had been forced to watch Dunbar win.
On the backs of their star recruits, the Crimson Tide won again this year, 43-14. But like I said before, this isn’t the NFL. The best thing about the annual Thanksgiving day game, in my mind, is not the winners or losers – or even the future NFL stars that play in the game. What I enjoy most – other than the knowledge that my 10$ donation will (most likely) go directly to D.C. public schools – is the atmosphere. Eastern Senior High School, “The pride of Capital Hill,” hosts every year because it’s the only DCIAA school with a stadium big enough to house the 10,000 or so fans who show up. And it’s these 10,000 fans that make the game exciting – cheering and cursing, occasionally drinking or just goofing off.
When I got into an argument with the guy in the Wizards coat, neither one of us knew anything about Coolidge running back Dwan Thorton, who had two scoring runs on the day. It didn’t matter we hadn’t seen Thorton play before. We still stood there and discussed whether the ultra-quick back could overcome his size (he’s listed at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds) with his heart, which was obviously much bigger. Like Michigan’s mini Mike Hart, Thorton continually moved the pile to make a big gain out of nothing. But the truth is that, also like Hart, Thorton’s size will probably keep him from being heavily recruited.
It didn’t matter. After spending most of the third quarter talking about Thorton, our conversation quickly turned to the tradition of the Turkey Bowl. This man, an Anacostia High School graduate, was at the game with his two sons whose combined age couldn’t have been more than 14. He told me that he makes the trek up to Eastern every year, no matter who’s playing.
“And if I don’t feel like going, my sons will make sure I get up here,” he said.
– Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.