Young Life Lite: Talking Turkey

No one is quite sure when the tradition began. No one agrees on the official kickoff time. (Some consider the 9:00 a.m. start a mere suggestion.) No one knows who will come out to play year to year. But one thing all the players in the 14th- (or is it 15th?) Annual Turkey Bowl agree on is that the game is a celebration of relationships that began in Young Life and continue because of Jesus Christ.

Like every lasting Young Life endeavor, the Turkey Bowl is supported by a committee. Kevin Gross, member of the official Turkey Bowl committee, claims the first Thanksgiving Day game occurred on Nov. 25, 1993. The night before, Erin Wheeler, a fellow classmate of Gross, insisted that the Turkey Bowl was played every year, and she wanted to know when everyone would turn out to play. Because of Wheeler’s persistence, players showed up the next morning and every Thanksgiving morning since. (Gross adds, however, that Wheeler has missed all subsequent games due to a mysteriously recurring virus that plagues her every Thanksgiving.)

For 14 (or 15) years, this rag tag group of Young Life friends spanning a decade of graduating classes, their spouses, occasionally their leaders, out-of-town visitors and now one of their children, have played football in all manner of Northern Ohio weather in the field behind their old high school. Though some have wondered whether touch football might be more age-appropriate for players approaching mid-life, the committee will have none of it. In the words of Gross’ brother, Chris (words that one year he shouted in the direction of a nearby flag football game), “We don’t need no stinkin’ flags.”

Flags might have been advisable the year a Russian student attending Kent State University joined the fun. Never having played or even seen the game, he joined in enthusiastically — until he moved too slowly to recover a fumble. He was rolled up in a pile of people faster than he could say the word “glasnost.” “Thankfully he wasn’t injured and we avoided the start of another cold war,” Gross said.

One year, former Area Director Luis Cataldo and wife Jill showed up with a sound system to provide play-by-play commentary. Seated in a high-back, white wicker chair, Cataldo looked more like the homecoming king than sportscaster Keith Jackson, recalled Kim Bernier.

Memories like this one are shared time and again when the teams gather later in the Thanksgiving weekend. On that night, players view game films (shot by former Young Life committee member Fred Gross), reminisce, laugh and debate the date of the inaugural game. And during that gathering the Turkey Bowl committee honors one player with the Turkey Bowl MVP trophy featuring a bronze turkey with a football on his wing.

Fred Gross, who is also the official videographer and a proud parent of Turkey Bowl alumni, considers it a joy to participate in the tradition. “It’s an incredible experience to see how these high school kids have grown into adults and how they’ve maintained this connection with each other over the years. But the best part is to see how each one continues to walk with the Lord.”

As the self-appointed Turkey Bowl committee continues to work out the details of the ESPN contract and Aretha Franklin’s half-time show, the players will continue to show up sometime mid-morning, grateful for the Christ-centered relationships that keep them close.

Tackle and mom Meggan Huntoon said, “Even if the Turkey Bowl never again took place, we could sit around for hours talking about our common passion for kingdom work and sharing stories of what God has done. That is what began through Young Life in high school, and what connects us and draws us closer as friends, even if we see each other only once a year at the Turkey Bowl.”