Thanksgiving in the bare-branched suburban ring around New York City was always—for me and my brothers, Steve, Rich, and John—about football. There was, of course, the pixelated wallpaper provided by the games on TV: the Dallas Cowboys or the Detroit Lions and whoever they were playing that year. Better still was the real thing, played in the backyard. This was our personal Turkey Bowl, our Pilgrim rite, as we gathered in the early afternoon, before the big meal. The four of us stepped onto the pitch (our sidelines defined by tangles of forsythia bushes on the left and a sloping hill on the right), glowering at one another (impossible not to crack up during warm-ups when a first pass went quailing into the woods or one team’s uniform consisted of matching long johns).
In the beginning, friends and various relatives joined in, but then, in the mid-1980s, we began to play oldest (Steve and me) versus youngest (Rich and John). It was their idea, and they couldn’t help smirking when we agreed to it: Oh, how sweet it was going to be to open a big can of Miles Standish on us losers! They possessed youth and motivation; at age 15, Rich already had several inches on us and superior hand-eye coordination, while John, a senior, was soon to play quarterback at his college. My brother Steve and I, ourselves already well into college, were—at least to their minds—in rapid physical decline, which was further evidenced by our playing in a noise band together and wearing, on occasion, sweater-vests.
I won’t detail that first Turkey Bowl or the next a year later, or run through the extensive highlight reel—though Steve’s stunning touchdown (’02) and my unlikely overhead catch in the forsythia bushes that required the extrication assistance of several people (’98) were something to see. Suffice it to say, the games were epic, heroic, and somewhat violent. We Elders worked the pregame psyops hard (“We’re just hoping you young’uns don’t blow out your ACLs this year” and so on). And by expertly planting such seeds of doubt year after year, the Elders managed to pull off an astonishing 21–0 Turkey Bowl record. Of course, what matters is not that 21–0 Turkey Bowl record, impressive though it is, but the way that our Thanksgiving game continues to bring all four brothers back together—primarily to laugh at and with one another.
Now each of us has kids, and last year we included them, too. Once again, we were legendary rivals doing battle with our age-old grudges (this go-round, with a lot of munchkins happily confusing the issue), then afterward sat down to break bread and pile on the turkey, blessed by the cornucopia, everything heightened by having played. And the food, I swear, tasted three times as good, though by nightfall, when it came time to limp to bed, I, for one, couldn’t get out of the chair.
Michael Paterniti is the author of Driving Mr. Albert ($8, amazon.com) and a contributor to GQ. He lives in Portland, Maine.