Football traditions are big in South Carolina on Thanksgiving weekend, led by Carolina-Clemson, played in a huge stadium.
But the annual Turkey Bowl flag football game in Rock Hill started in a backyard when some players were kids, and it has lasted into manhood.
And as they have become men, and devout Christian men at that, these guys decided there remains a lot of kid in all of them.
“I was probably 8 years old, and we would play football after Thanksgiving with the neighbor kids, and we always did every year after that,” said organizer Ridge Thomas, 22, who graduates from Clemson University in a month.
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But Thomas was not thinking about graduation Friday. He wanted to win. And to play football, and to raise money for people who need it.
Jay Fischer, 20, a student at High Point University, grew up with Thomas. The guys always played, whether it was four players or 12.
“It’s a tradition we always had and it just keeps getting bigger and better,” Fischer said.
This year, the players raised money for a Rock Hill family that would not have a Christmas otherwise.
The buddies still play on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and over the years they have seen interest grow.
This year, the tradition ramped up to a new level. The game was played at Westminster Catawba Christian School’s field after school officials heard what the group was trying to accomplish.
The scene was complete with jerseys, bought off ebay for $5 each.
Both teams’ jerseys said Wildcats, but nobody cared. One team wore navy jerseys, the other, white.
There was a scoreboard, a chain crew, a referee and a trophy.
Concessions were sold to raise money for the family and there was even a public address announcer.
“Straight from Westminster Towers (a nearby retirement and health care center), Scott Thomas,” deadpanned the introduction for Ridge Thomas’ 54-year-old father, Scott Thomas. Scott Thomas played with guys more than 30 years his junior and heroically played like a young man.
Most of the other players were college-aged guys who know the original crew from high school or college and who came home to Rock Hill for Thanksgiving. Some played football in high school. Some did not. Nobody cared.
Because everybody was somebody in this Turkey Bowl. The slow were linemen. The fleet ran pass patterns.
There was some good-natured trash-talking, and a singing of the national anthem, and then it was on.
Families sat in the bleachers and cheered. Grandmothers roared for points.
The common theme from everybody was simple: fellowship, have a good time, and try not to blow out a knee.
Passes were caught, and passes were dropped. Long runs and flops in the dust. The announcer made fun of the referee and people laughed and hugged and high-fived.
And they did it all to show that young men can be soldiers for Christ and still compete, at the same time. All while trying to help others.
There was a winning team and a losing team – navy 28, white 8. But the greatness of this game is that nobody will ever remember who won or lost.
They will remember that they were together, and they loved each other, and they helped others along the way.