Coronavirus Ends South Side Turkey Bowl's Streak After 95 Years

Mark Konkol

CHICAGO — For nearly a century, descendants of long-gone Boy Scout Troop 520 gathered every year on Thanksgiving morning to participate in a sacred ritual — the Turkey Bowl.

In 1925, the first game was played outside Southfield Methodist Church in the South Shore neighborhood.

Photo courtesy Rosemary Hanson
Photo courtesy Rosemary Hanson

Bob Clay's late father played in that first game. So did Rosemary and Gordon Hanson's late dad, Bob Hanson Sr.

The special grid-iron gathering survived in part because the Hansons, Clays and their friends willed that it must.

After starting a family of his own, the late Bob Hanson Sr. took over as Boy Scout troop leader and that helped kept the game alive.

Clay, 78, made his first Turkey Bowl appearance when he was 11, the year he joined the Boy Scouts in 1953 alongside kids from the old neighborhood. The late Bob Hanson Jr., his little brother Gordon Hanson and Roger Hilpp, from down the street were part of the Turkey Bowl crew.

The game has never been an exclusive affair.

"Anyone who wanted to could play. There were Catholics, Jews, Methodists. Everyone was welcome and it's been like a family ever since," Clay said. "Why it continued for so long, I don't know except we like seeing each other every year."

But this year, like so many long-standing traditions, coronavirus ended the streak of consecutive Turkey Bowls on what would have been the 96th game.

"It's a damn shame I can't go out there at 78 and act like a kid playing with friends," Bob Clay said. "But it's what we have to do."

For four generations, the Turkey Bowl tradition lived on thanks in part to an unlikely extended family that adopted me.

I always felt lucky to be in the huddle. For me, the game has been special because of its long history. But more than that, there's something magic about a Turkey Bowl game that brings old friends together on Thanksgiving seemingly without an ounce of planning for so many years in a row.

Nobody organizes the Turkey Bowl. There's no Facebook invite. No phone-tree calls. No email reminder. Every year, people show up on the Thanksgiving Day game because they know the Turkey Bowl is as certain as a sunrise. At least until COVID-19 changed everything.

Even in a pandemic, the Turkey Bowl is a tough habit to break for guys who still brag about not missing a game. Gordon Hanson, 70, claims the longest consecutive game streak — 55 years.

And since the late '50s, Bob Clay says he only sat out one game. It was due to congestive heart failure. But he lost weight, regained his strength and made a Turkey Bowl comeback.

His lifelong friend, Rosemary Hanson, remembers a highlight of Clay's not-so-triumphant return.

"Bob fell," she said. Her laugh echoed over speaker phone. "He was wearing those yellow sweatpants, you know the ones, and they fell down. I guess he had lost more weight than he thought. He came crashing to the ground. I caught it on tape. Oh, what a laugh we had."

Videos like that one, and Rosemary Hanson's long memory, are among the reasons some people consider her the Turkey Bowl's unofficial historian.

As a girl, Rosemary didn't attend many games because she doesn't particularly like football, and "somebody has to stay home and help mom with dinner," was always an easy excuse to avoid the Thanksgiving morning chill.

But there were a few times — before girls were technically "allowed" to play — that father and brothers convinced her join in the fun. And as she got older, Rosemary grew to appreciate the Turkey Bowl for the joy she felt outside the field's invisible boundaries.

"I like seeing everybody, people I've known for more than 60 years who live all over, even it is once a year," she said. "The best part is being with the kids. We walk all over, up the hill, through the woods and that to me was special, just to get out in the cold air."

The game starts early. And around 8:30 Thanksgiving morning, when some guys warm up with a cold Budweiser and lazy jog around the giant oak tree, you never know who might show up to play.

"We had one guy a while back that nobody had seen for 40 show up to play. He came for a couple of years in a row, and then he was gone again," Rosemary Hanson said. "It's always a neat surprise to see who shows up."

Turkey Bowl veteran, Jim Petrowski, who lives in Tennessee, sometimes makes the trek even thought he's not in playing shape anymore. In recent years, Petrowski has been known to watch the game from his car, taking the occasional nip of Wild Turkey.

Over the years, the Turkey Bowl has been played in an empty lot near 68th and South Shore Drive, and Rainbow Beach before moving the game to Dan Ryan Woods, where they've played for decades.

Each spot had a nearby tavern earmarked for post game fellowship. And the Turkey Bowl outlasted several bars before Wrong's Tap in Beverly became the go-to post-game joint.

Going to the bar added an extra shot of joy to the Turkey Bowl tradition – until you forgot to look the clock, Hilpp said.

"I remember guys saying, 'You don't realize how much pressure this game puts on my relationship with my wife,'" Hilpp said. "We'd always say we would be home at a certain time, but once we leave the field and have a few drinks nobody gets home when they say they will."

Not everybody had that problem. Bob Clay Jr. remembers that the "Clays and the Hansons" were always the last ones to say goodbyes, but his mom always responded with patience and understanding.

"She knew Thanksgiving football wasn't going anywhere, and never gave us a hard time," Clay Jr. said. "Whenever we got home, that's when we got ready for dinner."

That's the kind of grace kept the Turkey Bowl alive, too. For that, Bob Clay Sr. and his fellow septuagenarian Turkey Bowlers are thankful. They remained faithful to a tradition long for enough that now when they look down the line of scrimmage there are three generations of their families waiting for someone to yell, "Hike."

Bob Clay Jr. (center) calls a play at the Turkey Bowl. (Photo by Colleen Ziemkowski)
Bob Clay Jr. (center) calls a play at the Turkey Bowl. (Photo by Colleen Ziemkowski)

For Hilpp, watching his grandson, Vaughn Hilpp, speed through the secondary to make leaping catches makes him heart swell. It reminds him of the days when he played to win, which, as things turn out, never was the most important thing.

I got clouted into the Turkey Bowl by my buddy Kevin Ziemkowski, who married into the game.

He was indoctrinated in the tradition in 1996, a few years after he began dating Clay's daughter, Colleen. Now they've got two kids and a handful of friends who bring their kids to play.

"It's really neat how the game evolved. It stared out as old guys against young guys. Then, us young guys became the old guys, too. It became less competitive. It's more about family and friends being together, now," Ziemkowski said.

"My kids started playing when the were 8 or 9 years old. And it's being there with them, with everybody, every year that's been the coolest thing ever."

And as disappointing as it is to see the streak end, there are things more important than the football on Thanksgiving.

Bob Clay Sr. plays with his grandson, Christian Clay after the 2019 Turkey Bowl. (Photo by Colleen Ziemkowski)
Bob Clay Sr. plays with his grandson, Christian Clay after the 2019 Turkey Bowl. (Photo by Colleen Ziemkowski)

Here's one: "Last year, my son came to his first Turkey Bowl. He was 3 years old. And after the game he ran out on the field. We tossed the ball around … my dad was there. It's my favorite Turkey Bowl memory," Bob Clay Jr. said.

"I'd rather miss one game than take a chance that [because of coronavirus] Dad won't be around to make more."

This article originally appeared on the Chicago Patch