LONG BEACH — At 9 a.m. on Sunday, the dew was still heavy on the picnic tables at Recreation Park. The air was crisp with the beginnings of winter. And no one was present save an occasional jogger and a man walking his dog.
Until the arrival of the Gobblers and the Turkeez, that is. Then the pristine quietude gave way to a cantankerous competition. And the morning reverie was shattered by the ritual re-enactment of a grudge match dating back 22 years.
"We do it because it's fun," said Jeff Benedict, 37, who many credit as the instigator of the tradition.
"My eyes are like slits," complained Bill Aldrich, who is a year younger. "I should be in church."
An Annual Classic
Welcome to the Turkey Bowl, an annual football classic that participants claim is the longest-running grass-roots game in town. "We're three years older than the Super Bowl," said Benedict, a manager with the county Health Department.
The game started back in 1964 when Benedict and three friends, all then juniors at Long Beach Wilson High School, developed the habit of playing touch football after school each day in Recreation Park across the street from the campus. One day, Benedict recalls, they were challenged to a game by a group of high school "scholars" claiming that "even though they studied all the time they could still beat us."
Sure enough, he recounts, the Scholars squeaked by the Sandlotters (so named because they were a "sandlot" football team) that first year by a score of 26 to 25. But the Sandlotters came back the following year to win 48 to 35. And again the next, at 51 to 28.
In 1968 the Scholars became the Turkeez and the Sandlotters became the Gobblers because, said Benedict, "there was no way we could call these guys scholars" anymore. Thus was born a tradition. Since then the Turkey Bowl has been played every year, usually on Thanksgiving, before enthusiastic (if sometimes sparse) gatherings of family and friends.
This year's game was postponed until December due to a Benedict family vacation. Benedict's presence was required, other players said, because besides publishing the annual "press book"--a Xeroxed document of 3 to 10 pages containing biographical updates on the players, game stats and interesting historical anecdotes--he keeps the team rosters, OKs trades between the two sides, makes up new and innovative rules as the game is played and each year names the most valuable player.
"We purposely don't mark the boundaries because that leaves more room for negotiation," he explained, adding that arguments over plays are a Turkey Bowl tradition.
Over the years, the complexion of the game has changed. Of the original eight players, Benedict said, only three are still in the game. The rest, he said, have retired to watch from the sidelines or gradually drifted away and been replaced by other former high school classmates and friends from later years.
Paunch and Baldness
But the modern Turkey Bowl is a far cry from the fast-paced game of two decades ago. Where sleek, muscled youths once exhibited their athletic prowess, men in their mid-to-late 30s now show the paunch and baldness of encroaching middle age.
And where dewy-eyed high school sweethearts once stood on the sidelines, now wives stand with children, some of whom are already teen-agers themselves.
"The older you get the slower you get," admits Aldrich, now a lawyer in Santa Ana. "Fifteen yards is a lot farther now than it was five years ago."
Added Buck Crook, a 37-year-old Seal Beach clothing manufacturer who has been playing in the Turkey Bowl since the early 1970s: "Getting out of bed (the day after the game) is harder and harder."
Indeed, the bowl has had its share of ups and downs. One of the "ups" was the 1983 game, which was videotaped and later televised at Legends, a local sports bar. "The other screen was playing Green Bay vs. Detroit, but more people were watching our game," said Benedict.
One of the "downs" was the ill-fated 1974 contest that ended in a 0-0 tie after only eight minutes because Brad Henry, one of the original Gobblers, broke his foot and had to be rushed to the hospital.
Plagued by Injuries
Injuries, in fact, have been the bane of the Turkey Bowl. One year, according to Benedict, a player had a mild heart attack after the game and had to retire from football. And this year, Henry was forced to sit on the sidelines for the first time (where he will probably remain) due to knee surgery following last year's game.
"It's killing them," said Mark Benedict, Jeff's father, who has attended every Turkey Bowl for 15 years. "But it has held them together. They've been friends for all these years."
And indeed, say the players, that's what it's all about: friendship, camaraderie, tradition. In a world of transience, they say, they have managed to save a bit of their pasts.
"It's real nice to have so many long-term friends," said Henry, the owner of a Torrance glass company. "Not too many people do."
Added his wife, Julie, who has accompanied him to every Turkey Bowl since 1970: "There's a lot of value in tradition and friendship. By doing this we are teaching (that to) our children."
At the end of Sunday's game, the Gobblers had trounced the Turkeez, 20-7.
"It was a well-played game and a mellow game," said Gobbler Jeff Benedict.
"I'm very happy this year; I'm uninjured," said Aldrich, who plays for the Turkeez.
With players retiring right and left, Benedict says he isn't sure just how much longer the game can survive. But he hopes the game can last at least three more years, until its 25th anniversary.
And then? "We plan on continuing this as a golf tournament," said the father of the Turkey Bowl. After that, he said, they'll go to lawn bowling.