The call usually comes on the Sunday or Monday before Thanksgiving. It's a voice from the past, a former fellow lineman on the St. Monica's Catholic High School football team in Santa Monica.
"Thursday at 10, Pat. Are you going to be there?"
I answer, "Yes. Samohi?"
"See you then," he says and we hang up.
My wife looks at me and shakes her head. "It was the call, wasn't it?"
"I'm only saying what I'm about to say because you made me promise," she says.
"What?" She doesn't realize what tradition means.
"You made me promise to remind you that you couldn't move all day Friday last year."
"So? You said, 'Never again.' "
"I was deluded by pain. I'm going. Tell your parents I'll be late."
"They know." I guess she understands tradition after all.
This is the 14th year of the annual Turkey Bowl, our touch football game on Thanksgiving. St. Monica's has no football field of its own, so we climb the fence and play on the main football field at Santa Monica High School, or sometimes on one of the auxiliary fields. The location depends on whether the Samohi Vikings are climbing up the California Interscholastic Federation playoff ladder.
Among our group of 32- to 35-year-olds are several players from past St. Monica's teams. But, we allow anybody, football player or not, St. Monica Mariner or not, to play.
There's my brother who claims class clown as his fame. There's the congressman's son, yelling profanities across the line. He's known to cry, "You never even touched him" more often than his father travels on junkets. We have a Sears salesman, a lawyer, a former baseball player, a karate teacher, a parking lot attendant and a teacher. And there have been scores of others through the years.
The games started out rough. During the first three years, the congressman's son and the karate instructor came to blows at least once, and resorted to blind-side tackles a dozen times. Our voices became hoarse from screaming at one another. Blood flowed from my nose after a game more than once, but it was the blood spilled between brothers. My brother and I were on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage.
Tired and bruised, we would all straggle home, where the aroma of roasting turkeys filled the houses and the large pan of homemade bread pudding (my mother's only specialty) awaited my family in the afternoon. It felt complete.
As time passed, we changed and so did the game.
The touch/tackle game developed into a true touch football game as we concerned ourselves variously with weddings, infants and life-insurance policies. Voices softened. The yelling matches seemed gratuitous. The congressman's son grew quiet. My brother and I complimented one another on catches. The lawyer got married. Occasionally, wives and girlfriends populated the sidelines. Later, kids. Some stopped coming after divorces.
Over the years, strangers from other schools joined up, some from St. Monica's arch rivals. Young men showed up on the sidelines and took to the field as we got tired or left early for turkey or bread pudding. A rocket-armed quarterback gradually lost the sting of his throw. A former lineman grew larger and lost his speed. All were welcome and gladly greeted with summaries of what had transpired in the last year: parents dying, elections, children born, classmates getting AIDS.
Last year a man stood on the sidelines and we looked at him for a while. "He with you?" we asked each other in the huddle until we decided that no one knew him. Then we waved him over.
The newcomer wore a grin that dazzled in the cloudy morning. He'd been asked into a ritual transcending anything Robert Bly could dream up. No drumbeats here, only the slap of pigskin. On the next play, the newcomer caught the ball. His mettle was proven. On defense he screamed aloud to our huddle. He had joined the Turkey Bowl.
In the same game, I hit a young player wearing the blue 88 of Steve Sargent from the Seattle Seahawks as he ran from the line of scrimmage to catch the ball. He turned to me and yelled, "Hey, man. You interfered!"
The congressman's son put his arm around 88 and walked him back to the huddle. "Bud, calm down," he said. "It's not the Super Bowl. It's only the Turkey Bowl."
"Yeah," added the formerly rifle-armed quarterback, "We're only playing for fun."
As I huffed and puffed across the line, looking at my old teammates and the new cast of characters, I could hear the voice of the man who makes the phone calls to bring us together each year. He laughed, and patted 88 on the back. I realized 88 was the same age as we were when this all started.
I considered all the rituals I had in my life: the occasional Mass, tucking my daughter into bed. But none, at that moment, seemed as sacred nor measured so much how time had changed us as this. Bread pudding disappeared three years ago when my mother died; the stuffing in my mother-in-law's turkey tasted better than my mom's. Hairlines on both sides of the line had receded while our waistlines had increased. I had worked with many men over the years, but none had the bond that three years of prep football and 14 years of Turkey Bowl had created.
I know we have something unique. Perhaps this subtle and sublime ritual is our men's liberation.