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ESSAY

America feasts on a fine football tradition

The sport, played in parks and watched on TVs across the land, is a must on Thanksgiving.

November 26, 2009|By Diane Pucin
  • Thanksgiving and football have long been intertwined for many people, such as Richard Thurston, left, Geoffrey Radler and Mechelle Thurston, who enjoyed their Thanksgiving feast while tailgating at the Cowboys-Dolphins game in 2003.
Thanksgiving and football have long been intertwined for many people,… (Laurence Jenkins / Associated…)

While you're having turkey and ham, stuffing and gravy or maybe enchiladas today, you will probably have the television on too.

And at some point of the day there could be a dollop or two or maybe a roasting pan sized-helping of sports.

There are three NFL games (unless you're a Time Warner cable customer, then you only get two, no Giants-Broncos for you from the NFL Network). Plus, plenty of college basketball games. UCLA is playing in a made-for-ESPN tournament in Anaheim at 8 p.m., for example. There's soccer from everywhere. Tennis from London, the season-ending tournament.

But if you look away from the television, you'll find something more intimate.

At a local park in our Tustin neighborhood there will be sports of all sorts. It's usually filled Thanksgiving morning with young lacrosse and soccer players. There is a regular group of Iranian men who play volleyball. There is a group of miscreants who gather on the hill in back and let their dogs occasionally wander off-leash.

But for the last nine years, as long as we've lived here, there's been a group of guys and girls playing touch football on the holiday morning and that, in this multicultural slice of the world, is so comforting.

It is tradition.

This job has given me many homes on Thanksgiving.

In Columbus, Ga., once where I was asked whether I graduated from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn or Alabama.

The answer was Marquette and the idea I went to a college that had no football team brought sympathy my way. Because Thanksgiving was not about the food but only about the football. Texas and Texas A&M and then on Friday Oklahoma and Nebraska. This was a time for the good folks in Georgia and Alabama to calculate how much better their football was than in other parts of the country.

At my apartment complex there was a morning flag-football game. At the newspaper there was a group that gathered for Chinese takeout then watched the Detroit Lions and someone, can't remember who, and everybody added up how many Southeastern Conference players were on the rosters. It was tradition. A little wager was made. Whose alma mater had the most? That person got the leftovers.

In Cincinnati even outsiders couldn't help but be drawn into the tradition of the Thanksgiving Day high school game between Elder, the Catholic school that was Moeller before Moeller existed, and Western Hills High, proud alma mater of Pete Rose and Don Zimmer, among others. The game was at 10 a.m., then home to shower and to eat and to debate the results while settling down to consider whether Elder or Western Hills was really better than the Detroit Lions.

At a stop in Philadelphia the Thanksgiving morning high school tradition was even deeper. It was a plumb assignment to cover one of the dozens of high school football games played in the city and suburbs.

It always seemed as if the wind was blowing. It was the perfect time to tie a jaunty scarf around your neck, borrow a leather jacket and wish you were from one of the local high schools.

There was pride on the line but there was also festivity in the air. Before folks gathered with their own families later, they touched base with high school pals, slapped the back of a former teacher, shook hands with the old coach.

Those high school games everywhere are dwindling. With the advent of high school state football playoffs, Thanksgiving Day rivalry games have disappeared. The schedule doesn't understand tradition.

Rich Eisen, who will anchor the NFL Network coverage today, said growing up in New York, his tradition was solely devoted to watching the NFL game (a single game). Dinner was planned to "interfere as little as possible," with the television he said.

Jim Nantz, who will be doing today's CBS game (1 p.m. PST) of the Raiders at the Cowboys, says he understands that with so many sporting events now scheduled for Thanksgiving that maybe all ears won't be tuned to him as much as before.

"But I still think this holiday is really associated with the NFL," he said. "It just is."

For someone raised in the Central time zone, and having worked mostly in Eastern time zone places, it's hard to pass up watching the Macy's parade before the 9:30 a.m. NFL game on Fox between Green Bay and Detroit but, hey, eggs before turkey? That works.

Nantz says he enjoys covering the Thanksgiving game and doesn't mind so much not being with his family.

"It kind of feels like family with the crew," he said.

"I know there is so much more sports programming but this holiday still feels as if it belongs to the NFL."

It does. Just not quite so fully. We didn't have a remote control once upon a time. We do now and it's a little greasy on Thanksgiving day.

So here's a suggestion: Don't let the person who ate the drumstick have the remote. It will get slippery. And you might miss part of the game. Some game. Any game. But don't forget to visit the park too.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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