ALBERT LEA, Minn. (KMSP) - Some families or neighborhood friends have a tradition of playing football before Thanksgiving dinner. One group from Albert Lea has been tossing around the pigskin on Turkey Day for 50 years now.
It all began on an Albert Lea field - the heart and soul of the Fountain Lake neighborhood back in 1966. Then, Lyndon B. Johnson was president and the first Super Bowl was still weeks away.
For a group of sports crazy teens growing up close by, they needed something to do Thanksgiving morning.
“This was heaven on earth as a teenager,” recalled Paul Wendorff, one of the original players. “This area is very special. There were big families, no fences. We would burn leaves in the street as dogs ran wild. And we played sports all day long - sun up to sun down.”
Paul Wendorff, Jim Nielsen and Rick Harves broke out the football that Turkey Day 50 years ago and they’ve done it every single year since.
“We get to come back for two hours every Thanksgiving,” said Nielsen. “We get to come home again. They always say you can’t do it. Well, we do it.”
With the weather cooperating for the 2016 Albert Lea Turkey Bowl, turnout was great this year as a few dozen split into two teams. Boys, girls, young, old - everyone is invited to play.
“We all bring our families,” said Harves, who coached football in Albert Lea for years. “We have children and sons-in-law. They come and play too. It’s become a generational thing.”
Some of the older guys, now in their mid-60s are still competitive even as some of their grandchildren join in the five-decade-old tradition.
Erika Hacker, who watched from the hilltop above the field as her dad and 11-year-old son played, had her fingers crossed that everyone was able to at least limp home for turkey.
“They talk about it a lot,” said Hacker. “We just pray they walk away safe each year. There have been a few injuries.”
In fact, one of the original neighborhood friends broke his femur a few years ago. While he hasn’t returned to play, he does watch the action from the sidelines.
To accommodate all the players, the rules have been relaxed to keep the ball moving and to get everyone involved.
A team is allowed to make as many forward passes as they want until a player is touched down by an opponent.
And yes, there is some good-natured trash talk between old friends and even the youngsters.
There are also plenty of memories and reminiscing about games of yesteryear including the obvious, Thanksgiving Day weather. For example in 1977, they had to use a snowblower to clear the sidelines.
That’s what the group has done for decades. They show up. They have fun playing football with family and friends, while making Thanksgiving memories, now for a third generation.