St. Paul Turkey Bowl tradition excites generations of players and spectators

This Thanksgiving, a tradition rooted in St. Paul is celebrating a major milestone.

Since grade school, a group of friends have been gathering for a touch football game and now their sons, daughters, nephews and grandkids have taken over the field.

Where this game has been played has changed a few times over the years, but tradition and camaraderie remain the same for 50 years now and counting.

Like any organized football game, the Turkey Bowl begins with acknowledging the players and singing the national anthem, but this matchup between the dark meat team and white meat team started well before almost everyone on the field was born.

It started Thanksgiving 1969 with 15 young men from the Midway and Highland areas of St. Paul.

“It started on Pierce Island, a grassy spot, knuckle heads out there playing football, cars whizzing by, glass everywhere,” said Turkey Bowl Historian Jeff Lyman.

Since then, most of the original players have traded tackles on the sidelines for snuggles with grandkids on the sidelines.

“Every year you are thinking, ‘Why are we all out here?’ It’s freezing or snowing or raining so 50 years wasn’t really on our minds when we started,” said Lyman.

Over the decades those sidelines have included a flock of fans from four generations whose appetite’s savor the action on the field almost as much as the rhetoric.

“They are a bunch of clowns too. They are always clowning around. It’s a lot of fun,” said Kristin Leyman, who married into the family.

Complete with a quick half time performance, players reminisce how they've ended up taking part in this touch football game year after year.

“I love it,” said Tony Lavalle, who married into the family. “The first year they tell me, ‘You are in for life now.’”

This year, with the passing of another original member, the participants and spectators held a moment of silence as a reminder of the friendships worth celebrating. 

“The players they get into it, but it’s really about the gathering.  Old friends coming together seeing maybe once a year each other and their families.  It’s just way more than a football game now,” said Lyman.

To quote the late John Stieger, “The Turkey Bowl isn't just well planned, it's well done.”

“We certainly hope it will continue,” Lyman said. “It looks like the spirit is still here. We hope it continues another 50 years.”