No one knows for certain when the Turkey Bowl started — although the consensus appears to be 75 to 80 years ago.
But as Charles Alexander will tell you, the numbers aren’t as important as the game’s history and purpose.
Even more vital than the story, however, is the future of the flag football game that brings Charlottesville’s African American community together every Thanksgiving Day.
But to know what’s next, Alexander says one must know what has been.
“It just got started as a bunch of older guys coming together and playing some ball,” said Alexander, known in his educational work with children as Mr. Alex Zan.
Flash back to 50 years ago. Randy Jones is just a 14-year-old boy playing in the Turkey Bowl for the first time.
Opportunities to play sports at the time weren’t as plentiful, as the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Jones said at Thursday’s game at Venable Elementary School.
For Jones, that first game was just that — a game. But over time, he realized it was something more.
“This is where I started to really understand love for people no matter who they are,” he said, gesturing to the ongoing game in the outfield of the school’s baseball field. “This was my playground. This is where a 14-year-old was allowed to play football. … Many guys who are top-notch players played on this field.”
He said people would set aside any troubles or feuds they had with others and come together for the community event, “no matter what was happening in the world.”
Over the years, the game was played at Lane and Burley High schools before eventually moving to Venable.
Alexander said the site is important to the city’s African American history.
He was one of 12 black children to integrate the city’s historically white Venable and Lane schools on Sept. 8, 1959, on the order of a federal judge, despite resistance from the city School Board.
Fast forward to today, Jones sports a beard sprinkled with gray. He doesn’t get out and play the game, but he still coaches and greets nearly every person walking by.
“You see handshakes, you see hugs, you see tears — people who haven’t seen each other in a long time,” Jones said. “It’s a community thing.”
The Turkey Bowl is indeed a community event, organized by community members with their own money. It’s not advertised throughout the city; it carries no corporate sponsorship.
And as times change, Jones has embraced the need to slowly hand the reins off to the next generation. He wants younger residents to take it over and keep the tradition going. He’s impressed with their enthusiasm.
“These guys know what it was like for someone like me to reach out to them and teach them what they need to be a young black man today,” he said. “And now they’re taking that lesson and passing it on to others.
For the past few years, Terrece Smith has taken a lead role in organizing the Turkey Bowl.
When Jones was able to wrangle Smith from the football game to talk about the event, Smith said he’s been playing for several years, but decided to get involved in organizing because “it’s my community.”
“I want to make it grow as much as possible,” Smith said of the event. He noted that everything was paid for out-of-pocket, but “that wasn’t going to stop it.”
This year, the Turkey Bowl featured two games for the first time in its history. Before the main event, children ages 9 through 12 competed.
“They had fun and that’s what it’s all about.” Smith said. “It was a good vibe. … We’re trying to make sure the kids stay active and be motivated.”
Jones said the idea of having a game for the youngsters had floated around for a while because young people will ensure that the Turkey Bowl doesn’t fade and disappear.
Alexander said the event doesn’t interfere with traditional family gatherings held on Thanksgiving — instead, it blends with the African American tradition of an “extended family” in the community.
“There’s no event in Charlottesville that brings people together like the Turkey Bowl,” he said.
With a smile and a chuckle, Jones looked out toward the field and added that, “It’s an atmosphere that’s charged with love.”