Having missed it for 50 years, I finally made it last week to the annual Hall’s Hill Turkey Bowl.
The Thanksgiving Day amateur football spectacle has been a staple of Arlington’s African-American community for half a century (no one seems to recall the exact year it kicked off).
Yet this blast of an event is surprisingly little known among the rest the county’s citizenry-a gap I chalk up as a vestige of the segregation era’s separation of cultures.
“It’s a like a neighborhood homecoming” for people who’ve known one another since elementary school, Willie Jackson-Baker, president of north Arlington’s John M. Langston Citizens Association, told me. As many as a thousand spectators have been known to line the fence on Cameron Street at High View Park to watch a tackle football game that pits the over-30 men against the under-30s.
No posters or mailouts are needed to get the word out, says Alfred Forman, a former player who now referees. “Everybody just comes back home.”
Turnout this year was down-I’d guess perhaps 300 showed, including many who brought antique cars, their Chevy Novas and Camaros-and the ages easily ranged from 2 to 80.
That the enthusiasm remains strong was demonstrated by the addition for the past three years of a women’s flag football game that begins at 9:30 a.m., an hour before the (mostly) muscle-bound males line up to relive youthful glory in front of their hometown’s survivors.
“The women wanted to get in the game,” said organizer Brandon Harris, who watched the older females defeat the younger ones 19-16. “It’s a home-grown type of deal,” he said, open to everyone, but the teams are dominated by reunited pals from the historically African-American neighborhoods of Hall’s Hill, Green Valley and Johnson’s Hill.
The men’s game is impressively formal. Players wear numbered nylon jerseys reading “Hall’s Hill Turkey Bowl,” the elder guys in burgundy, the younger in gold. The refs dress the part and blow whistles, though they must track progress without a chain crew or a scoreboard.
The regulation-size field is properly lined, though there are no goalposts through which to kick extra points, and some light poles are dangerously close to the action. The teams are 20 players, nine on the field at a time. No one wears cleats, though many use mouthpieces.
The action is fast and tempers flare, but the contact is mostly of the arm-tackling variety.
Injuries are not unknown. My high school football teammate Paul Terry, whom I chanced upon on the sidelines, assured me that since he began attending in 1968, there has been more than one trip to the hospital. Last year a fight broke out.
But this year all seemed sporty after the younger squad was declared the winner, 28-25.
This is one tight-knit community-every old classmate I mentioned to onlookers was instantly recalled.
Before the crowd poured on to mingle with the players, the teams gathered round the officials, who gave each player a trophy. A round of applause went up for their funder, neighborhood fixture Ed Hamm, a corporate executive who served as director of minority business enterprise for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.
A pep talk was delivered by referee Forman, who quoted a relative saying, “You don’t know what a community football game is until you come to Hall’s Hill.”
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]