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Beacon blog: Of football, friends and facing the end

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 24, 2009 - Forty-nine years ago, on Nov. 25, 1960, a group of guys who lived in or near Clayton organized a touch football game to be played on the Friday following Thanksgiving. It became a rather spectacular tradition, and 20 years ago, Jon Sawyer, then chief Washington correspondent of the Post-Dispatch, wrote a comprehensive story of close to 5,000 words about it. Notably, with nary a break, the match has been played on the post-festival Friday, on various fields in St. Louis and occasionally in other cities, for going on half a century.

As much as it has been a rambunctious contest of will, muscle, skill, chutzpah and dedication, it has been a feature of the lives of these men, and eventually for a number of women. For some, it would become a distinguishing feature of their lives. As they grew older, their children came to the gridiron to be transfigured in the mud of the field. There have been sadnesses. Some have died or strayed; losses of parents and other close relatives have been shared. There have been conflicts too, political disagreements of various intensities, for example, and unintentional slights that resulted in hurt feelings.

But as some of the younger contestants might say, Whatever. The game has gone on, and will continue, until Friday, when the participants run out the clock. This year's game will be the last. For anyone interested in a rich if tiny slice of St. Louis history, turn up at 11 a.m. Friday at Francis Field, Washington University, to observe the playing out of a tradition.

I am a tangent to this, but because I am quarterback on this literary playing field, I get to make a call about content so I asked an original and constant participant, Andy Rothschild, to write about Turkey Day.

I asked Rothschild simply because -- of all the voices that have registered opinions and told jokes and indulged in truth-in-jest insults in relation to Turkey Day -- Andy’s voice, it seems to me, is most silvery, and because of his gentle and generous spirit, he can take the game beyond the field into more philosophical territory. I found his observations to be genuinely affecting: They issue forth from his soul, and go to the heart of this tradition and reveal that it represents common strains in all our lives, if they are well lived.

And they speak too of reasons to give thanks, among them, families, friendship, hanging out, loyalty, ribbing, arguing, jokes, irreverences and the abiding affections and the blessings of memory.

In his reminiscences about Turkey Day, Rothschild wrote of his mother, Elizabeth Wohl Rothschild, who died Nov. 14, at 89. In other times, perched in an apartment high above Shaw Park in Clayton, Mrs. Rothschild could watch many Turkey Day games from her window.

Rothschild’s wife, Cyndie Sweet Rothschild, and their children, Abby, Branch and Casey Rothschild, have taken to the field at one time or another as have the children and spouses and companions of other participants. A list of everyone, both active players and semi regular hangers-on such as me, is found at the conclusion of this article, reported by Arthur Lieber. If anyone has been left out, call him, not me.

And here, gently edited, is what Andy Rothschild has to say about Turkey Day -– t’day, he calls it, and about life.

Next year, there will be no game and there will be no mom

There is for me a sense of closure, wistfulness and sadness, and also a full sense of jobs well done. My mother led a very sweet life. Similarly, our 50-year football ritual is important and positive for me, and it has provided a means of our gathering together and maintaining and strengthening our friendships.

I’d even argue that our friendships have matured over the years. Where many of us could best express our affection for one another through humor and insults, we are often more direct, dare I say feminine, in our appreciation of one another now. We still do our share of humor and insults, but I think that there is very little mean spirit and lots of affection.

The yearly touchstone (sounds like touchdown) has helped us to evaluate our own lives and one another. We’ve seen each other’s ups and downs. We’ve seen relationships crumble, and we’ve seen new relationships arise out of the ashes.

Nevertheless, I love the idea of retiring from the game before I die of it. The game itself has become more of an obligation than a desire for me in recent years. That’s how I knew that it was time to pack it in. After 50 years of building relationships, I don’t think we need the game to cement us together any longer.

When I first started playing, whether I won or lost was of the utmost importance to me. As I matured, and my testosterone ebbed, the wins didn’t provide the same thrills and the losses didn’t hurt as much. The ritual became more about friendship and less about football. Being fair and considerate and having fun became more important than winning. As my children began playing, I was more interested in their well being and their doing well (even if they were on the other team) than anything else.

Before the days when children moved away from their hometowns so frequently, people would know each others’ children and parents, particularly in a mostly close-knit Jewish community such as this. Even after spreading out across the country, we’ve been able to keep in touch with each other’s parents and our children have gotten to know each other in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

I would hope that at 62 I’m more mature than I was at 12 and I think that I am. I am very fortunate to have such wonderful memories of my mom. And I’m fortunate to have gathered for these past 50 years with such great friends to play our own brand of touch football. I like the idea of ceremony, reflection and closure. I like taking a deep breath and looking back over the past 50 years.

Some relevant and quirky statistics provided by Arthur Lieber of St. Louis

First Game: Friday, Nov. 25, 1960

Where Played: Middle Polo Field, Clayton

Who Thought It Up: Don’t know, but the original players were Andy Rothschild, Arthur Lieber and Rocco Landesman vs. Jim Eidelman, Frank Kenny and Skip Straus. The Eidelman-Kenny-Straus team won 78-14.

Why quit now? Either we’re getting slower or the ground is moving slower under our feet. Significant injuries: Fred Goldberg suffered a serious knee injury by getting his foot caught in a grate in one of the early games. He never had surgery, which meant that he was ineligible to be drafted. Jim Eidelman had a significant shoulder injury, and Joe Chasnoff broke an ankle in another game.

Playing fields other than Middle Polo Field: Shaw Park, Gay Field (Clayton High School), John Burroughs School, MICDS, Ranch Royale in High Hills, Mo.; Pere Marquette near Grafton, Ill.; Riverside Park near Columbia University, New York City; Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; a park in Greenfield, Mass; and at Washington U. this year.

Person Who Has Played in Every Game: Arthur Lieber

Players, Hangers-On and Other Regulars

Kevin Bilchik, Laurie Caplan*, Anna Chasnoff, Jessica Chasnoff, Joe Chasnoff, John Chasnoff, Bob Duffy, Michael Eastman, Andy Eidelman, Brian Eidelman, David Eidelman, Jim Eidelman, Lissa Eidelman, Tom Eidelman, Ben Goldberg, Fred Goldberg, Jake Goldberg, Sam Goldberg, Eugene Kalish, Frank Kenny, Dodge Landesman, Nash Landesman, North Landesman, Rocco Landesman, Arthur Lieber, John Mackey*, Abby Rothschild, Andy Rothschild, Branch Rothschild, Casey Rothschild, David Rothschild*, Jon Sawyer, Joel Schneider, Ace Steiner, Duke Steiner, Rick Steiner, Howard Stephens, Skip Straus, Dan Weinberg, Charles Whiddington, Jimmy Wilson