By Matt Welch
Times West Virginian
Thanksgiving is all about the three Fs: family, food and football.
The Elliott family has been killing three birds with one stone for four decades now as today marks the 40th anniversary of the Elliott Family Turkey Bowl.
The 52 first cousins that came from the lineage of Samuel (Doc) and Florence (Mom) Elliott have since turned into hundreds of children and grandchildren, culminating into three generations that still live today.
And each year for the past 40 years, those cousins, children and grandchildren have gathered with their family and friends for a flag football game.
But it isn’t your typical go in the backyard and throw the football around like friends game. No. It’s a serious occasion.
“We play it no matter what the weather is. We’ve played it in driving snow storms, sun, the mud; it doesn’t make a difference what the weather is,” explained Randy Elliott. “It’s a serious game. Competitiveness is in the family. The game’s played with a lot of pride.”
The game, which is played with regular football rules, a scoreboard and deep teams with substitutions, is a chance for one part of the family to earn bragging rights for the entire year.
Randy explained that the game is broken up into two teams— the old guys versus the young guys.
The older men, though, are quick to add that the young guys haven’t won in quite some time.
One of the younger relatives recently asked Randy’s brother, John: “When was the last time the young guys won?”
“His response was: When I was a young guy,” Randy said, laughing.
Randy, along with his brother Rusty and cousin Terry McClain, went on to describe the history of the Turkey Bowl, reflecting on some memories along the way.
“Every Thanksgiving at 11 o’clock. That’s the kickoff,” Rusty explained. “You play 25-minute halves, with a break in between for halftime. The clock doesn’t stop. Your guys keep on playing. Everybody knows you’ve got 25 minutes back and forth.”
The game has been played everywhere, the men said, including parking lots, fields and farm houses. Now, the home site of the Turkey Bowl is at the old Mannington High School football field at Hough Park.
“We usually have more spectators than players,” said McClain. “The parking lot is always full.”
To go along with the seriousness of the game, the family said relatives have driven in from all over to just play in the game before going their separate ways to partake in their own Thanksgiving dinners.
McClain, one of the original 10 members who have been playing since the very beginning, is 64-years-old this year. He’s played in every Turkey Bowl except for one, in which he refereed.
“It’s a lot easier to play than to be a referee,” McClain joked. “You don’t get beat up as much.”
The age range has been as young as 2-years-old to as old as 69, but the serious play starts to take place when you’re around 12 years old, said some of the younger family members.
“As these guys have been growing up,” Rusty said, pointing to his two sons and his two nephews, “they get to experience it all, and then when they get old enough, we stick ’em in and let them run around a little bit. Now they have it to pass down.”
Two of those younger guys, Ryan and Eric Elliott, said they remember their first Turkey Bowl experiences very well.
“Every year, that morning when you wake up, you eat your bowl of cereal and then you get ready to go play the Turkey Bowl,” Eric said. “It’s a blast. It’s almost like Christmas Eve, but better.”
As for Ryan, he remembers his first experience with the game.
“I can still remember my first Turkey Bowl touchdown,” he said. “It was probably more exciting than my first high school touchdown.”
The family said that the game, while supposed to a flag football style of game, brings many hard hits and leaves people sore the next day.
“Sometimes it gets a little rough,” Randy explained. “A 10 year-old probably shouldn’t be out there, but every now and then we let a 3- or 4-year-old run around and we’ll act like we tackle them.”
But, as they explained, even the little tikes understand the importance of the game at an early age.
“They better get in the end zone. They know,” Rusty said.
As for bragging rights, the family joked and said only the winners like to bring the game up throughout the year.
“The old guys bring it up quite often,” Rusty said. “Every family function. Any wedding, any family picnic.”
Even with the competitiveness, when the game is over and the soreness starts the settle in, the opponents gather together for soup and drinks before heading to their respective dinners to finish off their Thanksgiving Day.
But for the Elliotts, no Thanksgiving will ever be complete without the Turkey Bowl.
“Traditions are very valuable,” Randy said. “A lot of people start stuff for a while, and then it never continues on. And for whatever reason this tradition has carried on for 40 years. I think a lot of the older guys are very proud of that fact. And there’s no shortage of younger guys coming on, either.”
Email Matt Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.