Twenty-five years ago Chuck Moni and J.D. Walker decided to give their wives a break on Thanksgiving morning by convincing their elementary school sons to get out of the house and play a touch football game with them at Princeton’s Battlefield State Park. Though they had a lot of fun and exercise, not one of that small group even dreamed that they were starting a special Princeton-area tradition.
Today the annual Turkey Bowl is held at Princeton’s Marquand Park and dozens attend, with players, their families and friends, and passersby enjoying the festivities and the food. Participants now range from juniors (teens to 40s) to seniors (50s to 70s) with the bulk in the senior category. Players now include females (definitely juniors) as well as the male thundering herd (well, seniors don’t thunder that much anymore).
Note that sport is not a key component, and while playing touch football is the publicized justification for the gathering, the real reason is the community and fellowship that has developed over the years. And, oh yes, the food. But more about that later.
Moni, a principal at the Metuchen-based Rowland Associates venture capital firm, and Walker, managing director of the Nassau Street-based tax solutions firm VATAmerica, invited additional Princeton friends to join the following Thanksgiving, in 1995. And then the gathering began to grow like Topsy. As it grew traditions became established and a name appeared: Princeton Gentlemen’s Society.
Though somewhat hazy in their origins, three key traditions have become embedded in the Thanksgiving ritual. One: team shirts are now created for every five-year anniversary of the game. Two: a Most Valuable Player is chosen every year. The selection of the MVP award is determined by two criteria: the individual must be able to sturdily walk off the field (to date, all seniors have met that stipulation) and host a party for all players during the week before the game the following year. And three: the MVP is presented with the Turkey Bowl Football, which he keeps for a year and to which his name — a name of his choosing — is added at the end of that year.
Though the New Jersey State Park Service does allow random events to be held at Battlefield Park, the annual gathering of the Princeton Gentlemen’s Society required a lot of documentation to obtain the necessary permission. It was much easier to receive local approval to play in Marquand Park.
Jeff Dufour, managing partner of the public accounting and business advisory firm Tillit Associates, based at 4390 Route 1, joined the game in 2003, shortly before the move to Marquand Park. As with many of the Gentlemen, he had heard about the “Bowl” at a Princeton neighbor’s party and thought it would be fun to participate.
While Dufour thoroughly enjoyed the game, the exercise, and the camaraderie, he thought there should be something more. And others agreed. In 2006 the tax-exempt Princeton Gentlemen’s Society Foundation was created. With contributions primarily from its now 10 board members, a charitable donation to local organizations is made every year during the game’s half time.
On Thursday, November 28, the Turkey Bowl will celebrate its 25th year. This is an exciting time for all concerned. Special shirts and new logos are being created. For the first time there is a dash of publicity, and a sign will be placed by the Marquand Park entrance encouraging all passersby to either participate or watch.
The young men who started the game are now leading seniors in the organization. “We are now fathers and grandfathers and are keen on tradition and passing on the torch,” Dufour says. “That’s why you will see young people among us. Relating to the next generation or two is a very senior thing.”
Some of those children, many now fathers themselves, come back for this special football game from quite a distance, one from as far away as Colorado. This increased participation is the reason behind there now being two fields of football play: one for seniors and one for juniors.
On the afternoon before the game, a group of old timers and long termers will gather to set up the playing field at Marquand Park. “The cones are stored at various houses during the year,” explains Tony DiMeglio, sales associate at the Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s real estate agency. “We do this in rain or sun, and the game is always played Thanksgiving morning, no matter what the weather.”
At 9:30 on Thanksgiving morning players and families will begin to arrive at Marquand Park. They will bring with them tables, paper plates and napkins, cups, and other picnic attire. Walker is the man of that hour. He will have spent the previous weekend stuffing, that’s right, stuffing sausages and preparing kielbasas for the game. He arrives with his grill and his pounds of meat. He is greeted, always on this day and often during the year by those in the know, as the Sausage King. This is the name he chose to be placed on the Turkey Bowl Football when he was awarded the MVP.
At 10 a.m. all is ready for breakfast. Yes, even though this is Thanksgiving morning and there are huge feasts being prepared in homes all around, food remains an important part of the festivities. As noted American food writer M.F.K. Fisher once proclaimed, “First we eat and then we do everything else.”
Spreads featuring juices, coffee, donuts, lox, and bagels are laid out and offered to all comers, tending to disappear by the start of the game around 10:30. Gentlemen, according to Wikipedia, are men of good and courteous conduct. “We Gentlemen,” Dufour explains, “follow that definition and make our own rules. Official start times, scorekeepers, and referees do not exist and are not needed.”
Around 11:30 a.m. or earlier, a half-time break is called and more food is available: chips, salsa, sandwiches, and whatever people donate. The grill is now up and ready as the Sausage King has been busy.
This is also the time when the foundation’s donations are awarded. This year, in honor of the 25th anniversary, there will be two separate checks, each for $2,500. One check will be given to the Children’s Arboretum, which opened last April at Marquand Park, and the other will be donated to the Princeton Recreation Department.
With loud cheers, the players return to the field. By now, however, the aroma of grilled sausage and kielbasa is wafting over the playing ground. The second half is always shorter than the first half.
The game ends between noon and 12:30 p.m. At that time the MVP is announced and the honoree is given the Turkey Bowl Football to take with him. The sausages and kielbasa are soon demolished, and the field and picnic materials totally cleared, “squeaky clean,” according to DiMeglio.
It will be the close of another year of food, fun, and friendship. This is an open gathering. As DiMeglio emphasized over and over in a recent interview, “Everyone, and we really mean everyone, is welcomed and encouraged to participate or cheer.”
25th Annual Turkey Bowl, Marquand Park, Lovers Lane, Princeton. Thursday, November 28, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. All are welcome.