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Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Updated: November 25, 2:42 PM ET
The makings of a Thanksgiving Classic

By Ira Fritz
Special to ESPN.com

" 'Twas the night before Thanksgiving …"

Fritz, Kahne, Atlas
Longtime friends, from left, Ira Fritz, Bruce Kahne and Scott Atlas in 1985, the year the tradition of pre-Thanksgiving football began.

The genesis of what evolves into a timeless tradition isn't planned. It's created … with no pretense, promise or expectation. If properly nurtured over time, its purity, simplicity and innocence can build an impenetrable shield … one immune to compromise … from anything or anyone … even those who respect and cherish it most. Protected by passion, fueled by devotion and fortified with the unbreakable bond of eternal friendship, such a timeless tradition was born on Thanksgiving Eve, 1985. Twenty-five years later, the sacred ritual lives on.

From Rutgers, Binghamton, Williams College, NYU, Oneonta and Albany, we all returned home for our first Thanksgiving weekend as college students. Never before had we gone so long without seeing each other. With so much to catch up on, we didn't know where to start, or where to finish, so we filled up the in-between with stories … some probably true, some definitely false, but mostly a little of both. On that Wednesday night at a schoolyard bursting at the seams with the memories we created there as kids, we had no idea what we were about to create.

While trying to figure out which diner to go to (this is Brooklyn, N.Y., there are plenty to choose from), we just kept on chatting and laughing … all the while mindlessly tossing around a football someone just happened to bring along. Soon enough, the conversation went from, "I think I'm going to fail calculus" to "I bet I can beat you deep." As the all-too familiar trash talk worked toward its inevitable crescendo, passes with more zip and purpose were now being thrown. Old rivalries between buddies came back to nest at the site where they were first conceived. Soon everyone was hungry -- not for anything you could order off a diner menu -- but for the same thing that always satisfied us: a good, old-fashioned game of touch football.

It didn't matter that the only light we had was a distant streetlight or two at the far corner of the park. "I couldn't see the ball" was not going to be accepted as an excuse for dropping a good pass, and everybody knew it. And it didn't matter that it was getting later and colder. No one asked what time it was and no one put his jacket back on. All that mattered was that it was the good old days again … like it was "way back when," ya know, a couple of months ago, before we all left for school.

We played until well after 1 o'clock in the morning, but we could have played until the first float made its appearance at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. As fun as it was, it seemed, at least at the time, like nothing more than just another one of our games at the park. That's all it was supposed to be … darker, colder and later, for sure … but just another game at the park.

If ignorance is bliss, than naiveté like this … paradise.

"We play because our childhood friendships mean more to us than we can truly describe. We play so we have that special night to look forward to, where we can all be together to turn back the clock and be kids again. We play to keep up a special holiday tradition and to make certain we all find time to be with each other. We play because we realize how fortunate we are to have such close, long-lasting relationships -- and to make even more special memories."
-- Todd Fritz, Nov. 19, 2009

"See you at the park. And bring your football."

One year later, as Thanksgiving break approached, there was no more talk of diners or seeing a movie. There was only talk of who was going to beat whom long and how many times it was going to happen. Since this was way back in the Dark Ages before e-mail, Facebook, texting, Twitter and all that fun stuff, the phones (landlines, not cells … with cords, not cordless) were ringing off the hook from one campus to another. The anticipation to get back out there for a rematch was irrepressible. All we needed was each other and a football. And that much we knew we had. Sure there were more stories to share, but they'd have to wait until after the game. Same teams as last year … bring your A-game … let's go.

"We play for a variety of reasons (seeing old friends, reliving our youth, etc.), but I genuinely believe that the main reason we all play is because the Game represents something that we can count on. The Game is that bridge back to the predictability and unconditionality of childhood."
-- Scott Mozarsky, Nov. 9, 2009

And so there we were, playing football again on Thanksgiving Eve … in the dark … at our park. It was more than a little colder this time, and we played more than a little longer. When the last touchdown was scored and we all sat down on the bench for the postgame recap -- where no mistake was forgiven, no poor performance was spared -- it was obvious what everyone was thinking, even though no one ever said it out loud. We'd be back here next year, and we'd do it again. Maybe even until we graduated college … but of course we'd have to stop after that. I mean, let's face it, that's when real life begins. Looking back, I don't think we were consciously building a tradition; I'm fairly certain we were still too young for that kind of nostalgia and sentimentality. But the fact this was something pretty special was not lost on anyone. What was lost, on all of us, was just how special.

"I play because I only hope our children are lucky enough to have friends for as long as us and that they can find a tradition that brings them together at least once a year no matter where life brings them."
-- Dr. Scott Atlas, Nov. 10, 2009

In a blink of an eye, the best four years of our lives, as they say, were over. After college graduation, some of us went off to law school or chiropractic school … most of us ventured off into the "real world." But while everything was dramatically changing around us, one thing still remained exactly the same … Thanksgiving Eve. Like turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving Day … it was "The Thanksgiving Eve Classic" the night before. The Thanksgiving Eve Classic … that's what we began calling it … the perfect name for the perfect game.

Ira Fritz
The author near the end of his college days in 1989.

"We play as an annual reminder that time and distance cannot erode the friendships that began in that very playground decades ago.

We play because the sights, smells and sounds take us back to when things were simpler, in a place where we came of age as teammates, classmates, opponents but -- through it all -- friends."
-- Bruce Kahne, Nov. 9, 2009

The pressures of life, the constant push and pull, can be relentless sometimes. And when life's challenges do yield even for just a little bit, Father Time picks up right where life left off.

There were so many reasons why this wonderful tradition could have ended. Through the '90s as we moved through new careers and new relationships, relocations to such places as Florida and California threatened to turn our game into a fond memory. But that didn't happen, because we wouldn't let it. Determined to hold on to something so dear to us, we were steadfast in allowing nothing to take it away. We can't stop time from marching forward, but it can't stop us from going back … to that park … year after year … on the same night. We owed it to tradition, we owed it to each other, and we owed it to something that was now bigger than each of us individually and way too important to surrender.

"Whomever said 'You can never go home again' has obviously never played football on Thanksgiving Eve. Maybe that's why we play. To fight Father Time -- showing him that our friendships and traditions can last regardless of our waistlines, our distances, and our wives, ahem … I mean the weather.
-- John Sheehe, Nov. 19, 2009

As we moved through our 30s we all went through the most profound changes in our lives. We met our wives, fell in love, and got married … and the game played on. Following that, one by one, we all began having children … and the game played on. Hairs that hadn't already fallen out began turning gray … and the game played on. "5 Mississippi" used to easily get us 30 yards down the field … then 25 … then 20 … then barely 15 … and the game played on. The aches and pains the day after at the Thanksgiving table became increasingly cruel: "My legs, my back, my butt … I can't sit … I can't stand … pass the sweet potatoes and some ibuprofen, please" … and the game played on. And on … and on … and on …

"We play for the gathering of old friends. Friends you don't get to see as often as you once did … as often as you still wish you could. This game is the bond that time and space can't break."
-- Jeffrey Newman, Nov. 19, 2009

The Guys
Thanksgiving Eve Classic friends, from left, Shane Galan, Jeff Newman (holding son Jared), Scott Atlas, Craig Belkin, Ira Fritz, Todd Fritz and John Sheehe, pose in 2002.

On Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Eve Classic. This tradition … our tradition … that became a ritual … is now a legacy. And again, as we have since it was introduced in 1996, a very ugly and much ripped apart rubber chicken will be presented to the game's most valuable player … because I never could find a rubber turkey.

And when asked, as we are each year by a wife or two, "How much longer are you guys going to do this?" the answer will be the same it's always been: "Forever."

Yes … forever. Because this game is the only key we have to unlock the doorway to our youth, where we can go back in time and just for a night be those kids again. This is why we must actually play the game … because as long as we play, we win … defeating that formidable and unforgiving foe, Father Time. So much has come … so much still will come, plotting to pry this key from our fingers, but we will refuse to let go. Not now, not ever. We can't. And we won't.

We play because if you close your eyes for a few seconds on a cold November night you can remember what it was like to spend whole days that would never end in that park … and think about how that competition and those lessons you learned from the time you spent there make you different from other people.

And, finally, we play so we can teach our children about tradition."
-- Bruce Kahne, Nov. 19, 2009

On this holiday, for this group of friends, it's easy to be thankful. So here's to the dream that Thanksgiving Eve Classic 30 is celebrated with a father-son game. Is there a more perfect way to honor our tradition than passing the torch to our next generation? Who would have thought back in 1985 we'd someday be talking about that?

There's one question that will never get old.

Ira Fritz is a producer at ESPN and contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ira.r.fritz@espn.com.