The big Turkey Day high school football games — bands blaring, crazed Labrador retriever dashing out to steal the ball — won’t be happening this year around Boston. One more US tradition has been placed in suspended animation by COVID-19.
Yet one slice of Thanksgiving Americana, thank goodness, remains on the sports menu, unless the State House throws a late flag prior to Thursday. Backyard family football, a tradition dating back to before the first recorded butt fumble, is still OK to play here in the Bay State.
In these darkest of times, we at least have that to hold on to, albeit with safe practices ever top of mind.
Gerry Watts, 58, will be out there Thursday, with his sons, Nick, 21, and Noah, 18, along with neighborhood pal Sean True, tossing the pigskin around in the field behind their condominium development in Halifax.
Two-on-two touch football. Standard rules: The two guys on defense can’t cross scrimmage until counting down . . .
“One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,” recited Watts with requisite deliberation, “one–thousand-three . . . and then, go! All bets are off!”
The best games, noted Watts, are when “everyone gets covered in mud.” Amen. We hold certain sports truths to be self-evident.
“We’ll be out there early, maybe 10 in the morning,” said Watts. “Come in, eat, clean up, and go out for another game before it goes too dark. Back in to have some dessert. Watch the NFL games on TV. Fall asleep in the chair.”
All in all, a perfect day.
“Nothing better,” said Watts. “We’ve done it since the boys were little. And I love being out there with them.”
It’s a tradition that goes back to the late 1960s for the senior Watts, whose Thanksgivings on Thornton Street in Quincy typically found him playing football in the backyard with his dad (Larry), his brother (Brian), and any kids in the old Wollaston neighborhood who wandered into the game.
“Yeah, more than 50 years, geez,” pondered Watts. “We lived maybe a mile from the beach. I used to run it all the time — you know, back when I had knees.”
The Watts family takes the whole COVID thing seriously and will be approaching the day, and especially the backyard game, with due caution. Gerry’s mother, Marie, is 86, and has chosen to spend the day at home in Quincy. Normally, Gerry and his sons, along with wife Lisa, would have her to dinner in Halifax or dash out to Quincy for a quick visit.
Not this year. Not with COVID spiking again, with deaths now surpassing 250,000 in the US and some 80,000, a record high, hospitalized with the virus last week.
“Yeah, we’re pretty paranoid about it in my house,” said Watts, who works for a hazardous waste disposal company. “Everybody’s masked up all the time. There’s sanitizer everywhere. We’re not like some of the crazies you read about.”
In backyard football before COVID, Watts and his sons happily included anyone, adults and kids, who wandered into their Thanksgiving game. It could be a dozen or more out there at one time.
“There’d be times I had the ball and I had maybe eight kids hanging on me,” he recalled, “and I’d be thinking, ‘Oh, please don’t let me fall on any of ‘em.’ ”
Because of the pandemic, Watts already has frozen this year’s roster at his fearsome foursome. Of course he’d like to be out there with 10-12 kids screaming and laughing, and most of all, thinking there wasn’t a better place to be in the world.
But he also is well aware that’s not where we are for Thanksgiving 2020. People are getting sick. People are dying. Often quickly, too often alone. None of that is a risk Watts wants to take.
“With the four of us out there, that’s plenty,” said Watts, imagining what he’ll say if someone asks to join. “I think we’ll be like, uh, ‘Let’s go over here, just the four of us.’ I’m not sure that’s a good idea, you know, to have someone else sweating on the ball, or anything like that.”
Dr. Ben Wedro, a regular contributor to WebMD, the medical website, is a semi-retired ER physician at the Gundersen Clinic in La Crosse, Wis. For those contemplating jumping into a backyard game on Thanksgiving, his reminder is: “Your group is only as strong as the weakest link.”
Coming into contact with one COVID-positive player on the field can be dangerous in itself, and all the worse if the newly infected then carries the germs back to those gathered at the Thanksgiving table.
“A case can be made that, fine, play the game, because outdoors the risk of spread is somewhat minimized,” noted Wedro. “But then maybe, to be safe, not everyone sits at the same table. Load up your plate and spread out 8-10 feet apart with TV trays in the family room.”
Wedro cited data on Southeastern Conference football that he said suggested contact in games actually was less of a COVID risk than a number of other team activities, including meetings, meals, and travel on buses.
“So again, the game is great,” mused Wedro, “but maybe you shouldn’t sit down to dinner together.”
Recently, noted Wedro, a medical professional on the radio show “All Things Considered,” fearing a holiday uptick in COVID cases, suggested that America call off Thanksgiving 2020 and roll it forward to July 4, 2021. Odd time to be dishing out the turkey, stuffing … and pigskin.
“That’s certainly a holiday of American thanksgiving,” said Wedro. “Interesting idea. But not going to happen, of course.”
Over in Halifax, the Watts gang is committed to playing on, driven by the realization that holidays are few and the shared time in every family is finite, precious.
COVID and time are both unrelenting. The trick this year is to proceed with caution, and treat those two impostors, like triumph and disaster, just the same.
“It’s still fun,” said Watts. “The boys are 21 and 18, and they’re not getting any younger. So right now I’m kind of grabbing for any time I can get.”