Thankful for the Mud
By Noel Daniel
Some people spend Thanksgiving morning firing up the kitchen and preparing for the feast later that night. Others spend it knee-deep in mud. Rain or shine, for over fifty years, one group of friends has been assembling for the “Mud Bowl” every Thanksgiving morning at 10 a.m. in Kewin Park.
“We’ve been playing football in the mud for more than fifty years,” said Ken White, one of the Mud Bowlers. “It all started in 1964 when two groups of high school friends decided to combine their fall sandlot football games.”
At first, they were all local, but even after they went away to college, got married, and pursued careers, the Mud Bowl members would all continue to rendezvous in Modesto from all over the country.
“For the first several years, the game was pretty informal,” said White. “Two guys would pick teams, usually the two best quarterbacks; sometimes brothers. We’d play tackle or touch, depending on how old we were—or felt—that year. No time limit. Then a high school friend mentioned that they’d had a similar tradition back east, only a little more formal. So, we took up the challenge.”
It was then that the Mud Bowl became more regimented. They switched to flag football, even locating flag belts with the help of a local elementary school teacher who played. Complex plays were carefully drawn on 3×5 cards and never followed; everybody always went long.
“We added a formal invitation, a banquet at a local restaurant, commemorative T-shirts or shorts or jackets or headbands, a plaque with the results of each year’s contest, and trophies for MVP, Best Offense, Best Defense, and the ‘Cheap Shot Chicken’ award, with selections based on meticulously recorded game statistics, usually kept by a wife, girlfriend, or parent,” said White.
The game day routine has changed over the years. At the height of its popularity, they would start with breakfast at the Sundial, then head to the field for reunions, pre-game warm-ups, cocktails, photographs, and the “schoolyard squabbling that always accompanied discussion of the rules.”
“First possession was determined by a coin toss,” said White. “Gun sounded at 10 a.m. sharp, more or less. Three completions for a first, one running play per set of downs. Score was kept by number of touchdowns. No extra points. No referees. Live ball at all times. Seven aside, everyone eligible. Two-count rush. One hour of play kept by a teacher’s time clock.”
They took a brief half-time for more alcohol, photographs, interviews, trips to the restroom, visits with family and friends, and tending to injuries, of which there were many—teeth, ankles, and knees, with a few visits to the ER.
The second half then lasted another hour, give or take. The post-game included more alcohol, awarding trophies by the previous year’s winners, more photographs and interviews, and a team photo. Then everyone would head off to their family’s turkey dinner before reconvening for more alcohol, poker, and the verbal sparring that accompanied a tireless recap of the entire game and “endless discussions about life.”
“The tradition continues today with sons, grandsons, friends, and acquaintances,” said White. “Only two or three of the originals still play. We’ve lost a few of the long-time players along the way, all much too soon. Most of the others have long since moved away, don’t come home for the holidays anymore, or got too old or slow to play.
“But, judging from the number of players who turn out each year, there’s no place they’d rather be.”