A lot of families get together on Thanksgiving Day for fellowship and to watch football on TV. But how many actually gather to play football, and have been for half a century?
But exactly that tradition played out for the 50th consecutive year Thursday morning behind the Jehl Barn at Maysville Road and Lake Avenue – a tradition that is equal parts family reunion and a battle for bragging rights between members of well-known Fort Wayne families.
“Legend has it that the wives wanted the men out of the house. So they went and played football,” said Steve Jehl, whose father, Tom – an all-city quarterback at Central Catholic High School in the 1940s – helped inaugurate the “Jehl Bowl” in 1962. Since then members of the extended family have come from near and far for a game of touch football that Jehl said has remained fun but also “serious, spirited and pretty intense. There's a lot of pushing and shoving.”
Perhaps because of the unusually warm weather, the golden anniversary game drew what is believed to be a record 60 men, women, boys and girls. Many of them wore red “Jehl” jerseys prepared especially for the occasion. In-laws and others wore white jerseys labeled – what else? – “not Jehl.”
“We try to even things up, but sometimes we're playing 15-on-11. There are no real rules,” said Jehl, a real estate broker and manager of Georgetown shopping center. “We've played in 3 inches of snow before, but Thursday was probably the best football weather we've had. Nobody went home with muddy feet or clothes. But it wouldn't really matter.”
In an era too often marked by the unfortunate decline of the nuclear family and the communal rituals associated with it, what accounts for the longevity of an event that simultaneously epitomizes and belies the usual “sit, eat and chat” Thanksgiving ritual?
“One reason is that there are no age restrictions,” explained Jehl, who said the youngest participant this year was his 3-year-old grandson Will, son of City Councilman Russ Jehl, who also played. “We ran a 'time out' play. We threw him a pass and he caught it,” Jehl said.
At the other extreme was Riegel's Pipe and Tobacco Shop owner Bill Bougher, whose sister Margaret is Jehl's mother. At 78, Bougher doesn't move like he used to but still managed to get in the game for a couple of plays on behalf of the “not Jehls.”
“I wanted to be party of the 50th anniversary game,” said Bougher, who like Jehl also attended the first. “It's not like there was a chance of me getting hit; I just stood behind the line. But I'll keep coming even when they have to wheel me out.”
At least one tradition was a casualty Thursday, however. Who wants to drink a lot of hot chocolate when temperatures are hovering near 60? But the doughnuts were as popular as ever, with six dozen consumed – sometimes with the help of cooler beverages. And once the festivities ended, participants returned to their own homes for a more-conventional Thanksgiving afternoon.
Even the barn itself represents a family tradition. Built in the 1860s, it was part of the farm the Jehls purchased in the 1960s and was later developed into apartments, the shopping center and other things. Today, it serves as a storage facility for real estate maintenance equipment and a family club house of sorts.
So you may be wondering: Who won the game?
“We do keep score,” Jehl said. “It was 28-0.” In favor of his team, of course.
Not so fast, Bougher bristled.
“The last I heard it was 3 to nothing, with one point for each touchdown,” he insisted.
So although the score remains in dispute, it does appear that the Jehls prevailed, and the not-Jehls lost. That's important because, sibling rivalry being what it is, bragging rights are at stake.
And that will be especially important Christmas Eve, when the families gather for their other big event.
“Santa heckles the losing team,” Jehl said.
A small price to pay for family togetherness.