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Original Issue


QUITE OFTEN OVER the last decades my past jumps out and surprises me in delightful ways. A grocery store manager taps me in the produce aisle and says, "Hey, you used to cover my wrestling matches," or a young woman at Starbucks tells me, "You wrote a story about my grandmother? When she played high school soccer?" That's how it is when you live in the same place, Bethlehem, Pa., where you started working as a journalist back in 1971.

One group of guys I covered in the early 1970s, however, can be reliably rediscovered at least once a year. Adhering to some ancient rhythm deep within themselves, they have been playing football in Bethlehem on Thanksgiving morning for—wait for it—54 years. Of the original group of 10, seven have never missed a game. There have been heavy snows, driving rain, lingering effects of concussions and some amount of domestic tension—the turkey won't stuff its damn self—but the game goes on. There are many versions of Thanksgiving pigskin rituals, but consider: This one started with a bunch of 10-year-olds trying to crack each other's ribs and continues unabated today, albeit in a less violent manner. Hammy tear by hammy tear, the game has moved from prepubescent gang war to tackle to flag to two-hand touch and finally to one-hand touch.

So I have to think that the Christmas City version of Thanksgiving sandlot football is a candidate for the national record for Longest Protracted Amateur Holiday Sports Customs That May Result in a 9-1-1 Call.

From time to time I have passed by the game, watched for a few minutes and moved on, bound for a family dinner, envious of their exertions, their constancy, their undying bond. I came to know those T-Day players, a few of them members of a 1972 Liberty High basketball team I covered when they earned the name Cardiac Kids for their last-minute victories. I helped start a youth basketball club with Richie Wescoe, a great all-around athlete I covered at the now-extinct Bethlehem Globe-Times. Clarence Cook's son, O.J., was a teammate of my son's on their city-championship middle school basketball team. I played summer hoops with Bill (Bucky) Frey, whose brother was a colleague at the Globe-Times. On it goes.

For the first few decades, the players—sometimes 10, sometimes as many as 25—would receive a succinct Wednesday-night call from "Captain" Nick Ampietro, a former Liberty wrestler: "Be ready at nine tomorrow." He'd hang up immediately, uninterested in excuses about a looming storm or minor injuries. But Ampietro doesn't bother anymore. "It's just automatic," says Wescoe, the owner of two knee replacements. "If you can possibly be there, you're there."

They meet at their usual field, put on blue-and-white jerseys, set up cones, bang one another around for an hour and a half (it used to be three hours straight up), change into dry clothes, repair to Ampietro's garage for ham, cheese and clam chowder ("Our own little pre-Thanksgiving," says Wescoe), gripe and moan and wonder how long it will go on, and concede over a few beers that they hope it will be forever. Sons of players have begun to participate, so maybe that's possible.

Driving rain notwithstanding (sorry, Nick), I plan to stop by this year and remember those days when, on a manual typewriter, I chronicled Wescoe's September-to-May versatility (quarterback/point guard/catcher); marveled at the both-footed dexterity of Jose Perna, Liberty's soccer captain; and described Rick Cacciatore's long run off a fake punt that helped produce a Bethlehem Catholic High victory back in 1972. (Why do we remember such things when so much else gets forgotten?) The sandlot guys will play, and I will watch, a ritual that began long ago and still feels right.

Adhering to some ancient rhythm, the group has been playing football in Bethlehem on Thanksgiving morning for 54 years.