Editor’s note: This holiday essay originally appeared in the Star-Telegram on Dec. 18, 2003.
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My friends and I practically grew up at Mullins Park, the suburban mecca for youth sports in Coral Springs, Fla. We knew every pothole in the outfields, every bounce on the basketball rims, every sag in the tennis nets.
But the football field, that was a different story.
It was hallowed ground. Freshly manicured grass, powdery yardage lines and taxi-cab-yellow goal posts all sent the subliminal message: Reserved for Real Football Players.
And as much as we loved football -- more than our bicycles and our big brothers -- we were not real football players. We blamed our overprotective Jewish mothers, many of whom flat-out forbade us to play such a brutal sport.
“Honey, I don’t want you to get hurt,” they’d say, “especially before your bar mitzvah.”
So we grew up safe, but on the sidelines. Outsiders looking in.
We played pick-up games in our yards or in overgrown fields, but the closest most of us came to getting into a real game, with helmets and pads, was covering it for the weekly paper or sitting in the bleachers, delivering expert play-by-play. (My buddy Jason Wormser did a dead-on Marv Albert.)
But one day each year, all that changed. All of our mothers’ warnings were silenced and all our boyhood regret melted away.
Oddly enough, that day was Christmas Day.
It was the one time we knew the Mullins Park field would be empty, vast and vulnerable. No Pop Warner games, no soccer matches, no cheerleader practice. Just 100 yards of unadulterated gridiron glory, ripe for the taking.
On Christmas Day, we would be the ones making bone-jarring tackles, catching 40-yard bombs and dancing in the end zone.
The Jew Bowl was what we called it -- politically incorrect for sure, but affectionate nonetheless. The name was a nod to what brought us together: faith, friendship and the simple fact we had nothing else to do on Christmas.
While most families in town were gathered ’round their trees, unwrapping presents, we laced up our cleats and established a holiday tradition.
Over the years, our annual games became epic. By my senior year of high school, we were playing for hours, sometimes 11-on-11, just like real football. We employed sophisticated blocking schemes and threw flea-flickers, and Jason, who went on to work for ESPN, swears he kept stats.
Now whenever he talks about the greatest games ever played, he says: “There’s Miami-San Diego, the Ice Bowl, but nothing equaled the ’82 Jew Bowl.”
Choosing sides: Stank or Shoeless Jon?
On Dec. 25, we were experiencing South Florida’s version of a White Christmas -- light rain with temperatures in the mid-40s. Shortly after 10 a.m., the players began assembling at midfield. Clad in wool hats, gloves and unflattering sweats, we were hardly Monsters of the Midway -- some of us were academic all-stars, MVPs of the SATs, but very few of us could ever be accused of looking like football players.
We had met freshman year of high school, after joining the temple youth group, Palmach (pronounced pol-mok). Together we came of age.
It was easy to feel invisible in high school, particularly for someone like me, who fell somewhere between the freaks and the geeks on the social spectrum. But when the men of Palmach got together, wearing our black-and-gold jackets with Wyle E. Coyote on the back, we felt cool. Even if nobody else thought we were.
Jon Cohen was our most gifted athlete. A skinny but scrappy tailback, he often played without shoes. Digging toes into turf, he darted away from tacklers, furthering his legend as “Shoeless Jon.”
Jason, the resident sports savant, could mimic any quarterback’s drop-back style -- from Namath to Griese -- and, boy, could he wing it. But he couldn’t complete a short pass to save his life.
I was the polar opposite. My noodle arm was as accurate as a court transcript -- just as long as the receiver was within spitting distance.
Before we huddled up, we painstakingly chose the teams we thought would produce the best game. Jason and I were opposing quarterbacks. Cohen was on my team, and Jason wanted Stank, a hygiene-challenged fullback who wore a T-shirt that hadn’t been washed since the late ’50s.
To spite our mothers, we played tackle without pads. And that made Stank -- and his stench -- a very valuable player.
Jason also got Jeff Gold, a 17-year-old giant with an Afro and mustache. He would have been a real weapon, if he hadn’t been such a complete klutz.
Scott “Cheese” Solomon, a prototypical offensive lineman, was on my team. He earned the nickname Cheese because he would often eat an entire large cheese pizza by himself, and then wash it down with a pitcher of Tab.
I also got Elliot Komroff, the nicest kid on the planet, and perhaps the least athletic.
“He had the body of a 40-year-old when he was 15,” Cohen said recently. “He was stout, and that’s putting it nicely.”
Elliot came out more for the camaraderie than the football, but he never missed a game. It was just the thing we did on Christmas.
Cloudy with a chance of touchdowns
Funny how after 21 years some memories can completely vanish and others stay lodged in your brain.
I remember playing the full length of the field that day, but I can’t remember the first seven touchdowns we scored.
I remember the feel of the mud, cold and pulpy, the first time I was tackled. But I can’t remember all the guys who were on my team.
The game was a seesaw affair, a classic, an honest-to-goodness sports cliche. We played our hearts out, gave 110 percent, etc., etc.
Nobody wanted the game to end. But four hours after we started, with the score 49-49, it was decided: “Next score wins.” (Rumor had it Jason might get grounded if he wasn’t home by 3.)
On the next possession, Jason, who had been completing bombs all day to fleet-footed receiver Marc Poris, connected on another perfect spiral. Poris was driven out of bounds around the 10 yard line.
We dug in for a goal-line stand, and almost on cue the rain started coming down harder.
The first three downs went by in a blur. On fourth and goal, Jason noticed a mismatch: Elliot Komroff, at barely 5 feet 6 inches, covering Jeff Gold, aka Andre the Giant. If Jeff could stay upright and hold onto the ball, it would be an easy score.
Doing his best Joe Theisman, Jason faded back, looked left and saw Gold.
He didn’t see Elliot Komroff.
The Jewish Rudy stepped in front of the receiver, pulled the sopping wet pigskin into his chest and took off running.
We were all so stunned, teammates and opponents alike, nobody gave chase. We just stood there in the rain and watched Elliot Komroff gallop 100 yards into the end zone -- and Jew Bowl history.
The Catch lives on
The annual games continued for a few years after that. Sometimes, we even broke with tradition and played on Thanksgiving, Jews and gentiles alike.
But we never recaptured the magic of ’82.
Many of us went away to college, wandering back to Mullins Park on Christmases for one more day on that pristine field.
Over the years, age has robbed us of the limited athletic ability we had. Cohen, who manages a successful brokerage firm in Palm Beach, recently joked: “Now, when we fall down, we stay down.”
But Jason, who has covered World Series and Super Bowls, still lights up when he talks about the game. “Are you kidding, I’ve still got the stats.” (By the way, he did get grounded.)
I called Elliot recently, just to see if The Catch had, in some small way, changed his life. I expected him to be able to recount every frozen moment of it.
But he barely remembered.
“Wow, I actually did something good,” he laughed. “I’m gonna go home and tell my wife.”
He did remember the games, though. Because of them, Christmas became one of our favorite holidays.
Rick Press, (817) 390-7701 firstname.lastname@example.org