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November 22, 2007

Traditions, Turkey Bowls and Tonga

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Pete Carroll will miss the big game today.

With USC set to play Arizona State in front a national audience this Thanksgiving night, the Trojans' head coach finds himself in Tempe, about 780 miles away from Marin County. Football continues to bounce Carroll around the country - as it has the past 34 years - and he will see another November pass by without the tradition he helped develop about a half century ago.

"I'm going to show up at that game before it's over," said the 56-year-old Carroll. "Before they shut down the Turkey Bowl, I'll be there."

The event sprouted from simple roots: a group of young boys congregating in a street near San Francisco to play football each Thanksgiving.

Its first evolution took place when the boys reached high school.

"We were (playing) anyway, so we decided to make a big deal of it," Carroll said.

From there, the Turkey Bowl was born. Its players had acquired driver's licenses, and someone introduced the idea of a car parade. The caravan led to a giant football game, with thirty to forty players.

Years later, their children joined the game. Today, even grandkids are involved.

The game has become "old guys against the young guys," and Carroll said he always calls for the result.

"It's been a long time now, because I've been gone for so long," said the coach, who remains active at USC practices, throwing 30-yard passes into the end zone during defensive-back drills. "The last good chance I had to play was when I was fired in New England.

"In the town of Medfield (Mass.), they had a touch tournament at night - the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving."

A New England night in late November?

"Oh, it was freezing cold," Carroll said, before breaking into a smile. "We won the whole thing."

Tonight, the Trojans play in primetime (5 p.m. PST) on ESPN. A victory here, coupled with another next week, could send USC to its sixth-straight Pac 10 title and a Rose Bowl berth. Arizona State, with a two victories, still has an outside chance to play for the national title.

"Big game (today)," Carroll said. "I'll miss another one."

A view from the NFL

Most USC seniors were 8 years old when Ken Norton Jr. played in his last of six Thanksgiving games, as a Dallas Cowboys linebacker. True freshman Malcolm Smith, the youngest Trojan under Norton's purview, was 4.

"It's special; it's light. Everybody's bouncing," said Norton, USC's linebackers coach. "It's a time when the lights are on - like high school football was.

"It kind of throws you back to when football was just fun; it wasn't much to think about. Just chase the ball."

Norton finished 3-3 on Thanksgiving with the Cowboys. His final game, in 1993, is the most memorable - the infamous Leon Lett snow debacle against the Miami Dolphins. With time winding down, Dallas blocked a field goal, seemingly to ice the game. The Cowboys just needed to let the spinning ball come to a halt on the turf, and victory would have been theirs.

With several Cowboys motioning for teammates to leave the ball untouched, Lett slid and bungled an attempt to pick it up. The ball bounced off Lett - effectively rendering it a fumble - and Miami recovered. The Dolphins took advantage of the extra opportunity to escape with a 16-14 victory. Dallas responded by winning its next eight games, including a 30-13 victory against Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVIII, for a second-straight championship.

"Athletes really like to put on a show; they really like to perform," Norton said. On Thanksgiving, "you know that everybody's at home; everybody's watching. You're kind of the only show in town."

Norton reeled off the names of some of the best offensive players he faced on Thanksgiving, from Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien to Eagles fullback Keith Byars. He has shared his feelings about the day with USC's linebackers, but he does not expect them to understand yet.

"You kind of prepare them for it, but they really don't know until it happens."

Post-game turkey?

Everson Griffen is home for Thanksgiving. Several other players from outside Southern California will fly home after tonight's game.

Much of Griffen's family will be in the stands to see the true freshman start at defensive end for the injured Kyle Moore. Griffen's cousin Keegan Herring, ASU's starting running back, will keep tabs on him from the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Afterward, the plan calls for a Thanksgiving meal at the Herrings, with Griffen's mother, father, stepfather and older brother.

Griffen played high school football for Agua Fria, in Avondale, while Herring attended Peoria.

"Fifteen minutes away," Griffen said. "But we never played against each other."

Tight end Fred Davis and offensive tackle Butch Lewis are among the Trojans flying home tonight. Davis' family - in Toledo, Ohio - is postponing Thanksgiving a day, as is the Lewis clan in Denver.

"I'll probably be a couple of pounds heavier (next week)," Lewis said.

  • Among the most interesting staples at a USC Thanksgiving meal: sour cream enchiladas, cooked by Sam Baker's aunt Shirley.

    Turkey, with a side of Tonga

    At a Moala family Thanksgiving, which can include up to about 100 relatives, "My parents try to bring the best of both worlds together," said junior defensive tackle Fili Moala.

    That means turkey, stuffing and string-bean casserole share a plate with such Tongan delicacies as Lu-Pulu.

    "It's basically a spinach leaf, with corned beef or pork in the middle of it, wrapped up with coconut juice and a little bit of mayonnaise," Moala said. "Then you bake it. When it's done, it's real soft. And, man, it's bomb. You usually eat it with a sweet potato."

    Moala has a little brother and five sisters. His father has 11 siblings. With all the aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews congregating in Orange County, the absence of one person from the table - even if he weighs 290 pounds - does not disrupt holiday plans.

    "The show must go on," said Moala, who expects to go home Friday and "get all the leftovers."

    He said he is excited to play in front of a national audience, but there is a feeling of regret about missing Thanksgiving for the first time.

    "I'm used to spending Thanksgiving on the couch," Moala said with a smile. "Just fat, you know?"

    Something new

    Shareece Wright wonders if the game will survive without him.

    USC's sophomore cornerback is the annual ringleader, taking it upon himself to motivate 15 or so cousins toward the street or yard for a morning football game.

    Wright, who has served as both a quarterback and a running back in the family competition, is one of the few Trojans with a history of playing on Thanksgiving. Others tend to stay inside and watch the NFL.

    "It's going to be different," Wright said. "Thanksgiving is a time you spend with your family. Usually, as a kid, you play in the street or front yard. Now I'm doing it on TV."

    Jonathan Kay can be reached at Jon@USCFootball.com


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