By Preston Williams
Thursday, November 23, 2006
They now play on Sundays, but they will never forget those Thursdays, Turkey Bowl Thursdays in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Four current NFL players -- Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Cribbs (a Dunbar graduate), San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (Dunbar), Indianapolis Colts linebacker Cato June (Anacostia) and Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich (H.D. Woodson) -- are alumni of the Turkey Bowl, the annual DCIAA championship played on Thanksgiving.
Their memories are a lot more vivid than you might expect from four guys who went on to decorated college careers and lucrative NFL contracts. A few talk Turkey every chance they get, usually two times a year for Leftwich and June, whose teams both play in the AFC South and meet twice a season.
"It's the respect that you get around the city when you win that game," said Leftwich, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate at Marshall University in 2002 and has started 44 games for the Jaguars. "The respect you get is respect you earn once you win that. I'm on the books, man. That was before the scholarship, before getting paid. You always remember, especially when you get to this level. You remember where it all started."
Perhaps the best way to explain the significance of the Turkey Bowl to high school football followers in Maryland and Virginia is to pose this question: What if your school were playing in the state championship, against a school located just a few miles away? And what if the championship site, also a few miles away, were brimming not only with supporters from the schools vying for the title but with residents who attend the game every year? And past participants -- including guys such as June and Cribbs -- show up proudly sporting their championship jackets?
No, it runs deeper than bragging rights, as players such as Dunbar's Arrelious Benn and Ballou's Dwan Thornton will find out at 11 a.m. today in the 37th annual Turkey Bowl at Eastern High School, at 17th and East Capitol streets NE.
"The Turkey Bowl is like an NFL game in that there are so many fans and every game is a show," said Cribbs, who as quarterback set several offensive records at Kent State and this season is fourth in the NFL in kickoff return average. "For that one game, that Turkey Bowl game, it felt like the Super Bowl. It felt like everything. Everything was geared to that one day. That Thursday. That Turkey Bowl day."
Cribbs played on Dunbar teams that won three Turkey Bowls in a row, a streak that stretched to four straight and seven titles in the past eight years, an unprecedented run. In a 28-20 double-overtime win over Theodore Roosevelt in 1998, Cribbs, then a backup quarterback, receiver and special teams contributor, played against his brother, Harold, a Roosevelt linebacker.
"It was like the biggest event for us," Josh recalled, "with news cameras going to our house."
In 1999, Cribbs was putting up big numbers as quarterback but broke his right ankle in the middle of the season. His replacement, Michael Coles, played so well that Cribbs, still not at full strength anyway, never got his quarterback job back that season. Dunbar won the Turkey Bowl, 22-0, over Eastern.
Cribbs finally got to start in the 2000 game, a 35-12 win over Ballou in which he threw for two second-half touchdowns to help the Crimson Tide become the first team to win three consecutive league titles since Bell from 1964 to '66.
One of those touchdown passes was a 55-yarder to Davis, then a sophomore tight end.
"It was a really big deal," said Davis, the NFL's sixth overall draft pick last spring after going to the University of Maryland. "Especially being just a first-year guy, just to be coming out and scoring in a big game like that. The stage was big."
Cribbs was gone, but Davis helped Dunbar win a fourth consecutive title in 2001, a 16-14 win over H.D. Woodson, matching the league record set by Eastern (1958 to '61). That string of successes came to a halt for Davis and the Crimson Tide the next season, however, with a 19-3 loss to H.D. Woodson, ending a 39-game DCIAA winning streak.
Anacostia's June also played in three Turkey Bowls, from 1995 to '97. Soon after he moved here from Oklahoma before his sophomore year, he began hearing Turkey Bowl talk. He keeps hearing about it every time he returns to the District, after a college career at Michigan and after four years in the NFL, including a Pro Bowl season in 2005.
"Everybody wants to know if you've played in a Turkey Bowl, did you win the Turkey Bowl, what did you do when you were there," June said. "It's definitely something that's cherished."
In 1995, June returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown in a 40-31 championship win over Dunbar, snapping the Indians' four-year losing streak in the Turkey Bowl. The teams posted the highest point total in the 51-year history of the title game. The next season, the Indians fell 36-32 to Cardozo on a diving 21-yard catch by Manuel Talbert. It was Talbert's only catch all season -- in the back right corner of the end zone on fourth down with 16 seconds left, capping a 99-yard drive.
In 1997, facing Leftwich's H.D. Woodson team, Anacostia pulled to 26-22 with less than two minutes left but never got the ball back. June had run for an early touchdown, and Leftwich ran and threw for touchdowns that game.
"I still have my [championship] ring to this day," Leftwich said. "It's in the living room, on display, sitting in the middle [of other rings]. That's the one where it all got started and the one I cherish the most.
"I don't know why my favorite has the least amount of diamonds in it," he added with a laugh. "You feel more proud of that one because it's hard to do, and it's something that you try to do year in and year out."
Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. Check out the Varsity Letter blog weekdays athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/varsityletter.