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55th year of annual Turkey Bowl gets downsize

Although Albert Lea’s annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Bowl was canceled in its normal sense this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of residents still got together to make sure the  tradition continued on.

Taking place every year for 55-consecutive years, the turkey bowl welcomes families and individuals from Albert Lea to come and enjoy a touch football game before going home for their Thanksgiving meals. This year, the touch football game was replaced by a small number of people coming to throw the ball around for a while.

Rick Harves and Jim Nielsen, who grew up in the area of Abbott Field, were two of the players who started the tradition and have played in it almost every year.

The game has been played in all sorts of conditions from sunny and warm to snowy and icy, but the challenges that COVID-19 brought into the fold were too much to risk the safety of everyone involved.

Harves and Nielsen, along with another founding player, Paul Wendorff, were talking weeks before the game was scheduled to take place and Harves said it was pretty obvious then they weren’t going to be able to play.

“We had all been texting back and forth about it,” Harves said. “Wendorff texted me and said ‘Jim doesn’t think we should play.’ I said it was pretty obvious that we shouldn’t be playing. Because we block, we get close at the line. We would have had to have done something different if we played this year.”

What started out as a group of neighborhood children getting together to entertain themselves before a big Thanksgiving get-together quickly grew into something much bigger.

Harves estimated more than 40 families have taken part in the game throughout its 55-year history.  Five years ago, when the game celebrated its 50th anniversary, Nielsen said it was the most people he has ever seen at the game, estimating there were more than 40 people who came to play.

“When I was out of town for all those years, it was just nice to come back here that one time a year and see everybody that you grew up with,” Nielsen said. “After the game we always sit around on the hill a little bit, maybe have a pop or something to drink, talk for a little bit, then everybody would go home for Thanksgiving.”

Despite a big game with many old friends and new faces taking the backseat in 2020, the game and its organizers are hoping to see it back and bigger than ever in 2021.

About Tyler Julson

Tyler Julson covers sports for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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