HINCKLEY, Ohio - The 30th annual Meadows Turkey Bowl had a new field, same cause, records set and mud.
A lot of mud.
The pickup football game, played every Thanksgiving morning in Medina County, brought in a staggering $390,000 to bring its donation total to $2,255,800. It has been a fundraiser for just the past 15 years, with money going directly to St. Vincent de Paul Society and assorted individuals affected by tragedy and cancer.
It evolved from a simple Thanksgiving game with four players in Mike Meadows’ back yard three decades ago to what it is now: A 50-player, six-team, pool-competition, pay-to-play structure. Each player ponies up a minimum $2,000. Many seek larger donations from companies and individuals. It’s St. Vincent de Paul’s single largest fundraiser in Medina County.
It’s a game whose donations bypass any middleman and go straight for their cause. The reminder for that cause was seen across the backs of every player’s jersey: Izzy for the red team, Beth for green, Tusick for orange, Jackie for blue, Penny for purple and Eckelberry for yellow. They are more than names; they are motivators for players who remember that Thanksgiving morning is about more than football.
Those names also served as a constant reminder to the more than 100 fans who showed up Thursday, including Karen Eckelberry of Medina.
Eckelberry said she was “overwhelmed” when she learned the game would remember her husband, Robin, a 46-year-old father of three and the family’s sole bread winner who died in a fishing trip on Lake Erie over Labor Day weekend. His body was found a month later.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I was completely shocked. There’s been so much in the news. Now I feel that this honors Robin.”
By the end of the games, the only thing you couldn’t see was the No. 30 on players’ backs, representing the years the game has taken place. In recent years, it’s been played on the sloping backyard field behind Meadows’ former house before moving to Bill Dunn Field last year. This year it took place behind 1st Day School Supplies, Meadows’ business.
With temperatures just above freezing, gray skies and light snow, players slogged through a field that became thicker as the morning wore on. Laundry rooms throughout Medina will be in use as often as ovens today: Mud covered jerseys, caked cleats, streaked sweatpants, smeared faces.
No matter. The mud might have slowed some of the receivers on their routes, but that was it.
It didn’t affect the supporters huddled under blankets to watch husbands, fathers and boyfriends trudge up and down the field. Twenty-somethings - a direct result of Meadows’ efforts to add younger players - competed side by side with 50-somethings.
It didn’t bother the quartet of referees - Ted Sloat, Ed Niehaus, Frank Ciryak and Tom Stevens - who volunteer their time each year.
It didn’t prevent high-school band members from playing on the sidelines.
And it never stops veteran Northeast Ohio radio man Kenny Roda, whose Thanksgiving-morning tradition begins with him calling the games on the sidelines. He’s been to about 15 of the 30 games, he said.
“You know what? To give back and to see how this has grown…” Roda’s voice trails off briefly as he shakes his head, holding his megaphone before the games began. “What they have done to continue to raise the bar … is heartwarming.”
It’s also heartwarming to Meadows, who works tirelessly with his wife, Connie, to hold the game and to fundraise.
“Every year I say ‘I can’t believe it’. It’s just amazing,” he said.
“When my head hits the pillow, knowing all the people this team (of volunteers) was able to help, is incredible. The numbers are staggering. Our theme is it’s not the money we’ve raised, it’s the people we helped.”
Baby Bill Biegel, honoring fundraising: Tyler Maclellan
Mr. Toughest: Aaron Barna
Mr. Hustle: Al Melchiorre
Mr. MVP: Keith Hughes
Here is our Thanksgiving-Day coverage over the years of the Meadows Turkey Bowl: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.
The game’s donations have increased every year since it became a fundraiser: