Family Tradition Births South Seattle Turkey Bowl Tournament

by Marcus Harrison Green

For Cortez ‘Tez’ Charles, Thanksgiving once meant an early morning spent with family hurdling would-be tacklers, while his uncles seldom succeeded at summoning youthful dexterity. Everyone played with last night’s sleep still pasted around their eyelids.

The reward for the amateur exhibition of gridiron gladiatorism was bragging rights at the night’s feast of butter roasted turkey, candied yams, collard greens and giblet gravy.

Sitting in the lobby of the Rainier Beach Community Center (RBCC), Cortez belts out laughter reminiscing on his family turkey bowl football game, a tradition dating back more than four decades to when the clan resided in Louisiana.  

But it is more than nostalgia fueling his visit to the center on this rainy day in early November. Using family heritage as a blueprint, he’s come to plot out the continuation of a new tradition, the South Seattle Turkey Bowl Week.

Entering its third year, Turkey Bowl Week is a three day event organized by Charles and the other members of youth empowerment organization Teaching Our Kids to Educate the Next (TOKEN). Far from simply being a showcase for past their prime adults to relive faded athletic glory that never was, exemplified by many a holiday pick-up game, the Bowl is geared around service to the South End community during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Kicking the event off next Tuesday, Turkey Bowl volunteers will join community members in handing out donated blankets, pillows, coats and turkey sandwiches to residents of the Othello Village Homeless Encampment.

On Thanksgiving Eve, local youth will participate in a flag football game at Rainier Beach High School, followed by a community dinner at RBCC cooked and served by community members.

Finally on Thanksgiving morning, the event will culminate when adults take the field to battle for the official Turkey Bowl trophy in a 7-on-7 flag football tournament featuring eight teams. (Full Disclosure: The South Seattle Emerald is fielding a team) Organizers will also hope to collect 1100 lbs of donated canned goods from community members at the game.

Charles is open about the long road he’s traveled from former gang member, who in his own words “spent a lot of time destroying his community,” to South End servant. For him, the Turkey Bowl is another step in the manifestation of a “community-reliant” South Seattle.

“It was really a no-brainer,” he said. “Other communities take care of their own, and we’re really no different. We just don’t get the same type of attention when we do it in the South End.”

Though Charles was the primary organizer of the event the 34-year-old father of four evades credit like he hopes to evade flag pullers at next Thursday’s game.

“Man, you see something that needs doing and you do it. If you’re really about the community it’s not about who gets the credit as an individual, it’s about the spotlight being on us in the South End as a whole,” he said.

Others are less hesitant to praise Charles’s contributions. “This event grew on me last year, from me seeing the outreach Tez had us doing with feeding the families at Othello Village,” says two-time Turkey Bowl volunteer Paul Dervin, a South End resident and outreach worker for the Seattle YMCA.

Dervin, who along with his children will serve turkey sandwiches to Othello Village residents on Tuesday, said the event fostered a greater awareness of the plight many of his fellow residents are facing.

“I didn’t know we had full families that were in need right in my own backyard,” he said. “It made me realize that they could be me if life took a wrong turn. It showed me to never judge and always give because everybody needs help. I want my kids to grow up doing outreach like it’s second nature.”

Dervin’s stance is shared by Elizabeth Jones Johnson who, as the Turkey Bowl’s assistant coordinator, helped oversee donations of blankets and food.

turkey bowl group
Members of the Turkey Bowl Coalition before a prep meeting. [Photo: Susan Fried]
“It’s a true blessing to be a part of the Turkey Bowl and to see lives change…to be a blessing to those who are not as fortunate as we are and to put a smile on someone’s face, it makes my day. It makes me feel good knowing that I have made a difference today in someone’s life.  Giving back is what this is about,” she said.

While the organizers agree the principal aspect of the Turkey Bowl is its charitable component, fun and games on the field is still a priority.

“Man I’m ready to get out there and do my thing on Thursday. I was at South Shore [Middle School] the other day and kids kept calling me the Turkey Bowl guy,” says Charles. As a wide grin returns to his face he stops just short of resurrecting memories of past Turkey Bowls.

He has fresh ones to make next week.

Volunteer and donation inquires for Turkey Bowl Week can be emailed to 

MHG ColorMarcus Harrison Green is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald. He writes a regular column on South Seattle personalities, social movements, juvenile justice and American society. He is a columnist for the Seattle Weekly, former scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a past Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000

Featured image by Susan Fried