by Troy Landrum Jr.
“I don’t ever want to be able to help, and not help.” Those words from Cortez Charles signify the foundation and the mission of the 8th Annual Turkey Bowl Week.
This historical community event has taken place in the South End every year for the past eight years, even during the pandemic, when the football game had to be canceled and community service became the focus. Charles’ organization, the Fatherhood Accountability Movement (FAM), has brought joy, food, sports, and community service to the South End during the Thanksgiving Holiday — a holiday that represents food and togetherness for many, but can also represent a time of difficulty for some folks. His commitment to service formed a community movement that came from a vulnerable time in his life, or “a pivotal time,” as he said.
Charles knows what it means to struggle. He knows what it means to crave more from life in the midst of hardship. “I was homeless,” he said. “And at the end of 2014, I was sitting in my car … And my kids are asleep, and I hear God tell me to trust the process. I was sitting outside, waiting in front of the Urban League for some support. Through that time period, it just hit my heart: I just want to serve people. It was birthed at one of my lowest moments in life.”
The Turkey Bowl started in Louisiana in 1959, as a family tradition, by Charles E. Sampson. “Uncle Charles,” as his family affectionately calls him, migrated to Seattle during the Great Migration, when Black folks left the Southern states in great numbers to find safety and better opportunities. It was important for him to bring his family’s Thanksgiving tradition — a tradition rooted in keeping family and the community together. Uncle Charles and his family would set up a local community football game every Thanksgiving and have folks bring canned goods to serve the people who were in need during the holiday.
In Seattle, the tradition grew and transformed, lasting for almost 20 years, from approximately 1977 to 1995. During that time, many community members made the event a part of their family tradition as well, including police officers, City Councilmembers, and retired NFL players. They would hold their games at the Rainier Playfield every year — but after almost 20 years of bringing such impact to the community, The Turkey Bowl faded. Uncle Charles was getting older and the community who participated in it all those years had started to age as well. If the event were to soar on new wings, it needed the young folks to breathe new life into it. Cortez Charles became that breath of fresh air.
It was the first week of November in 2015 when Charles felt a nudge to bring back his family’s tradition. He was working for Urban Family, an organization focused on serving the young people of The Crescent Pointe apartments in Skyway. It was a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and he felt the need to utilize the impactful event that he grew up with to bring together the young people that he was serving. But if he was going to conjure up such a special past, he had to do it right and he had to do it his way. Charles then called up his Uncle Charles and received the blessing to revive The Turkey Bowl.
Charles’ new focus would be to create a flag football game for youth and give them a special chance to serve those in need through a service day. This service day coined the phrase that his volunteers and organization live by, “Teaching youth and young adults what it looks like to serve somebody other than themselves.”
Like the tradition that Uncle Charles created so many years ago, The Turkey Bowl has transformed and grown into an event that is protected and held by the community. Its new iteration is now eight years strong, living through a pandemic and transforming adults and young people as it has expanded to different communities in Washington. The Turkey Bowl has grown into Turkey Bowl week, where young people volunteer in a week of service to people in need, participate in The Turkey Bowl’s traditional community dinner, and play in the highly touted football game at the closing of the week.
This year’s Turkey Bowl week consists of service at the Tacoma Rescue Mission and the Rainier Valley Food Bank. It will be a chance for the community to expand its reach to Tacoma and continue to fulfill its mission of serving those within its own backyard. This year also welcomes another brand new presentation — NBA All-Star and Rainier Beach High School alumni Dejounte Murray will be donating 200 free turkeys at the community dinner. It is a beautiful example of the stars of the local community never forgetting where they come from and adding a flavor of magic to such a strong event and tradition.
Every Thanksgiving morning, waking up and heading to the field, no matter what that year’s weather brought, and watching his family celebrate one day out of the year through football, food, and service — that’s what Charles’ childhood memories consist of. These memories will now be passed down to his kids and all the young people that his volunteers and his organization have served and will continue to serve.
Charles has been a community leader and guide for the South End for a long time; he has utilized his personal experiences to leverage his core ability to transform a community’s life.
Just as the sentence “It’s more than a game” sits perfectly and proudly stamped on various posters, flyers, and banners throughout the Turkey Bowl week, Charles’ redefining personal moment “I don’t ever want to be able to help, and not help” is stamped on the community’s heart. The Turkey Bowl tradition is more than a game; it is a movement that will forever be a South End gift to all.
Cortez Charles would like to thank all the folks who have helped keep this tradition alive. Some of those folks are: the founding father of The Turkey Bowl, Charles E. Sampson; Deandra Charles; Rainier Beach High School head football coach Cory Sampson; Renton High School football coach Mark Cross; Seattle Parks and Recreation; Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ); All In Outreach Program; Innovative Change African American Leadership (AALF); Durrell Green; Xzina Young; and the many volunteers and workers of the Fatherhood Accountability Movement (FAM).
Troy Landrum Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently a program producer for KUOW’s “Radioactive” program. He has spent the past few years as a bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park and recently graduated with a master’s in fine arts at the University of Washington, Bothell. Follow Troy on Twitter at @TroyLandrumJr.
📸 Featured Image: (Photo courtesy of Cortez Charles.)
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