Peoria's Turkey Day Game Tradition

By Ashley McNamee

November 5, 2010 Updated Nov 5, 2010 at 6:29 PM CDT

Typically Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for our friends, family and freedoms. But for 59 years in Peoria, high school football took precedence over turkey dinner for many families.

From 1915 until 1972, thousands of football players from Peoria Central, Manual, Spalding and Woodruff competed against each other in the annual Turkey Day Games on Thanksgiving.

For four former Turkey Day athletes just stepping foot on Peoria Stadium's field catapults them back to their high school glory days.

"As a player, it was the biggest thing of your life for crying out loud, you just couldn't wait," said Bob Smith, who graduated from Peoria High School in 1958.

Bob Sulaski, who graduated from Woodruff in 1953, says you have to go back to Peoria in 1915 to understand the significance of the games.

"They had two schools in Peoria, Manual and Central, then the catholic school Spalding was in Peoria and at the north end of Peoria was the town of Averyville, which later became Kingman High School, which later became Woodruff High School," said Sulaski. "Things were just beginning and they were just starting to play football. They were playing without helmets back then."

Sulaski recently completed the book "59 Years of Drumsticks and Pigskins" about the Thanksgiving Day games between Central and Manual, and Spalding and Woodruff.

"If you look at the names of the people from 1915 through the ending in 1973, it was like a who's who in Peoria," he said.

The 2,500 players over 59 years include anyone from future Peoria mayors to the father of Gen. Wayne A. Downing to 9 professional athletes.

Smith played in three games and coached six. He went on to make football a career coaching for University of Illinois and Southern among other schools.

"it was a very, very special time. I have coached in bowl games, championship games at the collegiate level. Nothing is more important than the games I coached on Turkey Day, or the game I played in my senior year," said Smith.

Corky Robertson was involved too many Turkey Day Games to count, but he says he will never forget how full the stands were.

"One ball game we had 12,000 the rest of the time we had 8,000 to 9,000 to 10,000 people," said Robertson. His father is the namesake of Bradley's Robertson Memorial Field House, his brother went on to play baseball professionally.

Robertson never got too far from Peoria High School. After he graduated in 1949, he became the head football coach in 1957 and principal in 1972.

"We had to do what we had to do," said Robertson.

In 1973, Robertson and Peoria's three other principals voted to end the Turkey Day Game tradition so the Illinois High School state football playoff system could start. Ed Murphy, 1952 Spalding graduate, says they didn't really have a choice although many were disappointed.

"They couldn't really do anything, they understood that now there is a play off system and the play offs started the day after Turkey Day," said Murphy. "You couldn't have the kids play Thursday and then play Friday, that just wouldn't work."

Today, the men are trying to revive their Turkey Day Game friendships. On Sunday Nov. 7 they're hosting a reunion at the Knight of Columbus Hall at 7403 North Radnor Road in Peoria at 1:30 p.m. They say anyone who played, coached or watched is welcome.

"And cheerleaders are welcome. They may or may not be safe, but they're welcome," said Murphy with a smirk.

While grown, they haven't changed much. Neither has the mark the Turkey Day Games left on the history of Peoria and them.

For information on purchasing the $20 book "59-years of Drumsticks and Pigskins" you can call 309-691-8580 or send a $20 check to Robert Sulaski at P.O. Box 31, Edwards Illinois, 61528-0031.

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