ST. PETERSBURG — Back in the early '80s, when Randy Bertram organized the first Thanksgiving Day football game for his buddies from Boca Ciega High School, he was a hard-charging teen who could give and take his share of pain.
What a difference about three decades and 35 pounds make.
Bertram's Holiday Football League, as it came to be informally known years ago, morphed from tackle to flag football, because flag is easier on the joints.
On Wednesday night, Bertram and his friends gathered to play the Thanksgiving game for the 29th straight year. They drive and fly in from around the Southeast to play the game and reconnect with childhood friends.
The game was held on a lighted football field at Woodlawn Park, a long way from playgrounds and church lawns where games were played in years long gone.
For the first time, they played this year on Thanksgiving eve, because families are bigger and lives are busier.
But one thing in three decades hasn't changed.
"It's a tight-knit group," said Chris Williams, 47, of Tallahassee, who has attended every game. "You have to be invited. It's almost like a league, but it's not. It's the closest friends ever."
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It started back when the Boca Ciega High School graduates lived within a bike ride of each other. They'd start the day with sweat and dirt, victory and loss, and end it with turkey and stuffing. Their first games were at Park Street and Central Avenue, until the city put a big bird bath in the middle of the field. They moved over to a community church, then to Azalea Park and a few other places.
After college, they made a vow to keep coming back. About eight from the original group have done so almost every year. Andy Heller, 48, one of the originals, flies in from Atlanta, then flies back home right after the game. "If I don't fly back," he joked, "I'm in divorce court."
They have played through rainstorms, mud and cold.
Eventually, they got uniforms, blue-on-white and white-one-blue. Every couple of years or so, they hand out trophies, including the "All-State Good Hands" trophy for the dumbest play.
At some point they started calling Bertram commissioner. The 47-year-old, who now lives in Orlando, is the glue that has kept it going.
This year, Eric Hobelmann, who walked on as a tight end for the University of Florida Gators for a year, is commissioner.
"It's as much competitive as it is just to see people," said Hobelmann, 47, of St. Petersburg. "I love seeing everybody. Originally when I first did this, it was all about competition. Just in the last few years, I've really appreciated just being able to see everybody."
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First, it was the players' mothers in the bleachers. Then their wives, then their children. The games started to take on rhythm: the women reminiscing, the children kicking a ball around on the sidelines.
Every year, new visitors glimpse once-familiar faces.
"I am going to introduce myself," Julie Morris, 45, told Florence Rush, 83, a mother of one of the players. "The last time you saw me, I was 6, 7, 8 years old, tops."
On the field Wednesday night, the blue team was driving toward the end zone.
In the stands, someone yelled about old men.
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]