December 2, 2009
Still Playing After All These Years
Football and Thanksgiving have gone together since the first professional league formed in 1902. It’s an American tradition found in every level of the game, from high school to the NFL’s Thanksgiving Classic.
And for a group of far-flung friends from two L.A. Jewish day schools, the annual tradition holds a special meaning — it’s one day of the year when they can all count on being in Los Angeles at the same time.
This past Thanksgiving morning was no different. Sixteen guys in their 40s put on T-shirts or jerseys, shorts and cleats. After meeting up at Beeman Park in Studio City, they strapped on Velcro flags before heading onto a field to play a game they’ve enjoyed since they were fourth-graders at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.
“Some of us only see each other once a year, and this is it,” said Mark Rosenbaum, a real estate and business litigator who attended Hillel.
The friends — among them a portfolio manager, a lawyer, a dentist, a neurosurgeon and a screenwriter, with some coming from Sacramento and New York — divided up in teams based on their former day schools and played their hearts out.
During halftime, many of the players were popping Motrin. There were complaints about back and groin pain before a kick-off or punt, and there were numerous incompletes that should have been successful passes.
But to these players, the caliber of the game is not important. Nor was it significant that Yavneh blew out Hillel, winning five touchdowns to none.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” said Rosenbaum, who was responsible for the majority of the trash talk on the field. “But we’ll be back next year.”
The hour-long game started off slowly, with neither side able to penetrate the end zone. While this wasn’t much of a shock to the players, what did surprise them was that everybody listened to the quarterbacks in the huddles this year.
If the friends gave an award for most valuable player, it would have gone to Danny Hoisman.
Hoisman, who is heading construction of a UCLA hospital, was all over the field. Catching Hail Mary passes, he scored two of the touchdowns.
He is also the one responsible for organizing the annual match. Every year, a couple of weeks before the holiday, he sends an e-mail to the group to remind them that the game is just around the corner.
The game hasn’t always been played as flag football, however. When they were younger, the friends used to tackle.
“No one can really dive as much anymore,” said Yavneh’s Steve Lax, who preps film and TV sets for a living.
After only a few plays, Lax headed over to the sidelines, where he spread out on a folding chair. Although one of his knees was in pain, a grin was plastered on his face.
“When we see each other ... it’s like, we’re still in elementary school,” Lax said. “We’re a fraternity of guys who are never too old to play flag football on Thanksgiving.”
Josh Pretsky, a psychologist who plays for Hillel, says that the friends are all still much the same people they were in elementary school.
“We’ve been friends since we were kids, and our personalities, as they were then, come out now. We’re all the same,” he said.
The game even draws one of the coaches from their bygone days on the peewee gridiron.
Alan Rosen, a former Yavneh coach now at Maimonides Academy, turns up on the sidelines to offer advice on plays. Although he’s known the guys from Hillel just as long, his allegiance still lies with Yavneh.
“I think they love each other,” Rosen said. “Their relationships are genuine. They’re extended family to me. They’re brothers to each other.”
After the game, a few of the men put their yarmulkes back on. Two friends wandered off to 7-11 to get Big Gulps, and another two had to say goodbye at the park since they were expected at a bris.
The rest went to a nearby Coffee Bean to spend time catching up and reflecting on the game.
Over coffee and tea, friends from both teams rib Yavneh’s Dave Gottlieb about his shirt — the same one he’s worn for several years, which is showing its age along with several holes. They discuss a ceremonial burning of the shirt to retire it next year.
Despite any kvetching about aches and pains, Gottlieb says no one talks about bowing out of the annual football game. The responsibility for keeping this Thanksgiving tradition alive might eventually fall to their children — many of whom attend Jewish day schools like Milken, Adat Ariel, Shalhevet and Heschel — but for now none of the players have any intention of passing on the mantle.
“In 20 years we’ll still be playing,” Gottlieb said.