'Bronx Boys' legacy lives on for four generations

It's CUNY vs. SUNY for the 50th time this weekend


Many northwest Bronx families who sit down for the annual Thanksgiving dinner Nov. 23 will share stories with relatives and friends, give thanks for their meal and watch football on television.

But there’s a group of longtime Van Cortlandt Village and Kingsbridge Heights residents and their families for whom Thanksgiving takes place the Saturday after. That’s the date of the annual Turkey Bowl, celebrating its 50th this year. The latest version of the touch football game is Nov. 25 at Harris Field at 9:30 a.m.

Known affectionately as the “Bronx Boys,” this group of about 20 or so players have turned their after-school, pick-up football games into their own Thanksgiving get-together.

“The first game (in 1974 at Pigeon Park) was a way to stay in touch after we went to college,” said Jonathan Asher, known as “Johnnie” when he was a teen. “Half the guys were out of town at school and half the guys stayed at home.”

A group of the players from the past 50 years met with The Riverdale Press via Zoom last week to discuss the game’s history and the upcoming version.

A lot has certainly happened since that first 4-on-4 game at a field next to DeWitt Clinton High School. Back then the Yankees played their home games at Shea Stadium in Flushing as Yankee Stadium was being rebuilt, a subway token was only 30 cents and Abe Beame was the mayor.

The so-called “originals” included Scott Gollup, Gerry Gartenberg, Harold Steinbach, Mitch Schonfeld, Barry Ketsen, Asher, Nate Schlanger and Mike Gordon. Although Gollup passed away, his spirit lives on in the game as his family participates and the originals pay his respects. 

Of the originals, Schonfeld was one of two who went to private high schools. He graduated from Horace Mann School in Riverdale and Gordon graduated from Friends Academy in Roslyn. Schonfeld is a SUNY Binghamton grad as is Gordon,

The rest of the Bronx Boys were graduates of DeWitt Clinton and Bronx Science high schools. Other than one original — Gartenberg who went to Columbia University — all the other originals either went to SUNY Binghamton or CUNY schools such as Queens College and Baruch.

“It could’ve been at synagogue,” said Schonfeld when describing how the games started. “And we said let’s play CUNY vs. SUNY. Barry, Harold and I would’ve been up in Binghamton. And Nate, John and the other guys would’ve been in the Bronx. And Nate would’ve said hey instead of playing pick-up games in the park, maybe during Thanksgiving break let’s play CUNY vs. SUNY.”

And just like that, the Turkey Bowl was born.

Prior to the Turkey Bowl, Asher wanted to make a point that most of the CUNY players were more old-time players who played the “Bronx way.”

“Going to the park was for the more well-to-do,” Asher said. “Because from where I came from, we played in the street and it was sewer to sewer. You know when you got old enough to throw from one sewer to the other, it was time to join the well-to-do kids in the park.”

In those games, first down was a car length. “It could be dangerous,” Asher said. “You could hit by a sideview mirror.”

As for the fields in the early Turkey Bowl games, it was quite limiting.

“One end zone was very narrow and you weren’t careful you would run into one of the lamp posts in the park. It was treacherous,” Schonfeld said. “I only remember the first game was 4 by 4. I don’t remember too many games past that until games five and six.”

Most memorable moments

For the Bronx Boys, 50 years brings with it quite a few memories. From births and weddings to broken bones and fights, the Turkey Bowl has seen it all. There was even a burning car one year.

“I think I have the record for getting injured the earliest in a game,” said Doug Simon, a late arrival to the Turkey Bowl in 1981. “On the fifth play, I broke my collar bone.”

Full disclosure, he said, was that he had come into the game with a rotator cuff injury. He was invited to play in the game by Gordon.

The fight

“We had a huge fight about whether I was out of bounds on a run,” Steinbach said referring to the one time the game was played outside the Bronx. “You should ask us what games we had the biggest fights or broke the most bones.”

Schlanger confirmed that particular fight during a game played in New Jersey near Asher’s home when his daughter, Allison, was born.

“That was memorable because of that fight,” he said. “We were playing and there were a lot of leaves on the ground. John’s wife started breaking us up.”

Then there was the time Gerry’s car wound up in smoke during the game, Gordon remembered. “It looked like it was firebombed,” he said.

The broken nose

For Asher, he remembers most when “this young guy who I went up for the ball against” hit his elbow perfectly into my nose.

“It turns out he is getting married to Nate’s daughter tomorrow (Nov. 18),” Asher said. “It was his first Turkey Bowl and he’s meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time and he breaks his best friend’s nose.”

This year’s game

During the 50th anniversary game, the next generation will continue to take over as the original players start to age.

“The third generation of Kestens will make an appearance this year,” said Jay Kesten, eldest son of Barry who will play alongside his brother Adam. “Then they will join their mom at the Botanical Gardens.

“It’s funny how it has shifted. It’s like get it to the older guys before they get hurt. Even the young ones are old now. There’s been so many generations. You’ll have four kids under 5.”

For the SUNY team, Jay Kesten is slated to be the quarterback while Adam will be his favorite receiver. But there will be a lot of little ones and older “originals” out there.

An annual tradition that came out of the Turkey Bowl is the after-game dinner at a local diner that started in the 1980s. But with The Riverdale Diner and Blue Bay Restaurant having closed over the past year and a half, the group has planned the dinner for about 50 people this year at an eatery in Parsippany, New Jersey. During the dinner, players will roast each other and awards may be given out.

For many, the game is a lot more than just a time to play football and trash talk.

“Some people say there is a glue that keeps us together,” Gartenberg said.

Bronx Boys, Scott Gollup, Gerry Gartenberg, Jonathan Asher, Mike Gordon, Nate Schlanger, Harold Steinbach, Mitch Schonfeld, Barry Katsen, Doug Simon, football, Thanksgiving, Turkey Bowl