In their own parody of the movie “Same Time, Next Year,” four sons of the Bronx, each now on the cusp of 60, will rise before dawn on an early November day, kiss their wives goodbye, and drive to the airport to board an early morning flight.
They will land later that day somewhere near a college town in America. Here, over the next few days, they will bond over their love of sports, breathe in the local surroundings, savor the regional delicacies, and rekindle lifelong friendships. It’s something they have done every November for more than three decades – except for the year of the pandemic.
And like the classic 1978 film, where characters played by Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda rendezvous at the same hotel one weekend every year for decades, brothers Alan and Rick Hoffman, Lee Gallo and Mitch Gill have weathered life’s inexorable changes – marriage, growing family and job responsibilities, health issues, dying parents – to meet together every year. Only, in their case, it’s been in a different location each year.
“We call it a sports weekend, but that’s a little bit of a façade to trick our wives, who have caught on by now,” quips Alan Hoffman, a corporate attorney from Bedford, who is the leading architect for the fall weekends. “While sports is the focus in a lot of respects, it’s more a weekend of friendship and collegiality. It’s a chance to experience together the various cities that we travel to and immerse ourselves in their culture.”
While various friends and relatives have come and gone over the years, the constants on these annual weekends with Hoffman are younger brother, Rick, a tax partner in a major accounting firm who lives with his family in River Vale, New Jersey; Gallo, a branch administrative manager with a financial services firm from New City; and Gill, who lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey and runs his own executive recruiting firm. While the four occasionally see each other and speak throughout the year, this is their Super Bowl.
Their odyssey officially began in 1990 with the addition of Gill, a fill-in who, like Lou Gehrig taking over first base for an ailing Wally Pipp, has never left. Gallo, who took a hiatus for several years because of health issues, returned on a full-time basis a decade ago.
The weekends have taken the four friends to, well, pretty much everywhere. This has included most major cities. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland. Las Vegas, Memphis, Los Angeles. Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte. And more than 30 college campuses. North Carolina State, Florida State, Penn State. Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin. Stanford, Arizona, UCLA. Georgia, Florida, Alabama. They have experienced a cross-section of American life, from metropolises to towns that can’t be found on most maps. They have witnessed abject poverty in places like rural Mississippi and great affluence in sections of the country like Silicon Valley.
Alan Hoffman methodically designs tightly packed schedules that frown on downtime. Once dependent on maps and calls to college sports information directors to create schedules, the advent of the Internet, cell phones and GPS have simplified his efforts. Each carefully scripted itinerary belies the interests of the rest of his travel mates. He made sure in Dallas, for example, to include a guided tour of the JFK Assassination Museum and a trip to the underground parking lot where Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald for Gallo, a Kennedy assassination buff. For the weekend several years ago in Iowa, he included a visit to the covered wooden bridges from the movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” a nod to Gill.
“These guys are kind enough to let me put the itinerary together,” says Hoffman. “There’s an element of trust and I try to take into account everyone’s interests. By now, I know what my brother likes, what Mitch likes, what Lee likes. Why else would you make it a point to go to an underground garage? The only time I put my foot down was when my brother said he wanted to visit the CPA Hall of Fame.”
The schedule, in fact, is crammed with activities. In 2021, for example, after their plane landed in Indianapolis, they took in a Knicks-Pacers game; saw the Colts beat their hapless Jets; tailgated with members of the board of trustees at Purdue University — Alan Hoffman’s alma mater— after which Hoffman and his crew stormed the field to celebrate the Boilermakers victory over previously unbeaten Michigan State. They also traveled to and shot baskets at the Hickory High School gym and museum that is dedicated to the movie “Hoosiers;” took a tour of the Indiana state capital; visited the childhood home of Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president; competed at one of the country’s few remaining duckpin bowling alleys; enjoyed the interactive activities at the NCAA Hall of Champions; and bought tickets to watch a Butler University basketball game at nearby Hinkle Field House (which also happens to be the venue for the fictional championship game in “Hoosiers”).
They sandwiched these events around local eateries that Hoffman researches diligently prior to each weekend to acquaint him and his friends with the local cuisine. Over the decades, this has meant introductions to such indigenous specialties as corndogs in Norman, Oklahoma; grilled stickies in State College, Pennsylvania; and ropa vieja in the Little Havana section of Miami. They have attended beer tastings in St. Louis and Milwaukee, a bourbon tasting in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and a gin tasting in Oxford, Mississippi.
Over the years, they’ve sat everywhere from the very last row at Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium, to the owner’s box at Levi’s Stadium in the San Francisco Bay area. And, while they are from an area of the country whose fans are attracted primarily to professional teams, their weekends have evolved over the years to focus more on the spectacle of college sports.
“We’re old men now and we were boys when we started this,” says Alan Hoffman. “In the early years, we had a slightly different mentality. One year, we closed down a bar at 4 a.m. in Chicago, slept for an hour and then drove an hour and a half to South Bend, Indiana. I’m not sure we could do that anymore, or would even want to. I think over the years we’ve learned to get a few more hours of sleep and enjoy a few less cocktails.”
The relationship among the Hoffman brothers and Gallo extends back more than a half century, to the earliest memories of their childhoods in Riverdale. “I don’t look at these guys as my friends. They’re my family,” says Gallo, his voice quivering. “Growing up with Alan and Rick, if you wanted to find us, we would be on the basketball court, on the avenue near our house getting something to eat, or in one of our houses. I ride and die with these guys.”
They met Gill at Kennedy High School. Gill was from the other side of the tracks. “I met Lee at the lockers. He was wearing a New York Rangers’ hat,” Gill remembers. “I knew Ricky and Alan from junior high school (although Rick, the outlier, attended Bronx School of Science.) We used to play softball together and Ricky and I played tennis. We all just clicked.”
They shared the same interests in sports, cars, music and girls.
“We made the regrettable decision in our youth to root for the Mets, the Jets and the Knicks,” says Alan Hoffman. “That alone tells you we’re not very intelligent.”
Their wives and families have long grown accustomed to their annual getaway. Gill, who was the last of the four to marry, credits an understanding wife and a great nanny for allowing him to leave without guilt when his two daughters, now teenagers, were toddlers. “My wife was always good with it, and the kids when they got older just assumed that around the first or second week of November, daddy was going away on his sports weekend.”
“They realize it’s an annual ritual that’s going to happen and they’ve come to accept it,” says Rick Hoffman of his wife and three children. “They know it’s part of our lives and something very special.”
Adds his older brother, “The four of us invest so much time in our children. We’re all devoted parents. Our kids see how much joy we get out of these weekends and they realize it gives dad a lot of happiness. And they see such long-standing friendships. I think we’re really good role models in terms of long-lasting allegiances to one another and looking out for each other, being unselfish. I think they see that and aspire to that in some way for themselves.”
Like fruit juice fortified by calcium, it’s the many memories that have only enriched the friendships. Rick Hoffman remembers running into by chance two first cousins he had not seen in over 10 years when he stormed the field in South Bend, Indiana after Notre Dame defeated Florida State in a game of unbeatens – noting that his cousins live not in the Midwest, but minutes away from him in Westchester and Bergen counties.
Alan Hoffman remembers the enormous pride he felt when they went to Stanford and he got to see his scholarship athlete daughter, a gymnast, “at the pinnacle of her success.”
Gill and Gallo recall those unique moments that make college sports so magical – the college mascots, from the Nittany Lion to the Georgia Bulldog; storming the field after Virginia upset Miami and taking pictures with the tight end who caught the winning touchdown; sitting with 105,000 spectators at the annual Kentucky-Tennessee rivalry football game, serenaded by rival fight songs: “Rocky Top” in the all-orange section and “My Own Kentucky Home” in the blue.
Last year’s trip to the Hickory High gym/museum “speaks to the spirit and innovation of the trip and how we sometimes get things done,” says Alan Hoffman. “The building is a shrine to the 1986 film based on the David and Goliath story of Milan High School, the tiny Indiana school that won the state basketball championship in 1954. Adds Gallo, “This was a bucket list item for us.”
After driving more than an hour from downtown Indianapolis to Knightstown, Indiana, they found two nondescript buildings standing side-by-side. “We walked up to the nursing home next door, thinking that was Hickory High,” says Alan Hoffman. “When we finally figured out the right spot, sadly the gym was closed.”
In the hopes of at least buying Hickory High swag as a keepsake of their shared love for the movie, they started calling local sporting goods stores.
None sold any such merchandise.
“At the fourth store we called,” says Hoffman, “a young woman told me ‘We don’t have any Hickory High material, but I happen to know the guy who runs the gym, who does the tours. I could try to call him and maybe he can let you in.’ So, a few minutes later she calls me back and says, ‘I have bad news. He’s in Indianapolis, over an hour away, and doesn’t know if he’ll get back in town to let you in. But who knows, it may be worth hanging around for a while.”
Ninety or so minutes later, just as they prepared to leave, a car pulls up. “It’s not the guy she called, but someone who is on the board of directors,” remembers Hoffman. “He tells us, ‘Guys, I really can’t let you in. It’s a construction site and there is liability.”
So, brother Rick and Gill start to spit out those lines by coach Norman Dale and reluctant star Jimmy Chitwood that to devotees of “Hoosiers” are like scripture to a Talmudic scholar.
“My team is on the floor.”
“I play, coach stays. He goes, I go.”
“We’re way past speech time.”
“By the end of the game I want to know what flavor he is.”
“I love you guys.”
Their passion for the movie won him over. “I never met guys like you,” the trustee said. “I’m going to let you in. You guys can go shoot foul shots, take pictures, visit the locker room for as long as you want.” Later, when the original guy who had been called turned up with the key to the gift shop, they got to purchase T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts with Hickory High.