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For 41 years, Stepinac and White Plains have squared off on Thanksgiving Day in their annual Turkey Bowl game. One of the longest traditions in the region, this match-up has grown into more than a win or a loss, but a backbone for the two schools’ athletic programs. No matter how the two teams’ seasons have gone, players, coaches and fans often measure the success of these teams by one simple question; who won the Turkey Bowl?
After four decades of games, hundreds and hundreds of players and tens of thousands of fans, the game has become more than just a game. Every year, what should be just a football game becomes a full-blown community event. Both White Plains and Stepinac hold pep-rallies in the days leading up to the game. And on Thanksgiving, thousands fans fill the bleachers to meet with family, friends and colleagues and watch the two sides play for school pride.
This year, MSG Varsity takes a look at the bonds that the Turkey Bowl has created, both on the field and off.
Skip Stevens and Mike O’Donnell
When you take a look at the Turkey Bowl, it’s hard not to start with Skip Stevens and Mike O’Donnell. Two of the most revered coaches in the area, Stevens and O’Donnell take great pride in the Turkey Bowl and the community that surrounds it.
Stevens’ father played for White Plains in the 1960s and, in 2001, Stevens was offered a position as the Tigers defensive coordinator after coaching six years at Carmel high school. When former head coach Mark Santa-Donato stepped down in 2005, Stevens was appointed head coach and the White Plains tradition was carried on. Stevens has had more than 50 players play college football and founded the White Plains Football Association, a non-profit organization that sponsors community activities and provides scholarships to student-athletes in need. He also played an integral part in getting White Plains’ state-of-the-art turf stadium built in 2006.
“There is nothing like the Turkey Bowl,” Stevens said. “Ending the season on Thanksgiving in front of your entire community in a family friendly, fun atmosphere? It doesn’t get better than that. This isn’t just an event between two schools; it has blossomed into something so much more. People who aren’t even football fans show up to this game, people who don’t even have family members playing show up to this game and it’s because of the history and tradition that has been a part of this city for decades. Kids don’t always appreciate this history, but as the years go on, everyone remembers the Turkey Bowl.”
On the other hand, O’Donnell is a Stepinac coaching legend. O’Donnell first started at Stepinac 30 years ago and is now in his 24th season as head coach. He has coached NFL and Division 1 players, won two CHSFL AA championships, and just led his team to its first AAA championship appearance in school history. O’Donnell is also the school’s athletic director and, like Stevens, took an integral part in getting Stepinac’s turf field built earlier this year.
“Thanksgiving day is a great day for both us and White Plains and our two communities,” O’Donnell said. “People come back from all over to watch this game, and it’s a big social event. On the field it’s a little more than a social event because the teams tend to sometimes dislike each other, but the atmosphere is always about family and friendship. Our two coaching staffs are friendly and we have some great war stories, but it’s a great day for the city of White Plains and our two communities.”
Turkey Bowl Family History
The family history that surrounds the Turkey Bowl is astonishing. White Plains currently has eight players whose fathers played in the Turkey Bowl, six players whose fathers currently coach in the program and countless players with multiple family members who have participated in the game. There is also one third-generation Tiger playing for the team this year.
Adrian Clinton (Arnold Clinton, Safety/WR, Class of 1980) – Adrian is one of the most versatile athletes White Plains has. His father set the school single season record for interceptions and currently coaches the modified program.
Michael Scotman, Gary Pace (Paul Scotman, QB/DB, Class of 1985) – Michael is the heart and soul of the White Plains team, playing fullback and linebacker. Gary just earned his first start of the season in White Plains’ last bowl game. Paul Scotman is currently an assistant coach with the program.
Khasi Coachman (Jimmy Edwards, QB, Class of 1985) – Khasi is White Plains’ main receiving target and has become one of the better receivers in the section. He is quite an athlete as his father was before him.
Elijah Young (Kevin Young, DE, Class of 1981) – Elijah is one of the better linemen White Plains has and will play a major role down the line. Kevin Young is an assistant with the program and was on White Plains’ last undefeated team.
David Jefferson (Harry C. Jefferson, Class of 1976) – A freshman call up, David is actually a third generation Tiger. His grandfather was Tiger legend Harry Jefferson, who started halfback at the University of Illinois. White Plains’ gym is named after the eldest Jefferson.
Tyler Bogart (Scott Bogart, DE, Class of 1974) – Tyler is a JV call-up who coach Stevens says has "a lot of speed." His father was in the program when the first Stepinac-White Plains game was played.
Travis Coleman (Roger Coleman, OL/LB, Class of 1985) - Travis is a selfless player and will go down as one of the great White Plains lineman. He is a three-year starter and if was just a bit bigger would probably be fielding multiple Division 1 offers. Roger played with the elder Scotman at White Plains before joining the Marines. He was named to the All-Marine team and played semi-pro football.
Stepinac has no players whose fathers played in the game, but has two players who have two uncles who played in the game. However, head coach Mike O’Donnell’s son Liam was moved up to varsity, and there are still many family ties throughout the Stepinac football team.
Tom Dedivani, Peter Dedivani (Frank Dedvukaj, George Vuksanaj, DL) – Tom and Peter’s uncles Frank and George played on the defensive line. Peter says his two uncles give him and his brother extra motivation when they play.
“They come to all of our games,” Peter Dedivani said. “They really get into it and it’s a lot of fun. Looking up into the stands and seeing Stepinac guys that I’m related to, it makes it special."
Liam O’Donnell – Liam is the son of head coach Mike O’Donnell and has moved up to the varsity for the Turkey Bowl. Liam says he enjoys playing for his father and knows how special Turkey Bowl is.
“My dad’s been doing this since before I was born,” Liam O’Donnell said. “Every year in the days leading up to the game you can see how important it is to him. I probably won’t see the field this year, but in the next few hopefully I can help him win one.”
Dan Hoffer (Ryan Hoffer, OL, Class of 2007) – Quarterback Dan Hoffer splits time with Mark White at quarterback and has played a huge part in the Crusaders' success this season. His older brother Ryan started Stepinac’s only three-game win streak in the Turkey Bowl in school history.
Vinnie Narog (Vinnie Narog, Class of 1981) – Narog is one of the better players in the CHSFL and one of the few players whose fathers attended Stepinac. His father did not play football, but the former Crusader is always excited to see his son represent his former school.
Caleb Gilligan-Evans – Caleb Gilligan-Evans does not have any family ties to the game, but still deserves a mention. Gilligan-Evans is one of the few players in either school’s history to play in the Turkey Bowl all four years and will go down as one of the best Crusaders ever. As coach O’Donnell said, “It’s hard to remember when Caleb wasn’t here.”
Coaching From Experience
Both teams have former players coaching on their staffs and you can see the passion that the coaches have for the game. All but two of White Plains' coaches played in the game. Scotman and Young both have children who now play for them. Starting quarterback Jeff Avery is the younger brother of former quarterback Kevin Avery and the son of Jim Avery, who both coach for the Tigers.
“It’s a dream come true,” Young said. “Not only am I out here coaching with my son, but I’m out here coaching for the team I used to play with. They say football teams are a family, but here at White Plains, a lot of us actually are family.”
Scotman agreed with Young’s appreciation for the program.
“It’s really something special,” Scotman said. “The ties that we have are all over. I watched coach Young play, my elder son played with Kevin Avery. And now we’re all here together on the same field, trying to win. It’s incredible.”
Stepinac has two former players coaching with their staff, JV coach Joe Venice (Class of 2004) and defensive coordinator Jon Demarco (Class of 1991). Both expressed the tradition and emotion that are associated with the game, as former players and now coaches.
“It’s really incredible how many people take an interest in the game,” Demarco said. “You have alumni back, you have family members and you have just regular fans… Thanksgiving is a great day and you have a great time with your family either way; but that turkey tastes a little better after a victory, both as a player and a supporter.”
Venice spoke of the importance of the game as an athletic event, but also as a life experience.
“It’s one thing to play in it, but a completely different experience as a coach,” Venice said. “As a player, you’re young; you want to win for everyone and for your team. But as a coach, you’re carrying on tradition. You set an example for the kids and hope that they will become good players, but most importantly become good men from what you can teach them.”
And finally, one person has the most interesting take on the Turkey Bowl tradition: Stepinac coach Andy Martinez. Martinez now coaches the Crusaders, but actually played for White Plains and graduated a Tiger in 1996. Needless to say, it’s an interesting dilemma.
“I’ve been around the Turkey Bowl for a while,” Martinez said. “Growing up it was White Plains, I played in the game for three years and I was a Tiger. But now, coaching here at Stepinac, it definitely is interesting. My parents went to White Plains and I have ties to the White Plains community, so they can be a little torn.
But I think this day is more than White Plains and Stepinac and that’s what makes it special. It’s about celebrating family and being together as a family. It’s about supporting your team and your kids and the people that are important in your life on Thanksgiving. It just so happens to revolve around a football game, but it’s more than just the game.”
Check back for a preview of the 2011 version of the Turkey Bowl