In 1969, the United States put a man on the moon. The Beatles released Abbey Road, their final album together, and Sesame Street debuted on a new television channel called PBS. In November of that year, an Irish-Catholic family from Little Neck, Queens quietly started one of the richest Thanksgiving traditions in recent American history.
Marge Brennan, the matriarch of the Brennan family, and her husband Bill started their family in the height of the baby boom. Marge gave birth to ten children in twenty years, a normal occurrence at the time. Mary, the eldest, was born in 1943, followed by Bill, Tom, Rob, Sue, twins Terry and Grace, Joe, Dick, and finally Dan in 1963. Marge led the family like army general with “aggressive empathy.” And while several of the kids had moved out or married, she insisted the troops come together for each and every holiday – NO excuses accepted.
Rob Brennan, the fourth child, was just 18-years old in 1969. He had an idea that Thanksgiving could be more fun than simply eating turkey at the dinner table. A competitive family by nature, Rob was the born leader of all things sports related. Whether it was setting up a roller hockey rink in the backyard, playing stickball in the schoolyard next door, or hitting full golf shots on the front lawn, Rob always made sure someone had a ball in their hands and a competition to be measured against.
On November 22nd, 1969, Rob once again formed a game. This time it was a game of two-hand touch football at the local high school field in Great Neck. On one side was a team that would be known for years as “The Youthful Yippies,” composed of the younger horde and led by quarterback Rob Brennan. Their opponents were candidly heralded “The Creepy Crawlers,” cast with older siblings behind quarterback Roger Mulvhill, the newly welcomed husband of the eldest Brennan child, Mary. Somehow, Rob had the foresight that this game would form something special for the family for years to come and christened it “The Brennan Thanksgiving Bowl.” Between Marge’s insistence on getting the family together and the attraction of squaring up against your siblings, it was an easy sell…
Three years later, ninth child and future news reporter Dick Brennan released a breaking story in the family newspaper, The Blow-Up News: a permanent location for the Thanksgiving Bowl had been established. In the summer of 1972, Roger and Mary Mulvihill purchased an acre and a half of property in Sag Harbor, New York overlooking the Shelter Island Sound. They had unknowingly secured a family football sanctuary.
The Mulvihill home is not the typical locale for an intrafamily sports outing. The house is the last on a long block just before the Shelter Island ferry. North Haven, as it’s called, is a colonial village inside of Sag Harbor. Its backdrop provided the quaint retreat for 20th century writers John Steinbeck, James Fennimore Cooper, and playwright Lanford Wilson. The house is now worth exponentially more than what it was purchased for in 1972 dollars, with three acres of water-front property, a Har-Tru tennis court, private beach and a dock. If you were to ask twenty family members the dimensions of the backyard football field, you may get twenty different answers. The field sits on a cliff, sloping right to left downhill from the porch of the house down to the tennis court at the bottom of a hill. The north-facing endzone provides a panoramic view of the Peconic bay. Unlike most normal football fields, two trees obstruct the field of play and have become just as much part of the lore of the game as the players themselves. A white oak sits on the right sideline of the halfway line – known to stonewall dump-off passes for first downs or used as a pick to open up a route for a deep bomb. The other tree is a thick-trunked sycamore tucked in the front right corner of the south endzone. Throwing towards this side of the endzone is seen as a high-risk/high-reward play, thwarting quarterbacks daring enough to attempt the required frozen rope throw beneath the low-hanging branches. The grass is thick and dead in most spots. There are holes, clumps, mounds and divots in places you don’t expect. There are uphills, downhills, sidehills and anthills. Each year it seems, the field changes its shape and form from the year prior, at least in memory; like revisiting your childhood home, it seems to shrink with each year’s visit.
Through the late 90’s Mary, Bill, Tom, Rob, Sue, Terry, Grace, Joe, Dick and Dan bred and trained child-athletes of their own; heir to the Brennan football dynasty. In total, they produced twenty-three grandchildren: fourteen boys and nine girls. By 2005, the family had grown so big that the game had to be expanded from two teams to four.
The competitive drive starts young in the Brennan family. Each cluster of the family has their own pack – much defined by birth order. Every cousin, brother, or sister rightly have their own foe in sporting battles; basement ping-pong matches or impromptu basketball games in the driveway on Christmas Eve. Balls were thrown at the backs of heads, wiffle ball bats were tossed into neighboring backyards out of anger or frustration, and footballs were punted over the hills and faraway for rule changes that were never discussed.
How the football game comes together each year is a story in itself. There is a committee, believe it or not. Rob Brennan, founder, CEO and Commissioner of the Brennan Thanksgiving Bowl, and John Ferlazzo Sr., COO and Co-commissioner sit atop the Thanksgiving board of trustees. Three weeks prior to kick-off, a family-wide email is sent out by Rob, notifying the family of the incoming weather patterns. A meteorology hobbyist, Rob moonlights in identifying weather patterns of the Shelter Island Sound. Rob also provides the captains with a list of eligible players – former MVPs, retirees, newcomer in-laws, overseas relatives, or a college roommate not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.
A week out, a draft takes place, much like fantasy football. Co-commissioners Rob Brennan and John Ferlazzo lead a conference call with the four captains to conduct a snake draft. It’s said that this levels the playing field and keeps parity between family squads, but more often than not one team is inevitably stacked against the others. The talent pool is vast, and two of the top five players can wind up on the same team to change the entire dynamic of the games. Today, the four captains are automatic quarterbacks – Chris Mulvihill, Dan D’Agnes, Tom Brennan and John Ferlazzo Jr.
As a Brennan, you’re immediately judged by the athletic value you may bring to the table: What is your injury history? How is he against the run? She’s a great long-distance runner, but how’s her lateral speed? And the most important question when a young Brennan man gets engaged to a fine young lady… How are her hands?
The rules are virtually the same each year, but nonetheless they are argued and debated over endlessly. Is it one foot inbounds for a catch or two feet? Do we have to actually punt the ball to the other team, or can they just start at the opposite twenty-yard line? And last but certainly not least, who can count to five-Mississippi at a pin-point tempo that will satisfy all parties involved? That’s rhetorical, by the way. The search is still on…
A videographer and photographer scan the action from the sidelines, but only recently has video review come into play. Unlike the NFL, touchdowns are not reviewed. However, in recent years, courageous fans have volunteered their personal iPhone videos to decide a contentious play. Players and fans chastise refs for their botched calls, biases, or clear negligence. We all agree, however, that they don’t get enough credit. They have the toughest jobs out there and no one praises them for keeping the game sane. Any time someone disputes a call from the sideline, a ref’s famous words are “You wanna come out here and ref?” That usually shuts them up.
Through fifty years of Thanksgiving football there have been concussions, broken hands, dislocated shoulders, fractured ankles and more mental damage than we can count. The game is two-hand touch, but the competitiveness enraptures family into foes. The sole focus becomes crossing that ball over the endzone lines; other family members are just in the way; regardless of how far back your friendship goes, or who’s aunt or father-in-law you are in danger of handicapping. I’ve been beat up myself. At only twenty-eight years old I’ve had two knee surgeries and in the 2009 Thanksgiving Bowl I fractured an ankle sliding for an underthrown pass from my own brother, which he still argues was a perfect throw…
After the games (there are usually at least three), all sides shake hands, rib each other over contested plays, and slug mini-water bottles. Dirty cleats are taken off as toes are uncurled from hours of route running. Smelly receiver gloves begin to crust over the next 364 days. Shorts and t-shirts are covered by layers of sweatpants and thick jackets to protect from the bay’s winds. Mothers and fathers give sons and daughters a pat on the back for a job well done. The winning team has their photo taken by the resident photographer – pictures of which are rarely ever seen. Finally, everyone gathers on the porch steps for a family photo.
I wasn’t aware of how a “typical” Thanksgiving operated until my mid-twenties. Naively, I assumed most families had some sort of tradition like the dreaded Turkey trot or whatever else people do, followed by a turkey dinner around six or seven o’clock. Little did I know that most “normal” families eat their Thanksgiving meal at two or three in the afternoon, drink beer and watch football all day. That sounds amazing. Compare that to waking up hungover on a cold November morning and driving an hour and a half out to a slanted grass makeshift football field to slap on cleats you only wear once a year to run sprints, get yelled at, and play defense against former D1 athletes. Long story short, we get crazier looks than the Turkey trot people…
That’s before mentioning the speeches and the awards ceremony. We’ll get to that in just a moment.
The football begins at noon and typically doesn’t end until four o’clock or later. Once a champion is crowned, most families disperse to nearby North Haven rental homes or hotels to shower and freshen up for dinner. We arrive back to Mulvihill’s at six o’clock and immediately grab the closest alcoholic beverage available. Wine, whiskey, beer – whatever will help the aches and pains we’ll be experiencing over the next two weeks. Near the garage door entrance lies a mini-convention of recovery tools: aspirin, ice packs, foam rollers, massage guns, chiropractic torture devices, and maybe a cane or two.* It’s not at all out of place to see teenagers vying for the recliner like senior citizens. Thanksgiving football sore is the worst kind of sore.
*the year I fractured my ankle, I had to use crutches from the garage meant for an eight-year old boy. I was seventeen.
The meal itself is the second act. In-laws and aunts bring trays of their best dishes – corn pudding, smoked ham, stuffed mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and other dishes with preceding adjectives like “stuffed,” “smoked,” or “air-dried.” The turkey is carved by the ex-pats now living in London – Terrie Brennan and John Ferlazzo. It’s hard to describe how we fit fifty-to-sixty people in a house for a Thanksgiving meal, but year after year it gets done. There is a horseshoe table arrangement with a smaller horseshoe-shaped table inside of it, and somehow that amounts to fifty table settings, more or less. The packs of brothers, sisters, and cousins divide into their subgroups: Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials, and the ever-growing Gen Z’ers. The dinner is a cacophony of forks, knives, politics, and guttural baby noises. Once everyone is settled in, Mary Mulvihill and her daughters Kerry and Suzy make this year’s announcements. Taking the torch from Marge and Bill, they thank everyone for coming together for yet another year of our great tradition. Congratulations are passed for capstone events amonst the family: engagements, marriages, graduations, new babies, or acceptance into a prestigious program. Cousins jab and jeer their fellow seatmates and uncles yell “Here! Here!” for a job well done.
Commissioner Rob Brennan then adjourns to announce the game’s stats and the MVP. After votes are cast by players, the treasured trophy is handed to the best player with a handshake and a picture. Their name will be etched on onto the Thanksgiving Bowl plaques adorning the living room walls. The MVP is then forced to make a speech to thank his or her teammates and chastise their opponents. Seasoned veterans of the speeches know to bring more than one drink to the dinner table and strap in… It may be a while.
Rob Brennan passed away this year at just 68-years old. To the day of his death, he ran at least three miles every single day. The hunger for sport and sweat never died, nor did his zest for life and family competition. Due to the pandemic, we were not able to gather as a family to mourn, or more likely to celebrate, his contributions to our lives. Rob was the embodiment of the Brennan competitive spirit, and he likely contributed to the all-too-common cheering, crying, and arguing that occurs in every Brennan sports event. A left-handed delivery a-la Steve Young, Rob was the quarterback for over thirty years. He instructed everyone on the rules, etiquette, and trick plays of two-hand touch football, from his little brothers and sisters, to his own two sons Michael and Matthew. Rob was a leader; a born teacher and instructor of sport. He could have been running the show for a big organization like the NFL or MLB, but instead he poured his efforts every year into one game for his own family – showing up early to paint the lines of the field, making t-shirt jerseys, hats, trophies, plaques and all forms of memorabilia without ever asking for a dime or recognition.
Rob and Marge Brennan’s vision for the importance of family has carried on for five decades and will continue for many more. Weeks prior to his passing in April, Rob became a grandfather to a baby girl, Chloe. There’s no doubt Chloe will be spoiled over in all our family traditions and maybe one day hoist the inaugural Rob Brennan Thanksgiving Bowl MVP trophy. She will get to hear stories about her grandfather. How every Thanksgiving morning, there he was, painting lines on the field with a big smile before anyone arrived. His blue Toyota Prius, driven right up onto the middle of the field, with boxes of t-shirts for each player to grab as they arrived. Aunts, uncles, and cousins waved hello to Rob as we made our way into the house for morning greetings and a bagel spread.
Yes, the outfits have changed. When once a player wore jeans, Keds, and a college sweater to play, players now don cleats, sleeves, body armour and tactile gloves. But one thing has always remained the same. The field. And that field just won’t be the same without Rob Brennan painting the lines, instructing and coaching, and blowing the final whistle to call the game. Thanksgiving will be tough this year without Rob, and without his football game. But somehow when we hit the field again, he’ll be there sending in plays from the other side.
Thanksgiving is a shrouded holiday in our family, and in-laws must know that this is our holiday – you can have Christmas… THIS is the Brennan Thanksgiving tradition.
I’m surely thankful. And YOU should all be very thankful. I know sometimes you feel that ‘Well, Margaret and I did a lot towards this.’ But the older you get you realize this is some sort of divine grace we’ve been blessed with. So I want to say just tonight, let’s all be grateful. Grateful to God, and grateful for this meal.
– William T. Brennan