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Remember the Snowmen: My frosty football festive tradition

MIKE FREIHEIT/The Globe and Mail

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'I don't want to hear about any injuries," my wife tells me as I get ready for the 30th annual Snowbowl football game. After 18 years of marriage I know when to keep my mouth shut, so I remain quiet.

If I come back from the game injured, there will be no sympathy. In fact, if I have an injury the dog will be the only one that cares because she may get shortchanged on her next few walks. The only people who might hear about it will be some colleagues at work or my teammates.

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My dear wife has reason to be concerned. You see, my buddies from high school are about to play tackle football on the frozen tundra of Williams Parkway Public school in Brampton, Ont. We are now 45 years old, plus or minus.

The game has been played on the Saturday before Christmas at 1 p.m. since 1983. We may not be at 100-plus years like the Grey Cup, but we're proud of this great tradition nonetheless. Nowadays we have a Facebook site and trash-talking e-mails leading up to game day, but prior to the Internet, everyone simply showed up. No formal invite, no phone calls, no e-vite or BBM group message.

We don't socialize with the other team. We don't keep in touch with them. Other than the pregame warmup "chirping," the only time we really communicate is during the postgame tailgate party where we wish everyone "Happy Holidays" and promise to "See you next year, same time."

I can't think of a better holiday tradition, especially for a sports nut like me. My wife just thinks I'm a nut. She reminds me that I have a corporate job and other responsibilities, and says this tackle football stuff is for teenagers.

"But Cathy, we need to keep our winning streak alive!" I proclaim.

Our team is a ragtag collection of former high-school buddies, brothers, stepbrothers, cousins, brothers-in-law and stepbrothers-in-law: Essentially anyone I can convince that playing tackle football on the ice and in the snow is going to be epic fun.

As it turns out, these days I have to beg guys to come out for some pigskin playfulness. I can't figure out why. Doesn't the thrill of catching a pass in the end zone far outweigh the small risk of a black eye or sprained finger?

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Back in the early years we played 12 guys a side and had several subs. Recently, we've been hard-pressed to field 10 a side. Maybe my wife is onto something.

The other team is led by two guys named Art and Wes. Most of the players on both sides of the ball are from North Park Secondary School, where we all went in the 1980s. My friends and I challenged Art and Wes and their group of buddies way back in Grade 9. The rest of their team consists of other old high-school friends and some "imports." One year there was even a guy who tried out for the Argos. Three years ago we had our first second-generation player join the fray. Dave Sopers's son played and added some much-needed youth to the game. Thankfully he was only moderately faster than his not-so-fleet-footed dad.

A few years back I approached Art and suggested we consider playing touch or flag football at some point. Without hesitation, I was asked when I had turned soft, and it was suggested I should go home and change into an outfit more suitable for a Suzy Shier model. Wonder if these guys know about my wife's feeling on the game?

It's called the Snowbowl because the first game we ever played involved lots of snow. However, we all know how unpredictable the weather can be. The forecast in Brampton this weekend calls for rain on Friday and then -5 C on Saturday. Perfect for a hockey game maybe? Perhaps I should pack some elbow pads this year – can you buy those at Suzy Shier? In past years, we've had blizzards, rain, slush, beautiful sunshine, plus-10 degrees, minus-20 degrees, bone-chilling wind and cracked ice. We've also had broken bones, cracked ribs, sprained knees and concussions. All in pursuit of the Snowbowl Cup!

The Cup is an upside-down oversized plastic beer mug with an old leather football fastened on top and painted white. Over the years, we've added pieces of Art's ripped jerseys and K-Way jackets for good measure. Recently, our handy defensive lineman Greg took the initiative to make the trophy more worthy of a 30-year tradition. He added a wooden base, a copper plate with a photo of all the players and a drawer for photos from previous years. Tradition has it that the winning team takes it home for the year and brings it back 365 days later.

Our team won last year, so the Cup is proudly on display on my mantle at home. For some reason, it didn't last very long in our living room after I brought it home, but Cathy did let me bring it back upstairs for this week.

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The Snowbowl has evolved into a wonderful reunion. Folks come from all over the Greater Toronto Area and even as far away as Calgary. With the advent of Facebook, we've had many old school friends and even teachers come out to cheer us on and say hello.

So, here we go again. On our way to the 30th game – and then next year, God willing, the 31st annual! Here's hoping for some good fun, a winning outcome and no major injuries.

Steve Merker lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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