HINCKLEY, Ohio – It was an easy call to see whose name would grace the back of the players’ jerseys at the Meadows Turkey Bowl this year.
Every player – more than 40 on six teams – competed with “Gianna Rae” on their backs. Gianna Rae was Pete and Anita Meadows’ baby who died this year late in pregnancy. And based on the strength of grassroots fundraising, a beautiful day and the memory and legacy of Gianna Rae, the Meadows Turkey Bowl raised a record $533,000 for St. Vincent de Paul Society and Mary Grace Memorial Foundation while targeting cancer research. Money is earmarked for specific work done through the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California-San Francisco.
This year’s amount takes the cumulative total to $3,715,800. The game has been a fundraiser only since 2005. It is the second consecutive year the game has topped half a million dollars.
“It’s a pretty unique year,” said Pete Meadows, whose father Mike helped found the pickup football game in 1990 in his Medina back yard. “When you see my daughter’s name, the big thing is it’s emotional, but I want my daughter’s name to live on. A lot of times, when you have a stillborn, it’s talked about, but there is no legacy. We built a legacy with my daughter’s name. It’s really special.”
Pete Meadows has been through his personal challenges; he has survived after being diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain cancer, in 2020. His daughter’s legacy lives beyond the game: The Gianna Rae Fund for Oligodendroglioma raises money to fight back.
“You look at everyone’s jersey; it’s my daughter’s name,” said Pete, who always is more about pride for his daughter than pity for his own diagnosis more than two years ago.
It took a flurry of last-minute donations for the game to top the donation record set in 2021.
“We were probably about $100,000 off going into the last three days,” Mike Meadows said. “I told my boys (Matt, Michael and Pete), ‘I don’t think we’re going to hit it.’ Then all of sudden, out of the blue, an anonymous donor gave $15,000. Then another Turkey Bowler – Al Melchiorre – gave $25,000. Then last night another anonymous donor called and said, ‘I’ve got a check for $14,000.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe we have a fighting chance.’ “
Mike Meadows added: “It’s surreal to think where we’ve come from – $800 (raised in 2005) to now $533,000.”
It’s hard to comprehend the evolution of the game, which started more than 30 years ago and quickly grew into a holiday ritual that demands almost year-round planning.
The family has the details down for fans, including setting up a basket of hand warmers near a sign touting the Turkey Bowl and it mission: “Always give back.” About 80 banners line the long brick wall of 1st Day School Supplies, Meadows’ company, where the game is played now. More than a dozen Highland High School band members performed for the 100-plus fans lined along the water-bottle strewn sidelines. Bonfires burned, dogs sniffed, and Danimal Clown entertained kids by twisting balloons. Northeast Ohio radio veteran Kenny Roda called the games by bullhorn, offering play-by-play and occasional quips as players scrambled on four-second rushes.
Nothing has stopped the game – not Covid, not weather. Thursday, Mother Nature was kind, with temperatures above freezing at the start and pushing 50 degrees by the time the championship game was played in the late morning.
“It’s a picture-perfect day,” Mike Meadows said. “The challenge was keeping it going. We went from a backyard football game to this.”
Teams competed in round-robin style of play wearing NFL team colors – light blue (Chargers), dark blue (Cowboys), purple (Vikings), green (Packers), red (Chiefs) and tan (49ers). For the first time, individual numbers were used in addition to the tribute name on the backs of jerseys.
That’s fitting, since the game is both a team and individual sport. While teams compete on the field on Thanksgiving morning, individuals hustle off of it throughout the year to garner donations from family, friends, clients and associates. Most of the players – who must pony up at least $2,000 in donations – are around ages 28 to 32, Mike Meadows said. Only a quartet of veterans remain: Mike Meadows and his brother Bill – two of the original four from 1990 – Brian Coughlin and Al Melchiorre.
Mr. Hustle: Michael Kostandaras.
Toughest man: Brian Coughlin, playing in his final Turkey Bowl.
MVPs: Sean O’Neil and Darren Cereshko.
For the record, Team Melchiorre – the Chargers – defeated the Vikings in the 33rd annual Meadows Turkey Bowl that saw Pete Meadows leading his team at quarterback on a day that honors his daughter, Gianna Rae.
“I know she is here with us today,” he said.
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Total raised: $3,715,800.
1990-2004: Not a fundraiser.
Game coverage: Here is our Thanksgiving-Day coverage of the game over the years – stories, photos and some videos: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.
To donate: The Meadows Turkey Bowl’s website has a donation page.
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I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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