When I was 2-years-old the Hilliard family, in accordance with my life plan as dictated by me as soon as I was potty trained, moved west from Bellevue, Washington, to a small timber town twenty minutes from the coast. While in Bellevue we lived in a neighborhood that is a chip shot from Microsoft campuses today. Maybe we should have stayed there but we migrated west to a small town called Aberdeen, Washington. Aberdeen, Washington, is at sea level.
This meant, to you inlanders, that when it rained 40 days and 40 nights (which isn’t at all that Biblical in Aberdeen), there’s gonna be a flood. Flood the color of mud. And we had street fountains. During high tide the holes in the manhole cover plates had jets of water shooting up about a foot through the holes. You just don’t get that everywhere. The lower city was built on pilings, apparently before floods were invented.
The weather never affected football. At age four I was a manly man like the cowboys on TV. Not the Dallas Cowboys, the Hollywood cowboys. Now back to the game, not quite in progress yet.
Sometimes I got to play with the big boys. The Big Guys were 6 to 8-years-old! Sometimes they would let me play in their game “Attack Khrushchev” (the Post Hitler Cold War version of good guys and bad guys) with them. My buddy and one of the big guys was Dan. Dan’s dad was head coach for the Aberdeen High School Football Team. I always liked both of them. I had no idea what adventures were in store with the dad, the head coach of Aberdeen High School football team when it came my time to play at that level.
The “Attack Khrushchev” Cold War Game (the home version) involved the good guys (us) and bad guys (this Khrushchev dude, whoever he was). You had to be able to ride a bike to play…or run really fast for a long, long time to keep up with the big boys on their Pee Wee Herman bikes. I didn’t own a bike yet, so I ran with the guys as fast as I could.
One day the big guys decided to play a game called football. I had heard of it. It required an odd shaped ball you couldn’t bounce because it didn’t come back the same direction. My parents had given me a toy slide projector shaped like Mickey Mouse’s silhouette. The show? Touchdown for Mickey. I was so excited about it. Mickey, as you may have guessed, scores a last second touchdown!
But back to the gridiron, it's time to choose the teams. The Big Guys lined up side by side and two of the biggest guys stepped forward as captains. There was some argument with a third big guy about what was fair about who got to be a captain. That’s probably still in negotiations.
The two captains chose their players. As usual in life, the biggest guys were selected first, the best friends chosen second. And me? Last. This underdog thing turned out to be a blessing later in life. It turns out I was usually the last kid picked for a team later in sports...unless there was a stopwatch or a tape measure to determine the winner. I would have to learn to overcome my size deficiency and the inherent politics in sports, and in life.
This meant never being late for practice, never dogging a drill, and always trying my best to be out in front of other players in order to get any attention from a coach. This is life. I was lucky to have this demonstrated early on.
The players were dressed in worn out jeans, Red Ball Jets, white T-Shirts and Dad’s flannel work shirt. This later became the grunge look. It was a classic late fifties group of boys. The original Goonies. We had nicknames and never knew each other's real names sometimes. There was a pale skinny guy we called Wormy. We had Booger Munch (self explanatory), Smells Like Rotten Oranges, future NBA star String Bean Levine and the one guy that always seems to show up in different forms but the same attitude, Obnoxious Asshole That Wants Someone to Punch His Lights Out. Then there’s Kid From Another Neighborhood No One Anywhere Knows About. This guy has come and gone throughout my life. He’s the one that licks the salt off the crackers and puts them back in the box. I still don’t know anything about him but I suspect he’ll be running for office soon.
During the Mud Bowl, I remember the ball being fumbled, kicked, ran, thrown, dropped. I remember getting muddier and wetter as the Aberdeen rain came down in sheets. This was fun. You couldn’t run, cut or even tackle without falling on your ass. We were all laughing and diving in the mud. I’m sure the laundry robomaids remember the laundry as a muddy omen of things to come for those of us that went on to play on school teams.
It started getting dark but there was time for one more kickoff. That was a good thing. If the guys didn’t decide to bunch it and go home to a warm shelter I would have stayed out there and died of hypothermia because I was a dumb little boy.
We huddled up (that was so cool, a group hug, make a secret plan!) and the big play was up for deliberation. I didn’t care. I was cold, muddy, bruised and confused.
So here was THE BIG PLAY: Get the ball to Hilliard. Sounded completely rational at the time. I was ready to step up and play with the big guys. The play was to somehow get me the ball.
There’s the kickoff! Wormy gets it, fakes to Booger Munch and tosses to Smells Like Rotten Oranges. He smartly hands off to future basketball great String Bean Levine who tosses to Obnoxious Hood That Wants Someone to Punch His Lights Out. He in turn tosses to Kid From Another Neighborhood No One Anywhere Knows About and he hands me the ball.
I drop it in the mud. Pick it up, tuck it like a loaf of bread and head on down the field against a wall of mud people. I cut in and out, I’m awesome, I’m breaking loose, I score and all the big guys clap and we go home to our mothers who perform a Tide laundry detergent science project.
It took years until I realized they had let me score that touchdown because I was the little guy trying to tackle, block, take the hits and keep up with the “big guys” that day in the Aberdeen rain.
The Turkey Day Games:
Remember the Head Football Coach whose son was part of the backlot game I played with the neighborhood guys? Coach Eklund and his son Dan? Stay tuned.
So what’s the big deal about the Aberdeen-Hoquiam Thanksgiving Football Classic?
The Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk took flight for the first time in 1903. This crosstown rivalry began in 1906 and was the oldest high school event of its kind in Washington State. It would attract up to 11,000 fans which meant most of the county was there except for the martyrs that had to stay home and listen to it on the radio while staying warm with delicious cooking aromas.
While I was growing up in Aberdeen, I used to look forward to Thanksgiving partially because of that game. It was a special time for family and friends, all unified around the intense, yet friendly, rivalry of the T-Day game.
To this day, nothing compares with those old Turkey Day games and the events surrounding them.
First off as a youngster growing up, you couldn't help but get swept up in the game because everyone around you was pumped for it. I wanted to play in that game. I wanted to even the score with the evil Grizzlies from across the street.
Of course there was always a touch of vandalism with the rivalry, doing things that kids do such as burning an "A" in Hoquiam's field or just flat out jacking around with the kids from across the dividing line, Myrtle Street.
Hoquiam would, of course, retaliate, with its own Turkey Day terrorism.
All the festivities leading to the game were an adventure for a 16-year-old guy. Dinner at the Elks club, parade with the team on a flatbed trailer, burning Johnny Hoquiam, pep rallies, news stories, mums for the Moms, just an incredible buzz on the harbor. Prior to the games, parents would meet for the traditional "Tom and Jerry" parties at local Elks clubs.
It's been said a million times but it's true: it didn't matter how the season went; it would still be considered a success of sorts if you won the T-Day game.
When I was finally old enough to play in the games, it was worth the wait.
This story is about the last Aberdeen-Hoquiam Turkey Day Classic. The final longest high school crosstown war ended with the vote to schedule the season to allow both teams to be available for playoffs that part of the season. The game and week leading up to it was an absolutely magical time that I am still, to this day, sorry to lose.
Was it worth sacrificing the best community event of the year in Grays Harbor County for the state playoffs? Are those scattered successes worth the demise of the reliable, lifelong memories created annually during the Thanksgiving Day experience?
Now, more than 48 years later, I think not. But the teams were eligible for post season.
As you move on in life, you realize the precious times are most often the ones spent with friends and family, and when you can do it with the backdrop of a great football rivalry, the trade for the playoffs seems like a step down.
Anyway, it's been more than 48 years since the last T-Day game and it's not likely to change, although I believe it could be brought back with a whole lot of enthusiasm.
Sophomore year was a year of junior varsity and playing defense against our varsity squad, a very good one. Most people don’t see the sweat and injury you endure just to get to Friday night game time. I was playing both junior varsity and varsity. There are 2 weeks of double workouts in September, temperature even in Aberdeen is about 89 degrees. I would spend all summer lifting weights, working and eating like an oinker. Start of the season, 150 pounds. End of doubles, 145. I made that up. I weighed less.
The program always listed me at 155 but to this day I’ve never weighed that much.
I never noticed any differences regarding small, tall, welterweight, Large Marge, jumbo jet, skinny, chublobski, it just don’t matter. Its about “W”s. We’re trying to win. No style points for genetics.
I worked out in Summers and gave the game 100%. I never believed in 110% because you could explode; only 100%. I had some great successes that year but the best was due to my geometry teacher, Head Football Coach Al Eklund, the same high school head coach since I was 4-years-old playing with the big guys in the tidal flats. He had a very wry and witty sense of humor and always intrigued me. He didn’t really coach, he just raised a question that led to us players solving it. You had to answer it yourself.
After my sophomore year junior varsity season was over Coach Eklund asked me to stay on the roster to work out and scrimmage with varsity. Normally the underclassmen were done two weeks prior to the Thanksgiving game. My work ethic was paying off. He liked my hustle, not my scrawny sophomore frame.
This was an all-star line-up of top notch high school football players. They won the division that year. I was walking with cool, cool swagger my friend as 1 of 6 sophomores in post junior varsity season with the backfield likes of Aberdeen legends Mike Beck, Rich McCartney, Mark McCauly. And yes my old buddy, the head coach’s son Dan Eklund, started at quarterback for the last part of the season.
About a week from the Thanksgiving Day Aberdeen/Hoquiam Football Classic, Coach Eklund asked me to stay after his geometry class. I did. I approached his desk expecting a thanks for working out with the team after my season was over. I was mistaken.
Coach thanked me and went even further. He said he would have suited me up for the Thanksgiving game but there weren’t enough jerseys to go around. I was cool with that. I was proud just to stay on with the practice squad. The next day changed everything.
Again, Coach Eklund asked me to stay after class (I wonder if the other students thought I was getting hassled by him). This time I walked to his desk and he said, “We didn’t have enough jerseys but I dug around and found this one.”
He reached under his desk and pulled out an old jersey almost made from dinosaur skin with the number 3 sewn on it. The rest of the team had the new break-away light weight material. But my jersey, heavy material, with the number 3 sewn on. I couldn’t believe it. Maybe I was going to play in a dream come true T-Day game and as an underclassman. So what if I was the last guy chosen for the team. Story of my life. Let’s play football!
All the festivities leading to the game were an adventure for a 16-year-old guy. Dinner at the Elks club, parade with the team on hay trailer, burning Johnny Hoquiam, pep rallies, news stories, mums for the Moms, just an incredible buzz on the harbor.
The morning of the game we suited up in Aberdeen and took a bus to Olympic Stadium in Hoquiam. It was rainy as usual and we started our warm-ups. There were over 10,000 fans in the stands estimated. That was pretty much everyone in the Grays Harbor area. The 10,000 that got to watch the Hoquiam Grizzlies give us the finger as they took the field. Those were the Grizzlies that would talk some trash and try scratch your eyes out in pile after you were tackled. They didn’t show much class.
We won that year.
The game was sold out and exciting beyond anything I had done. Coach Eklund’s son and my buddy from the vacant lot game when I was four, Dan, was not the original starting QB that season, threw a touchdown pass. We won and won bragging rights for another year. I played for about 5 seconds and earned my letter in football as a sophomore. Almost unheard of for a guy my size. Thank you Coach Eklund wherever you are.
Next year we lost. Team with an attitude. We actually had our players in fights on the game bus. I got some play time and it was fun, but we just got beat that day.
Senior year Thanksgiving Football: Preparation H
Again, I worked out all Summer. Dad paid for me to go to a football camp in Oregon. It was a season of defense and special teams for me. I was the carrier pigeon for plays on offense but didn’t get many touches.
Side bar: Our starting quarterback Rob Hallam told me that we both lived in Bellevue as babies and my grandmother babysat us together. Odds?
My season of defense as a cornerback was a good one. We were never scored against on our home field and the only losses, two, were close. We did have a tie game. The tie was in the game the only pass was completed on me. It was thrown by a quarterback that went on to start for the Minnesota Vikings.
The day of my senior year Thanksgiving Classic we had the Elks Club breakfast, and Coach Eklund referred to the practices to compete against Hoquiam as “preparation H.” We went home and thought about the game. My last football game ever.
Again, rainy and muddy, just like the first time I played backyard football with the big guys. Today I was nursing a sprained ankle but was ready to play in what was to be my last game ever. I loved football and really there is nothing like it when you can play. It's mayhem with pads. The faster you can run, the bigger the collision. I wouldn’t have missed that game for anything.
From the opening kickoff we were virtually flawless. The air was crisp and the crowd was loud. They even set up extra uncovered bleachers.
During the games, I always stood next to the coaches because of my role of bringing in plays on offense. I’m not sure to this day that more than two or three people on any given offensive lineup really knew all of the assignments from offense.
I don’t remember the score at halftime. It was a lot to zero..
The rest of the afternoon was surreal. Late in the fourth quarter we were ahead 42-0 and had the ball. We were running the ball to burn up the clock. Coach Eklund was concerned about running up the score--considered unsportsmanlike. In a couple plays we got down to the 4 yard line and the marching band started chanting my name, “Hilliard, Hilliard, Hilliard.”
Finally, after all the years of defying injury and being a dwarf, telling all the naysayers I was going to even play football, there I was finishing my final game with six points. Or so I thought.
The play was relayed from the sideline. It was a dive for the left halfback, not me. I was okay with that. We just needed to score, wrap up the game and go home.
But when the quarterback called the play he switched me from right to left halfback. Strange? I was getting the ball because of the switch. We didn’t normally do this so I was intrigued.
The play was called. It was a simple straight ahead dive play, with Hilliard moving from right to left halfback. The crowd was screaming but took on an eerie silence as I concentrated on what was to happen. The guy playing opposite me on defense was about 130 pounds bigger than me. He, I was later told, was an all-state lineman that year.
Then we lined up, the quarterback called off the snap, I ran toward the line and took the handoff. When I ran into the line I was hit by a tackler. I spun, back peddled and dove.
We didn’t really need it that made it 49-0, the final score for 1973.
As the crowd cheered I ran off the field. I got about half way to the sideline and the rest of the team was running out on the field. I felt someone grab me. I stopped and looked. It was starting quarterback Hallam. He smiled and said, “I had the coaches change the play before it was sent in. I had you switched to left halfback!” We laughed our butts off.
It was the last time I carried a football and the last football game I played.
It turned out to be the final touchdown of the longest high school football tradition in Washington state history. To all you Hoquiam alums from that year, who knows. If we played the next day they may have beaten us...but I doubt it.