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The A-Bowl--the Longest Running Football Game in Noe
By Bob Oaks
On Thanksgiving Day, a Noe Valley tradition will once more take place on the grounds of Alvarado School: Two rival teams will compete for a duck in the 59th annual A-Bowl touch football game. It's not a real duck, of course, no more than the Stanford Axe is a real axe, but the rivalry is equally intense.
The tradition began in 1947, when book pages working in the old Main Library across from City Hall sought an acceptable outlet for the teenage energy that threatened to get them fired (and sometimes did) from their jobs. Library supervisors tended to take a dim view of beer drinking in the stacks, firecrackers in the Main Reading Room, and pages suspending themselves from window-washers' belts.
Two of the leaders of this rowdy bunch, Lou Barberini and Jack Goodwin (whose father was city treasurer), organized their fellow pages into two football teams for a game on Thanksgiving Day 1947. They named their teams the Three-A's and the Red-A's, the "A" referring to a portion of the lower anatomy. (Barberini notes that back in the '40s, big-league sports players routinely used the phrase "Red A- -" to describe a really tough guy.) The boys chose the playground at Alvarado School for their match because it was a convenient central location for players who lived in different neighborhoods.
In the first game, Goodwin's three-man Red-A's beat Barberini's four-man Three-A's by a score of 35 to 25. (No, the Three-A's didn't have an advantage: Only three team members could play at any one time.) The other founding members of the Three-A's were Jerry King, Joe Speer, and Bud Mitchell. Bill Keating and Bob Gibson rounded out the Red-A's team.
Before long, the Thanksgiving Day ritual took hold, making the turkey a secondary event in the lives of our gridiron heroes. Each team developed a fight song, sharing the tune of Yale's "Whiffenpoof Song," though "three little asses" and "red little asses" replaced the original "little lost lambs." And one day, several of the players, while walking down the street, came across a car with a bedraggled stuffed duck tied to the grill as a hood ornament. Somehow that duck mysteriously appeared in the hands of a certain team captain, who offered it as the annual game winner's trophy.
The game did not eliminate the antics in the library, however. The pages turned to practicing their football plays in the Reading Room. One of the players, Rudy Lopez, was also on the City College football team. His coach was not pleased when Lopez broke his wrist in an A-Bowl game.
Despite a history of duck thievery, Barberini went on to become a San Francisco policeman (now retired); Goodwin a businessman. But they and their teammates never lost their youthful enthusiasm for the Thanksgiving game. They and their descendants, children and grandchildren, continue to play year after year, though the surviving original members these days play more of a ceremonial role. Most of the active players range in age from teenagers to "older guys" in their 40s.
In the early years, they played on Alvarado's upper schoolyard, but after a few years they moved the main game to the lower yard off Eureka Street, leaving the "upstairs" to friends and relatives, who often play a second game. "The game that counts," Barberini is quick to point out, "is in the lower yard."
The success of their first competition apparently inspired the Red-A's, who to date have won 34 times. The Three-A's have won 21 times, and there have been three ties. In 2004, the Three-A's won 356.
Not all aspects of the tradition receive universal support. There are no women on the teams. The library's only female page, Evelyn Benson Berger, played the supporting role of cheerleader in the early years. One woman did play for real once in the late 1980s, but she and her sisters did not become a permanent feature of the game.
Over the past four decades, most of the original families have moved out of the city, but they return each year for the big game. Many team members have ties to Noe Valley, including three sons of the late Dr. Michael McFadden and his wife Mary, who play for the Three-A's. The McFaddens (and several additional siblings) grew up at 24th and Castro, where their father also practiced medicine.
The teams now have five players each and they still use Alvarado School, though Barberini laments that the addition of classrooms and tetherball poles on the lower playground tends to make the field a bit more treacherous. A few years ago, a city worker showed up and asked the group if they had a permit to use the facility. He quickly backed off when informed that the game had been going on for more than half a century.
Another lasting part of the A-Bowl is the post-game party. The teams and their fans, 40 to 50 people, gather outside Sunshine Market, the corner store at 23rd and Douglass streets. Yousef Baqain, the current owner, unfamiliar with the tradition, actually closed the store on Thanksgiving Day the first year he owned it. The many protest notes he later found on the market's door made him realize that this was a foolish decision. Ever since, Baqain opens the store just for the gang, listens to stories about kids and grandkids, and closes up as they all go home to enjoy turkeys instead of duck.
Kickoff for this year's A-Bowl, on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, is "around 10:30 a.m., depending on how much socializing we do."