HINCKLEY, Ohio — It was easy to figure out whose name would be on the back of players’ jerseys at the Meadows Turkey Bowl this year.
All players – more than 40 across six teams – competed with “Gianna Rae” on their backs. Gianna Rae was Pete and Anita Meadows’ baby who died late in pregnancy this year. And based on strong grassroots fundraising, a beautiful day and the memory and legacy of Gianna Rae, the Meadows Turkey Bowl raised a record $533,000 for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Mary Grace Memorial Foundation and simultaneously aimed at cancer research. The money is earmarked for specific work being conducted by the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of California-San Francisco.
This year’s amount brings the total to $3,715,800. The game has only been a fundraiser since 2005. It’s the second year in a row that the game has surpassed half a million dollars.
“It’s been a pretty unique year,” said Pete Meadows, whose father helped Mike start the pickup soccer game in his backyard in Medina in 1990. “When you see my daughter’s name, the big thing is emotional, but I want my daughter’s name to live on. When you have a stillbirth, it is often talked about, but there is no legacy. We have built a legacy in my daughter’s name. It really is something special.”
Pete Meadows has overcome his personal challenges; He survived after being diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain tumor, in 2020. His daughter’s legacy lives on beyond the game: The Gianna Rae Fund for Oligodendroglioma raises money to fight back.
“You look at all the jerseys; it’s my daughter’s name,” said Pete, who is always more concerned with pride for his daughter than pity for his own diagnosis more than two years ago.
It took a spate of last-minute donations for the game to surpass the 2021 fundraising record.
“We were probably down about $100,000 over the last three days,” Mike Meadows said. “I said to my guys (Matt, Michael and Pete), ‘I don’t think we’re going to make it.’ Then, 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 have a check for $14,000.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe we have a chance in the fight.’ “
Mike Meadows added, “It’s surreal to imagine where we came from – $800 (raised in 2005) to $533,000 now.”
It’s hard to fathom the game’s evolution, which began more than 30 years ago and quickly grew into a holiday ritual that requires almost year-round planning.
The family wrote out the details for fans, including placing a basket of hand warmers near a sign touting the Turkey Bowl and its mission: “Always give back.” About 80 banners line 1st Day’s long brick wall School Supplies, Meadows’ company where the game is now played. More than a dozen members of the Highland High School band performed in front of more than 100 fans who were lined up along the water bottle-strewn sideline. Bonfires burned, dogs sniffed, and Danimal Clown entertained children by spinning balloons. Northeast Ohio radio veteran Kenny Roda called the games via megaphone, offering play-by-play and occasional banter while players jumbled up in four-second rushes.
Nothing stopped the game – not Covid, not the weather. Thursday, Mother Nature was kind, with temperatures above freezing at the start and up to 50 degrees when the championship game was played in the late morning.
“It’s a perfect day,” said Mike Meadows. “The challenge was to keep going. We went from a backyard football game to this one.”
Teams competed in a round-robin style of play in the 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 on the backs of the jerseys in addition to the tribute name.
That fits, because the game is a team and individual sport at the same time. Throughout the year, as teams compete on the field on Thanksgiving morning, individuals pull away to collect donations from family members, friends, customers and employees. Most players – who need to raise at least $2,000 in donations – are between the ages of 28 and 32, Mike Meadows said. Only a quartet of veterans remains: Mike Meadows and his brother Bill – two of the original 1990 four – Brian Coughlin and Al Melchiorre.
Mr Hustle: Michael Kostandaras.
Hardest Man: Brian Coughlin is playing in his final Turkey Bowl.
MVP’s: Sean O’Neil and Darren Cereshko.
For the record, Team Melchiorre – the Chargers – defeated the Vikings in the 33rd Annual Meadows Turkey Bowl, where Pete Meadows led his team as quarterback on a day honoring his daughter Gianna Rae.
“I know she’s here with us today,” he said.
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Total raised: $3,715,800.
1990-2004: No fundraiser.
Match Coverage: Here’s our Thanksgiving Day coverage of the game through the years – stories, photos and some videos: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.
Donate: There is a donation page on the Meadows Turkey Bowl website.
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I am online cleveland.com‘s life and culture team and cover topics related to food, beer, wine and sport. If you want to see my stories Here is a directory on cleveland.com. WTAM-1100’s Bill Wills and I usually talk about food and drink on Thursday mornings at 8:20 am. Twitter: @mbona30.
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