For football fans, a flexible holiday

Kelly Fleming doesn't mind building her family's Thanksgiving schedule around a football game. She's the mother of two Calvert Hall students and knows the annual Turkey Bowl matchup with Loyola gets top billing in her house.

With the addition of the Ravens' night game against the San Francisco 49ers to the holiday sports lineup this year, though, even the Flemings had to shift their schedule, canceling plans to travel out of state for a family dinner.

"We sacrificed family this year, which is sad, but it will be just as fun," said Fleming, of Ellicott City. Several other families who descended on Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium early Thursday morning said they were also making trade-offs for the rare treat of two high-profile holiday football games, which would require changes in everything from attire to menu to venue.

"We'll go home and get out of our red and gold, and get in purple and black," Fleming said, referring to her family, fully clad in Calvert Hall colors. "But my whole day now is football, turkey — and football."

This year, the Turkey Bowl — won by Calvert Hall — was relocated from its regular venue, M&T Bank Stadium, to make way for the Ravens, whose home game was Baltimore's first Thanksgiving NFL game in nearly 50 years.

"It was kind of a bummer, but for a good [reason]," said John Baker Jr., a native Baltimorean and Calvert Hall graduate who now lives in South Carolina and traveled to continue a nearly 50-year family tradition of attending the Turkey Bowl. His family members, with more than a dozen Calvert Hall graduates among them, were excited to make room for the Ravens game in their tradition this year.

"This year, dinner will be this element that just kind of gets slid in there," said Baker's relative Charles Lowenson.

Others said that food and family would still be the focal point of their amended holiday. David Slaughter of Hunt Valley said his family will need the energy from a filling dinner. They had a stacked itinerary: cheering on Loyola that morning, heading to Annapolis for dinner in the afternoon and attempting to make it downtown to watch the Ravens game Thursday evening.

"We're going to get some forkfuls in and figure it out," Slaughter said. "As long as we're all together."

Ravens fans who had set up shop around the stadium early Thursday said they had been planning since the day the game was announced to make the most of the holiday.

The area around M&T Bank Stadium sizzled with frying turkeys, and aromatic steam hovered above tents, under which spreads of traditional Thanksgiving fixings simmered.

"We typically spend the day at family's houses, but they forgive us this year," said Kelly Sparwasser of Bowleys Quarters, as her husband lowered the first of two birds into a pot of hot oil. "This only happens once in a lifetime, and Thanksgiving happens every year. Couldn't find anything more to be thankful for."

Others said their families were not as enthusiastic about the change of plans.

"It was hard to break the news to Mom, and she's a little mad at me," said Stephen Frasier of Baltimore, who had set up his tent, loudspeakers, generator, and flat-screen television at 8:30 a.m. while his tentmates cooked lunch. "But I get to go to the first-ever Thanksgiving game in Baltimore, the first-ever game between two brothers — so I don't feel like I'm losing anything. I'm gaining."

"And I mean, look at this," Frasier said, motioning toward the sunny skies that broke the week's run of dreary, rainy days. "Even God loves this day. So I'll see her tomorrow."

But Kevin Barnes of Pennsylvania said he was grateful that he was able to celebrate with people he usually only sees a couple of times a month, for one season of the year.

"The upside is we get to see folks, our tailgate family, we wouldn't be able to spend the holidays with any other time," he said, as crews drove in from Hagerstown and St. Mary's County to join the feast of stuffing balls, turkey, baked corn and green bean casserole. The group had already celebrated with their "Raven eggs," for breakfast — described as "deviled eggs with a kick."

Phil Fields, who has managed the parking lot at the Russell Street Warehouse since M&T Bank Stadium opened, watched eager fans file in to begin celebrating, and said he was thankful for the loyal tailgaters he had been greeting since 6:30 a.m., even though it meant giving up his own holiday.

"It's kind of like anything else — you have to work," Fields said. "But it's like being with your friends and family. Everyone's invited me to eat anyway, so I'll leave bigger and happier than I came in."

Kevin Moore, who sells Ravens paraphernalia at every home game, said that it was an easy decision to work the game.

"I wish it had been earlier, but it's like being at home — there's food over there, TV's over there, and we get to watch the game," Moore said. "Besides, if the team can do it, we can, too."

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