In 96th Turkey Bowl, best friends are worst enemies for a few hours

Friends often become enemies in the Calvert Hall-Loyola Turkey Bowl. The 96th edition will be no different.

As Loyola Blakefield running back Azende' Smith warmed up before last year's Turkey Bowl at M&T Bank Stadium, he heard someone call his name.

He looked around and saw his best friend, Calvert Hall running back BJ Watson, staring at him.

"Usually people call me Smitty, so when he called, 'Where Azende' at?' I turned around. 'Who's calling me Azende'?' And I see he gave me that stare," Smith said. "I looked at him and I smiled. He was still staring at me the same way. I was like, 'All right, I know it's on now.'"

Smith smiles when he tells that story about one of the fiercest rivalries in Baltimore high school football — the annual Calvert Hall-Loyola game on Thanksgiving morning. When the 96th Turkey Bowl kicks off at 10 a.m. Thursday, he and Watson will be enemies again, but only for a few hours.

"The other 364 days of the year, we're still out on Saturdays chilling, cooling, texting," Watson said. "We were just on FaceTime [last week] talking. Nothing really ever changes until something just like clicks on Thanksgiving morning. It's a burning hatred for each other on Thanksgiving morning, but after the game we shake hands, we talk. We're cool."

So far, it's been a draw for the two juniors, who each ran for a touchdown in last year's game. Calvert Hall won that one, 25-22, on Peter Ferrara's field goal with 2:11 left. The year before, Loyola won, 21-20 in overtime, after Jake Nordhausen blocked the Cardinals' extra-point attempt.

Even though they're rivals at the thing they love most, Smith said they don't let it affect their friendship.

"I think it made it better," Smith said. Going to "different schools, we still talk, but we don't talk as much. You don't see each other every day like we did in middle school, but with the rivalry you talk more. We both really love football. That's something that we always have in common and the rivalry excites us both."

Football has been a common thread throughout their friendship, even though they never played on the same team. Just for them to meet took a series of fortuitous circumstances.

Watson lived in Prince George's County until moving to Overlea the summer before eighth grade. Because his father worked at Windsor Mill Middle School, on the west side of Baltimore County, he started classes there. He ended up in the same class with Smith, who lives in the Windsor Mill area.

"First day of school, he was a new kid," Smith said. "What we noticed in the class, he raised his hand every question and he was reading and answering every question. Everybody was looking at him like, 'What is this guy doing?' So I said, 'All right, I'm going to go talk to him," because nobody else was going to and I wanted to be his friend. That's just how I am."

They hit it off instantly, even before they knew they had football in common.

"I didn't know anybody," Watson said, "and Azende' was the only guy who introduced himself. We had the same interests and from that point on, we just clicked and it's been cool ever since."

The football rivalry started almost immediately because Smith played for Pikesville and Watson, for Overlea. They played on different age-group teams, so they never met on the field.

They talked about going to high school together and finally playing together, but Watson decided on Calvert Hall, then Smith chose Loyola. Neither realized the full intensity of the Turkey Bowl rivalry until their first game against each other — Watson as a freshman and Smith as a sophomore.

"I thought he was going to come to Calvert Hall, but then at the last minute he ended up at the worst school. Even after freshman year, I still tried to talk him into coming to Calvert Hall — even to this day," Watson said with a laugh.

Despite the coaxing, Smith isn't about to leave Loyola, so they have two more Turkey Bowls to contest.

This week, their teams are hoping to cap disappointing seasons with the only win that matters. The Dons (5-5) lead the series 49-38-8 and could post their first winning season since 2010. Calvert Hall goes into the game 4-6. Each has just one win in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference.

Watson and Smith could have a lot to do with which team wins. Watson has carried the ball 110 times for 715 yards and eight touchdowns and has caught 10 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. Smith has 81 carries for 325 yards and six touchdowns and nine catches for 93 yards.

Each is aiming for two more wins, so he can hold that over his best buddy for the rest of their lives.

"I feel like that's going to be the whole conversation when we get older," Watson said with a laugh. "Those games, looking back on them, who won, who lost. Whoever wins the most is not going to let it go. I'm not going to let it go. He's never going to hear the end of it because we're going to end up 3-1 against them."

Smith shakes his head and grins at the thought: "That's not going to happen. That's false."

Loyola coach Brant Hall knows exactly how Smith and Watson feel. A former Don, he played against his best friend, Avon Mack, in the Turkey Bowl. They went on to be roommates at Lehigh and Mack was later a groomsman in Hall's wedding.

Hall said the combination of competition, rivalry and respect for each other enhances the friendship.

"That's what makes it fun. That's where the bragging rights come in," Hall said.

While the bragging rights will always come before the turkey for Watson and Smith, the experience of playing against each other in such a storied rivalry — the third oldest in the Baltimore area behind 127 years of City-Poly and 100 years of Gilman-McDonogh — also means a lot.

"It's something that's a lifetime experience," Smith said. "It's something you're never going to forget. I'm never going to forget playing against my best friend, playing against Calvert Hall. It's a wonderful, great experience that everybody can't have, but we're fortunate to have."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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96th Turkey Bowl

Calvert Hall (4-6) vs. Loyola Blakefield (5-5)

When: Thursday, 10 a.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Coaches: Donald Davis, Calvert Hall; Brant Hall, Loyola

Last meeting: Calvert Hall won, 25-22, last season

Series: Loyola leads, 49-38-8

TV: Ch. 2

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