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Turkey Bowl game survives despite tragedy

A group of friends who have been playing

A group of friends who have been playing football every Thanksgiving for over two decades, huddle during a football game in Huntington. (Nov. 22, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

The Turkey Bowl this year almost never happened.

For a group of six families originally from Huntington, the annual Thanksgiving Day touch football game between fathers and sons at a field at Southdown Primary School has been a 22-year tradition.

But in May one of the sons died. Joseph Nigro, 29, suffered a relatively rare heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle.

His friends and teammates recalled feeling devastated and deliberated over the game's fate.

"In the beginning, we were kind of like it's too soon and it will never be the same without Joseph," said Shane Hurley, 30, one of the game's original six sons who now lives in Floral Park.

But eventually the men decided the game had to go on.

"We all talked about it and we pretty unanimously and pretty quickly said we had to do this," Hurley said.

The field, said Bobby Porto, 30, is sacred ground for the men.

"We all walked in succession, we picked each other up as we walked back to school and then over the years; you always got to come back," he said.

The six would go on to attend different high schools, but every year, Porto said, "it was like coming back to ground zero."

Thursday morning Joseph Nigro's parents watched as their two other sons, Steven, 22, and Jimmy, 25, continued the pigskin tradition.

"I didn't think I could make it down here today, but I decided to come," Joe Nigro, their father, explained. "These people all grew up together."

The players acknowledged drifting apart over the years but always reunited during the Thanksgiving holiday, often over beers in Huntington Village.

The sons would sometimes bring a girlfriend, the true mark of a serious relationship, they all said. Several are married, and a few are now fathers.

The game, and the families, said the Nigros, provided them with much-needed solace during a difficult year.

After Joseph's death on May 27, the sons visited the Nigros at home in Huntington. The visits, the Nigros said, were vital to their grieving. They stayed for hours, cracking jokes and trading memories.

"That brought a little bit of levity, brightness to a very dark day," Joe Nigro said.

The field is where it all started for the families. Wives, mothers, and grandchildren watched on those Thursday afternoons while the men played.

Over the years, some fathers took to the sidelines and other family members -- brothers and in-laws -- joined the game.

Greg Mingin, one of the fathers, was regretting his decision to retire this year at age 66.

"I told these guys when I'm 67 I'm going to come out of retirement," he said.

A new generation Thursday waited on the sidelines, including two girls. Observed one parent, "Maybe the next generation will be co-ed."

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