The Rear End

THE REAR END: Thanks for the Nerf

even the least athletic among us can’t say no to Thanksgiving football

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Eva Paulus |

I remember the year the Nerf football broke clean in half. It was hilarious. My cousin was quarterbacking and seconds after yelling, “HIKE!” he just wailed that thing into the chilly night sky – and it basically burst in two. We’re not sure if it was the sheer force of his epic throw or the giant hole left in the ball after a dog had chewed it up years before. All we know is this: one foam projectile went up. Two came down. And I thought I was going to throw up from laughing so hard. It was the kind of thing 11-year-old kids live for.

Actually, I probably should have thrown up. I’d just eaten enough turkey and dinner rolls to choke a goat. Just being outside and moving around was a miracle in and of itself. But this was Thanksgiving. This was playing football with my cousins on my grandma’s farmyard. This was something I looked forward to every single year, and no amount of bread and roasted poultry was going to get in my way.

As astute readers will have gathered by now, I was not an athletic child. Unless when you say “athletic” you mean “chubby.” But grandma’s house was a place I could at least try to be athletic without fear of schoolyard ridicule. I loved our post-feast football games with my cousins. Under the big oak trees and the starlit sky, we could be anything we wanted to be. We could marvel at each other’s huge tackles and amazing catches. We could make lame jokes. We could laugh so hard our ears hurt just because an ancient, crusty Nerf ball finally broke apart – miraculously – in mid flight. 

I’d just eaten enough turkey and dinner rolls to choke a goat. Just being outside and moving around was a miracle in and of itself. But this was Thanksgiving.


I think we actually played a game with the larger Nerf chunk after Christmas dinner that year. And maybe the next.

That was just one small part of those holiday dinners. At my grandma’s house, nothing was fancy. The kids usually ate on a couch in the tiny living room, drinking Kool-Aid from old plastic cups. The potatoes were just boiled. The pumpkin pie was made from the recipe on the can. But all year long I’d wait for that night, because to me it was a mythical happening. I remember bragging about it to my classmates, about how much fun playing football with cousins was, not realizing that they probably did the exact same thing.

It was always so crowded at dinner. People were everywhere. Two aunts, an uncle, and a third cousin you’d never met had to get up and move if you wanted to sit at the dining room table. The table itself was jam packed. I remember the giant brick of margarine my grandma always had on the table. My grandpa wouldn’t touch it. (We were sitting smack in the middle of a former dairy farm, after all.) As a kid, I rarely heard my grandpa speak, and it was weird to hear him have a conversation with the men in the room and get teased about not eating hydrogenated butter substitute by the women.

My dad and most of my uncles hunted (of course), and one of them might show up with enough beer in him to come outside and play football with us. That was awesome. Everyone would ask, “What’d you see?” and if you were truly interested in that kind of thing, you’d get a looooong rundown on pretty much every deer sighting from that day, from the slightest glimpse of fur to the buck somebody’s friend’s brother had shot. And everyone talked about where they were going to hunt the next day.

As I suppose happens in most families, once my grandparents passed on, things got a little decentralized. Aunts and uncles and cousins started taking turns hosting the big holiday dinners. And somebody else’s house would get stuffed with rowdy boys and girls, busting their guts with turkey and ridiculous jokes. 

It’s kind of sad for a time, but I guess that’s just how it is. And I’ll always have a movie in my mind of a stupid Nerf ball breaking apart as it flies through the atmosphere.