Why you should care

Because you never know when you’re going to meet, and attempt to block, a former president.

As parks and gardens in Great Britain go, University Parks in Oxford is fairly typical. Certain things are just not permitted inside: no bicycles, for example, no swimming, no laser tag (yes, apparently). And certainly no motor vehicles. So when a fleet of three shiny black Suburbans with tinted windows pulled into the park one damp November afternoon in 2002, it was already a good indication that reality was about to break with conventional British mores in a pretty big way.

Thanksgiving can be a hard day for Americans studying abroad, and for those at Oxford University, as I was for five straight Thanksgivings as a graduate student, it’s no different. With the prospect of no family gatherings, no official holiday, no pumpkin pie — and just a perfectly normal and dreary British Thursday in November on the horizon — an alternative tradition can be quite appealing.

Enter the Turkey Bowl. An annual gridiron spectacle in which dozens of American students in Oxford pour out of the library or skip their classes, slap on some sweatpants and head for the park in an effort to recreate some of the touch football magic of Thanksgiving back home. On this particular occasion, that magic took the form of a fleet of black Suburbans descending on the annual pastoral tradition like a CIA black ops unit swarming a church picnic. And when an instantly recognizable silver-haired, 56-year-old with ruddy cheeks alighted from the back seat of one of the vehicles, things grew even more surreal.

The track-suited Arkansan was ready for some football …

That’s right, standing there in a full blue and gold Naval Academy tracksuit with “Bill” inscribed on the right breast, was William Jefferson Clinton himself, less than two years out of the White House.

Let me back up. It was not in fact totally inconceivable that the 42nd president of the United States had alighted on the Turkey Bowl. For one thing, Clinton, a Rhodes scholar who had dabbled in rugby during his own days at Oxford in the late 1960s, often returned to his alma mater. For another, the president’s daughter Chelsea had been studying for a masters in international relations there for the past year. During that time, a sort of Chelsea-mania had descended on “the city of dreaming spires.”

Well, kind of. If you asked British undergraduates about the presence of the former First Daughter, most were rather unimpressed. But things were much different when it came to Chelsea’s fellow Americans in Oxford. Inserting the daughter of a sitting U.S. Senator and a former president into a den of uber-ambitious American graduate students was like setting down a golden retriever puppy in a class of kindergartners. Although, to be sure, the actual result resembled a dynamic much closer to high school, with competitors jockeying to be in Chelsea’s inner circle. An already competitive college atmosphere was transformed into the Iditarod of social climbing, the nerd Super Bowl.

Oxford Students with Bill Clinton

Oxford graduate students with former president Bill Clinton, November 2002.

Source Daniel Urman

But neither Chelsea nor her mother accompanied Bill when he turned up at the Turkey Bowl. This was reportedly the result of an invite from Chelsea’s boyfriend, Ian Klaus, a mop-haired Rhodes scholar and son of a California fitness-equipment tycoon whom the British paparazzi had photographed openly snogging — in the parlance of the natives — with Chelsea in bars and public places all over town.

The track-suited Arkansan was ready for some football. And the second some brave scholar hollered out, “Hey, Mr. President, would you like to play?,” the 6-foot-2, 200-plus pounds of Clinton came trotting off the sidelines faster than a Little Rock minute. And from there the Commander-in-Chief took charge as bemused onlookers began to accumulate in the park.

On offense, the southpaw Clinton quickly usurped the quarterbacking duties. The team’s huddles became cabinet meetings in which the president spent several minutes diagramming plays (and cursing like a sailor) while those of us on the opposing team stood with our hands on our waists, waiting and jealously muttering, “This is still a football game, right?” (Clinton was later impeached and removed from his quarterbacking duties for high throws and misdemeanors.)

On defense, the less-than-agile Clinton, wearing bright white running shoes on very muddy terrain, opted to play defensive line and rush our quarterback. And that is how I found myself staring across the line of scrimmage at the charging former president. Clinton was bigger than I was, with his famously large meathooks for hands, but I was still a 26-year-old former college athlete who had just played football for the British collegiate national champion Oxford Cavaliers (yes, they play American football in British colleges, and no, it is not of particularly high quality).

Group with Bill Clinton

Oxford graduate students with former president Bill Clinton, November 2002.

Source Daniel Urman

And so I found myself facing the same quandary that many young Americans do during friendly football games on Thanksgiving when they line up across from good ole chain-smoking Uncle Marty: How can I play hard enough to help my team win without manhandling or embarrassing a person who is three decades my senior and not in the greatest football-playing shape (Clinton had major heart surgery less than two years later)?

Not wanting to be responsible for any harm befalling a former president or of any unnecessary mud staining his fabulous tracksuit, I took it easy on Uncle Bill. And, in the end, Clinton’s team managed to pull off what the Democrats had failed to achieve in the midterms just a few weeks before: a victory. After the game, the winning team captain held court on the field once more with students peppering him with questions about the possibility of war with Iraq (Bill’s prescient take: What do we do with the country after the invasion?).

Around dusk, Clinton finally made his move (“Ahhhhhh gotta go, Heeeelaree is going to kill me”), and the fleet of Suburbans sped away, leaving the rest of us to rush home to call our families, wish them a happy Thanksgiving and tell them about the craziest holiday touch football match we had ever encountered on any side of the Atlantic.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.