Just before Thanksgiving every year at Stephen Mack Middle School in Rockton, Illinois, something special would occur in the cafeteria. Surrounded by canned goods and other donations to the annual food drive, students would step up to a line marked with tape and face ten bowling pins just waiting to tumble. But it wasn’t a bowling ball these pre-teens held in their hands—it was a frozen turkey.
As an alum of the middle school, I remember this yearly tradition fondly, and can maybe trace back my present-day love for bowling to this very activity. It was done as a way to raise participation in the food drive. Teams who brought in the most donations got the chance to go for a strike in front of everyone. I once was part of the winning team, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my life.
And up until this year I thought this was a universal experience, at least for those of us in the Midwest. But when I asked my Takeout colleagues if they remembered such a sport, I was met with silence. It made me question my entire reality. Was my memory actually some weird fever dream? Did turkey bowling actually even exist at all? It was time to investigate.
Legend has it (well, legend and a 1989 article in the LA Times) that in the 1980s Derrick “DJ” Johnson, a supermarket stocker at Lucky’s on Newport Beach working overnights, became entranced by how the frozen turkeys rolled as they were being slid over the frozen meat counter for stocking. Before long he set up 2-liter soda bottles as the pins and started sliding wrapped Butterballs down the aisles of the grocery store. And so, Turkey Bowling was born.
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The rules essentially mirrored those of actual bowling. With it came new terminology coined by Johnson: Two strikes in a row is a gobbler, a 7-10 split is a wishbone, and a spare is a hen. If a turkey is too cumbersome, a Cornish game hen is allowed as a lighter “ball.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, word got out about the sport when Orange County Register sports columnist Randy Youngman featured it after much digging on a slow news day (I was unfortunately unable to find that piece on the internet). From there the interest piqued and Johnson ended up talking about his invented sport on Good Morning America and The Arsenio Hall Show. Life, it seemed, was gravy.
Johnson claimed in the LA Times article that he was fired from his job for continually referring to the Lucky’s grocery chain as the “birthplace of turkey bowling.” But it didn’t stop there. After his television appearances Butterball sent a cease and desist.
The letter, quoted in a 1989 Chicago Tribune article, read:
“Your unauthorized references to our Butterball turkeys as the brand of turkeys you use in your turkey bowling has caused, and is continuing to cause, serious injury to their quality image.”
Another spokesperson is quoted as saying that it would be “inappropriate” to use a Butterball turkey to bowl. The main concern, it seemed, was that Johnson’s antics would be repeated with Butterball turkeys across the country and those used and potentially damaged turkeys would be put back on the shelves.
Johnson maintained that Butterball was the best brand because of the “Turkey Lift” handle that made bowling a breeze and because he was genuinely a fan of their product. At the very least, he was still able to get the brand free publicity during his 15 minutes of fame, and for that they should thank him.
Johnson had big plans for the future of turkey bowling. He started the now defunct Poultry Bowling Association. He even started plans for an annual supermarket Olympics to raise money for those in need of food called the “Grocery Games” (hmm, sounds familiar . . . ).
He shared ideas for other grocery-related challenges with the Chicago Tribune: ‘’I could see cantaloupe basketball, live lobster races, canned-ham tossing, checkers with Alka-Seltzer. One guy wrote to me and says he freezes limes and takes them to the driving range. That could work too.’’
There’s not much record of Derrick Johnson beyond that initial media coverage of Turkey Bowling, nor much information about whether or not those Grocery Games ever happened. Even details on Turkey Bowling itself are scarce, save for a modest Wikipedia page. But I can say from experience that his legacy and the sport will forever live on, at the very least, in a small cafeteria in northern Illinois.