Toasting tradition in the park

Thanks: To Ukrainian-Americans, Thanksgiving means sharing their roots, toasting freedom and honoring an American tradition: football.

November 24, 2000|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Their parents and grandparents narrowly escaped labor camps and famine in their native Ukraine. Grateful for their good fortune in America, they marked Thanksgiving Day with tightly held traditions: borscht, pirogi and football in Patterson Park.

For more than 30 years, a group of Ukrainian-Americans has celebrated the holiday by tossing a pigskin around in the East Baltimore park.

There, with the gold onion domes of St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church in sight, they play an American game and toast the last touchdown with medivka, a homemade liqueur with honey and spices.

"Nazdorovia, millennium turkey bowl," said Jullie Humeniuk, 35, offering a toast to good health at the end of yesterday's game.

The Patterson Park game grew out of a friendly rivalry between two Ukrainian-American groups, one from Baltimore, the other from Washington. Eventually, the Washington team dropped out, but by then the Baltimore group had grown large enough to field two teams.

"We played here in the '60s," said Michael Kulnich, of Ellicott City, who at 57 was one of the oldest players on the field yesterday. The youngest was 9.

Most of the players were men in their 30s who have been in the game since the late 1970s.

First-generation Americans, they tell similar stories about their parents' escape from Ukraine after World War II. Labor camps. Famine under Stalin. Grandparents who died in Siberia.

"They knew what freedom and all that means here in America because they endured great hardship," said Andrew Korotunow, 36, a Dundalk machinist whose parents fled Ukraine after the war.

Korotunow is one of three players who have helped organize the game in recent years, having participated from their teen years into their 30s. The others are Humeniuk's husband, Steve, 37, an accountant from Middle River; and Andy Hudyma, 35, also an accountant, from Brooklyn Park.

As boys, the three went to Ukrainian school in Baltimore together on Saturdays. As adults, they performed with the same Ukrainian folk dance troupe. Their wives help put on the Ukrainian festival that takes place in the park each September.

"We have our own Ukrainian traditions. We also like to participate in American traditions like football and turkey day," said Steve Humeniuk.

He has spent the past 21 Thanksgivings playing ball in the park - a streak that even yesterday's cold could not snap.

The players' wives are no less dedicated, rising at 5 a.m. to put turkeys in the oven and prepare Ukrainian side dishes before heading off to cheer.

"They play year after year in the snow and the rain," said Jullie Humeniuk, who has brought golf umbrellas to watch games in downpours. She attended yesterday with her foot still wrapped from recent surgery. Her doctor had ordered bed rest.

That wasn't the first time that the football tradition had bucked up against good health.

"One year, we had a broken finger, a bruised rib and a dislocated shoulder," Jullie Humeniuk said. "They toned down a little from tackle to two-handed touch."

As spectator sports go, the game isn't much to look at. The highlight of yesterday's match came when one player sneaked into the opposing team's huddle, then slipped away, undetected, back to his own side.

The action on the sidelines created as much of a stir as anything on the field. Midway through the game, one player's 4-year-old son dropped his pants a few feet from the field. Later, a Baltimore City firetruck cruising through the park used its public address system to blare, "Offsides!"

The score was 35-14.

Asked which team won, Mike Yaroshevich of Fallston said, "The Ukrainians."

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