Thanksgiving at Its Best
Editor's note: We asked readers to nominate their favorite Thanksgiving high school rivalries and selected the 10 submissions below.
A Mass Classic: Wellesley vs. Needham
There's nowhere like Massachusetts on Thanksgiving. It is the original setting for the holiday, and Massachusetts natives take pride in their role in maintaining the tradition. The Wellesley vs. Needham football rivalry is shrouded in tradition, 132 years of it. As the oldest public high school football rivalry in the country, everything about the game and the ceremony leading up to it—the "Grease" style pep rally, the senior girls' powderpuff game—add up to two towns grinding it out on the gridiron for bragging rights and high school glory.
Wellesley seceded from Needham in 1880, and two years later the two high schools began meeting on the fourth Thursday in November. Given the history, the game is like a civil war.
The difference is, it brings the two towns together. Alumni of both high schools mingle with current students, faculty, staff and regular residents on their side of the field. It is a great community moment for both towns, allowing people to come together and catch up with those they don't see any other time of the year.
I don't live in Massachusetts anymore, and a lot of people I talk to from other areas of the country find it unfathomable that high schools ask their students to play on Thanksgiving Day. That's tradition, and in Wellesley and Needham it lives on, 132 years strong. —Rachel Merkin
Jersey Style: Haddon Heights vs. Haddonfield
Haddon Heights and Haddonfield Memorial high schools have been playing football on Thanksgiving since before the forward pass—heck, before helmets. Before there was an NFL, there was Heights-Haddonfield on Thanksgiving. Two small high schools in southern New Jersey that play their games in Depression-era red brick stadiums carved out of suburban streets will meet on Nov. 27 for the 106th time. (Haddonfield owns the series edge, 57-42-6.) The first game was played in 1902, and the rivalry has been continuous since 1922.
The schools are small, with senior classes in the 150 to 200 range, but the support for and importance of this game cannot be overstated. A high school athlete’s career is defined by his or her record and performance against the other school. The two are rivals no matter the sport.
The football game routinely draws thousands of fans—no small feat for a Group I high school game on Thanksgiving—as it also serves as a reunion for alumni and a marker for time passed on.
Bottom line: This game is exactly the reason high school football is played. It is teamwork and community personified. And all of it is set against the fall foliage, crisp air and confluence of two Rockwellesque communities. On a day we’re all meant to give thanks, this game is a true blessing. —Matt Chando
New York, New York: Fordham Prep vs. Xavier
Turkey for Thanksgiving? I think not. Not when you can have Ram chops!
One of the oldest of all high school rivalries, the annual Xavier High vs. Fordham Prep Thanksgiving game dates to 1905, but the inter-school rivalry itself goes back to 1883. My memories of the game are from the 1960 to ’64 years. At that time Xavier was an all-military school, and the stands were full of cadets in their dress-blue uniforms. The entire regiment paraded on the field at halftime.
As Xavier players, we were pointed toward this game from the early days of freshman year. No matter the overall record, no season was a success without a victory over the Rams. The intensity of practices heightened during the week before the game. We knew the entire school's hopes were being carried on our shoulders on Thanksgiving.
In my senior year, as we motored up from the Lower East Side in my buddy's dad's Corvair (yes, in which we were perfectly safe!) to the stadium at Randall's Island, everyone knew better than to talk to me. My mind was filled with one thought and one thought only: the utter destruction of anyone wearing a Fordham jersey who got in front of me. The fact that a 165-pound two-way starting tackle could even dream in such terms speaks to the motivational factors at play in this rivalry. Our 14-0 shutout victory spoke for itself!
After the game and the long drive home, we tasted victory. Oh, yes, it might have been a drumstick, but it tasted like Ram chop to me. —Tom Rumore
Bigger than the NFL: Webster Groves vs. Kirkwood
In the suburbs of St. Louis is the oldest Thanksgiving rivalry west of the Mississippi, pitting the Statesmen of Webster Groves vs. the Pioneers of Kirkwood. The two teams have played since 1896 except for a few years in the 1910s when there was such violence after the games they had to postpone the football and institute the tradition of the "Friendship Dance," which brings the two schools together.
Over their history, both schools have on occasion forgone their right to play in the state championship to play the Thanksgiving Day game. More recently, when one team qualifies for the state title game, the school’s JV squads will meet in the Turkey Day Game. How big is this rivalry? When the old “Football Cardinals" of St. Louis began playing a home Thanksgiving Day game in the ’70s, the community resisted because of the tradition of Webster vs. Kirkwood. The Cardinals hosted only two Thanksgiving games before yielding to Turkey Day to the high school game. The Rams, since moving to St. Louis, have not played on Thanksgiving.
The coveted prize is the Frisco Bell, given to the winner every year, and there is nothing better than to watch the fans storm the opposing sideline to claim the Bell when a winner is crowned. The week starts with the chili cook-off, the bonfires and pep rallies, and the schools are in full frenzy leading up to the game. The tradition is like none other, and it is the epitome of what makes football great. —Barney Fritz
Underdog’s Tale: Daniel Hand vs. Guilford
Hand (of Madison, Conn.) vs. Guilford isn’t the oldest rivalry, and it’s certainly not the most competitive. The two Connecticut schools have been playing since 1973 and on Thanksgiving since 1977. Guilford’s alltime record in these games is 5-35-1. During that time Hand has probably had more playoff appearances than Guilford has had winning seasons. Perhaps that diminishes the rivalry in some people’s minds, but in the minds of Guilford’s players the lopsidedness only fuels the rivalry.
Winning this game meant everything to me as a high school senior in 1991. I would do as many push-ups as I could before going to bed. I researched the entire history of the rivalry on microfilm at the library. I walked around school the week of the game with T-shirts about the game made in silk-screen class. Your requested word limit keeps me from further detailing my obsession. I could go on.
That year, on a 4th-down stop at about our 20 in the last two minutes, Guilford was victorious for only the second time in 19 years.
I have had my share of graduations, weddings and births, but the truth is nothing before or since has had a more profound effect on my life. Twenty-three years later I still go to every game. My wife doesn't understand why, since Guilford usually gets crushed. But someday we’ll win again, and the kids from Guilford will learn the same lesson I did: Anything is possible. —Jeff Mead
All Together: Quincy vs. North Quincy
History recalls the late ’60 s and early ’70 s as a divisive time for our nation. Political polarization and social unrest drove a wedge down the middle of the American populace. Hawk or dove? Black or white? Hippie or straight?
And if you were a high school football player in Quincy, Mass., you were and always would be either a President or a Red Raider. It may have been a simple matter of geography, but never did it matter more than on Thanksgiving morning.
The 10 a.m. kickoff for the Quincy-North Quincy game brought together generations of family and friends for the fiercest rivalry amidst the most cordial relations. Typically, more than 10,000 fans would pack themselves inside the high brick walls of Veterans Memorial Stadium, while at least that many more stayed home preparing the family feast, trying to pick up the game through the static and crackle of a.m. radio.
November 1970 was different though. Nearly twice the typical turnout crammed its way through the stadium’s wrought-iron gates. The football gods had been kind to both clubs throughout the fall, as the Raiders from North had lost but once by a single point, and the Presidents were hoping to cap the first undefeated season in school history.
One other thing: My family had moved to North Quincy.
I was born and bred a QHS President whose favorite saying was, “Even the sky is blue and white.” There was little chance as co-captain that I was going to change my colors during senior year. So discretion was the word I lived by, a stranger in a strange land.
We won the game 16-6, with a punt return and a field goal being the only difference between the two teams, but it was an incident later that night that I remember most of all.
As I was stopped at a red light in the northern part of town, a car full of guys my age pulled up alongside me. We all wore varsity letter jackets—mine was blue, theirs were red.
“Hey Sylva!” came a call from the other car. I had been found out! Fearing the worst, I got myself ready for a good old-fashioned knock-down-drag-out street fight in the middle of Newport Ave.
But instead of trading hands, my North Quincy counterparts offered theirs. “Congratulations. And welcome to the neighborhood.”
In an era of conflict and change, the sons of my city taught me the unifying principles of competition and the value of teamwork. A perfect ending to a perfect season. —Robert Sylva
A River Runs Through Them: Easton vs. Phillipsburg
For 364 days a year, these two towns that face each other across the Delaware River share a synergy. They work, support, even celebrate jointly in one another’s communities, from Halloween parades to fishing tournaments.
Come Thanksgiving, though, the main course isn’t turkey—it’s who’s going to win one of the oldest rivalries in America. This is the game that the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, paid homage to a few years back to serve as coaches in a game in which Easton (Pa.) and Phillipsburg (N.J.) alums 15 years out of high school suited up to settle a score. Yes, they actually replayed the rivalry. Many times, both of these teams have sacrificed state title runs in order to make sure this game is a win. Alumni don’t brag about being “the best 4A team in the state,” they brag more about “Who won the Easton-Phillipsburg game your year!?”
I don’t even live in either of these towns, but I’ve been to countless Division I and NFL games, and I can tell you, the atmosphere is just as intense, if not more so, at Easton vs Phillipsburg. This year marks the 108th meeting. I can’t name the quarterback on either team, but it doesn’t matter. I challenge you to find a deeper rivalry anywhere in the United States, one that makes some people lose their appetite for their Thanksgiving dinners because of the outcome of a football game, or one that makes a state playoff game two days later amount to an exhibition in comparison. —Tom Braun
Philly’s Finest: Central vs. Northeast
While Texas might be the biggest football state in the Union, Pennsylvania plays host what I consider the greatest Thanksgiving Day rivalry in our nation. Central and Northeast will clash again on Thanksgiving in a matchup dating back to the 1890s.
This is a rivalry in the truest sense of the word. There’s a great trophy (Wooden Horse), a storied history, and most important of all, intense competition. The two schools have faced off more than 100 times, and the record is nearly equal. Northeast holds a slight 56-52-10 edge over Central. We’ve debated Brady/Manning for years, but head-to-head in 16 games there’s an 11-5 Brady edge. That’s a six game lead in 16 games. Northeast leads by four in 118 contests!
You can compare rivalries nationwide for Thanksgiving Day, but you’ll find none better than this. —Raymond Hagan
Old Schools: Norwich Free Academy vs. New London
Every Thanksgiving, after the leaves have fallen, there is one last great showing of red and yellow along the football fields of southeastern Connecticut. Any discussion of the top Thanksgiving games would not be complete without mentioning the nation’s oldest football rivalry. Since 1875, Norwich Free Academy and New London High have met in a fall classic that is unrivaled in its history or tradition. Supporters from both schools make the alternating trip North or South along Route 32 every Thanksgiving to watch “The Game.”
This annual autumn showdown is so old, it is generational. Family and school tradition is rooted around playing in this game, and you can see decades of alumni and former players in the stands reflecting on past games while enjoying the present. This yearly grudge match represents the core values of Thanksgiving; community, tradition, family, friends and football. It is something that we look forward to every year—a chance to beat your bitter rival while catching up with long-lost friends and classmates. Consider this: The Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys rivalry is 109 games strong. When the Wildcats take on the Whalers on Thursday, they will be meeting for the 155th time! Happy Thanksgiving to all, and go ’Cats!!!! —Collin M.
Tale of Two Cities: Fitchburgh vs. Leominster
The Winning Entry: Fitchburg and Leominster are nestled together in the hills of central Massachusetts, about 50 miles west of Boston. These Twin Cities are locked in one of the oldest continuous football rivalries in the country, meeting for a battle of fratricide every Thanksgiving for well over a century. They have played each other 131 times since 1894, with Leominster holding a slim lead of only five games.
The fortunes of these cities is illustrated by the fields on which they play; gifts from each city’s most prominent industrialist. Crocker Field stands as a symbol of Fitchburg’s past wealth and aspirations of greatness; a temple modeled after Harvard’s Soldier Field. Babe Ruth once asked which professional team plays there, surprised to learn it was only home to the local high school team. However, as Fitchburg’s idle mills have fought a losing battle against weeds and broken windows, the city has struggled to keep this once-proud edifice from withering under the passage of time.
Once the second sibling, Leominster has since benefited from quirks of geography and industry. Access to the highway has sprouted shopping malls, and Leominster’s plastics factories have proven more resilient than Fitchburg’s paper mills. While Doyle Field lacks the concrete grandeur of Crocker Field, Leominster is spending millions to renovate the facility with luxuries such as field turf and a clubhouse roof that doesn't leak.
This Thanksgiving, the roar of the crowd and staccato of marching drums will once again echo through the hills as a reminder of a rivalry that extends far beyond the playing field.
Massachusetts has a new postseason format in which the playoffs start before Thanksgiving. Last weekend No. 7-seed Fitchburg upset the heavily favored No. 1 seed, Leominster, in the playoffs to take the Central Mass title and is one game away from the statewide Super Bowl. As the annual Thanksgiving game no longer affects the standings, it is now played only for tradition and pride. Or this year, the opportunity for revenge. —Andy Van Hazinga
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