They may not have played football at the first Thanksgiving, but in Wellesley, Mass. America's game and Turkey Day have gone hand in hand for quite some time.
On Thursday morning Needham High will host Wellesley in the 120th meeting between schools. The first game between Needham and Wellesley, which are both about 17 miles west of Boston, was on Thanksgiving of 1882 and resulted in a 4-0 win for Wellesley, which leads the series 58-52-9. The annual Wellesley-Needham game is the oldest Thanksgiving Day football rivalry in the country, with the teams missing only seven contests in 124 years (on two occasions they played twice in a season), four due to World War I.
"The rivalry is heated but friendly," said Roy Johan, longtime coach and athletic director for Needham, who is now an assistant to head coach Dave Duffy. "The kids on both sides know each other. They grew up together and played youth football together before high school."
Before this year's historic battle each school will host its traditional pep rally on Wednesday. At the start of Thursday's game the seniors will be introduced one by one as they charge across the 50-yard-line to the cheers of some 2,000 fans.
Twenty-five years ago Frederick J. Gorman, a Wellesley alumnus from the 1920s, donated a trophy in honor of the centennial anniversary of this rivalry. It bears a plaque inscribed with the results of all 119 of the games played to this point, and is a prized possession of the team who won the previous matchup. Tradition holds that when the trophy changes hands the captains of the winning team retrieve it from the opposing school. Wellesley has staked claim to it for the last two years, but it had gone back and forth each of the four years prior.
In a more recent ritual, girls from both schools play a powder-puff touch football game after school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Officers from the local police departments coach the two squads; they run practices for their teams and donated a trophy for the winner of the event.
The evolution of the Wellesley-Needham rivalry is a microcosm of just how much times have changed. From 1711 until 1881 the village of Wellesley was the western part of the town of Needham, but when its population began to rise in the late 19th century, Wellesley split off and became its own town. Wellesley High was built just four miles from Needham High, and the two became rivals overnight. In 1882 Arthur J. Oldham, 15, the captain and quarterback of the Wellesley football team, challenged the Needham boys to a game on Thanksgiving. In order to purchase the $3.50 round rubber ball that was used, the players took up a collection and each chipped in.
The early games were much less structured than they are today. In the notable 1887 game fans from either side would storm the field and swarm any opposing player who seemed to be breaking free towards a touchdown. As a result, the game ended in a scoreless tie. One player, Alvin Hooker, was so frustrated with such disorganization, that he devised a set of rules that were used in subsequent games.
But despite the festive tradition and holiday dressing, for Wellesley and Needham, winning the game is still the main dish. "The season for both teams can be judged on this game alone," says Johan.
Connecticut is home to the longest running high school football rivalry, with New London High battling Norwich Free Academy nearly every year since 1875. The two schools more recently began playing their annual game on Thanksgiving, but the tradition is age-old. Like the Wellesley-Needham series, the games have changed immensely. The 1891 game was called midway through when a punted ball (inconveniently, the only football in town) was lost in a swirling snowfall. Norwich Free Academy leads the series 75-59-11.
Perhaps the strongest tradition belongs to the annual game between Boston Latin and Boston English. Latin, the oldest high school in the country, leads English, America's oldest public school, in the series 71-36-13. The first game was played in 1887, and the teams now meet in Harvard Stadium, the oldest football stadium in the nation (built in 1903). There is always enormous alumni turnout at these games and, the outcome can define an entire season. "When you come back for your 10-year, 20-year or 30-year reunion, all people want to know is how your class did against English," says Boston Latin athletic director John McDonough. "That's the legacy you leave."