By Adam C. Warner
SportsPower Senior Editor
This week, millions will gather together in a celebration of family, friendship, food, and of course, football.
Over the past 120 years, football is one of many traditions formed around Thanksgiving. Today, the two go hand-in-hand as amateurs, high school athletes, collegiate athletes and professional athletes all participate or gather for action on the gridiron.
But some of the most historic and cherished Thanksgiving football rivalries revolve around the high school level, where some epic clashes have been occurring since the late 19th century. The tradition typically finds many Northeastern teams playing on the holiday, but as you will see throughout this feature, teams from California and Missouri are bucking that trend.
Meanwhile, Turkey Day matchups often pit two rivals together from the same conference or schools that are a few miles apart. Other times, championships are on the line or regional bragging rights can be earned with a win, making the games even more significant and noteworthy. And with Thanksgiving matchups occurring late in the fall season, weather can also play a key role in the outcome.
Add all of these factors together and one has the perfect recipe for exciting holiday football.
The FootballPower editorial staff has picked a series of notable Thanksgiving games from coast to coast that best embody the holiday tradition.
Norwich Free Academy Wildcats (CT) vs. New London Whalers (CT)
This traditional Thanksgiving Day game is the oldest high school football rivalry in the country and commenced in 1875. Both teams are very familiar with each other, seeing that the programs are just 12 miles apart in Southeast Connecticut. Bragging rights are always on the line each and every season in this historic battle.
But this year’s matchup has an extra element of excitement added to it. New London just recently secured a Class SS playoff berth despite losing its first game of the year last week to Ledyard. While the playoffs are out of reach for Norwich, the squad realizes that this game can be theirs with New London entering on the heels of a loss and with starting Whalers quarterback Jordan Reed questionable to play. There would be nothing better for the Wildcats to beat their playoff-bound rival to conclude the season.
The series – which Norwich leads 75-59-11 -- has certainly seen some colossal matchups in years gone by. In 1891, the game was halted after the ball was lost during a punt when a strong wind and snowfall sent it sailing. Unfortunately, that was the only football any of the teams had.
Don’t expect anything like last year’s 62-14 trouncing by New London, but do expect a hard-fought battle between rivals that has the chance for an upset. Norwich enters the matchup at 6-3 and has lost two of three after winning five games in a row.
All the while, the Whalers enter at 9-1 overall after winning their first nine games of the season. Starting end Tom Eschenfelder should be back in uniform for New London and will likely give his team a lift. Running back Richie Vitale is coming off a 153-yard performance last week and will need a similar performance for the Whalers to notch their tenth win.
Calvert Hall (MD) vs. Loyola Blakefield (MD)
These two Maryland private schools have been playing this annual football game for 88 years on Thanksgiving Day. The matchup -- more formerly known as the “Turkey Bowl” -- is one of the oldest ongoing Catholic prep school football rivalries in the country.
Thousands of high school fans in the Baltimore area pack into M&T Bank Stadium every year to see these storied programs do battle on the gridiron. The series has been relatively even, although Loyola has taken control in recent years and now enjoy a 47-33-8 all-time record. Loyola has won the last five meetings against its regional rival, and will look to make it six on Thursday.
In a series of streaks, Calvert Hall is hoping to stop Loyola’s run and begin its own. Looking back on the rivalry, Loyola won seven in a row from ’57-’63 before Calvert Hall took seven consecutive games from ’78-’84.
The ’08 matchup features two teams that have experienced vastly different campaigns. Calvert Hall enters the matchup at 3-6 overall and a 42.38 FootballPower State Power Rating. The Cardinals have endured a season of streaks, including two losses to start the year followed by two wins, then four losses and then one more victory. Quarterback Patrick Fitzgerald will likely need to mix in some passes downfield to a steady dose of a rushing attack for the Cardinals to come out on top.
On the other side, Loyola Blakefield comes into the matchup at 10-0 overall with a State PR of 92.24. The Dons won their third straight MIAA Class A conference title with a 35-7 victory over Georgetown Prep. With a win over their archrival on Thursday, the Dons will have the opportunity to surpass a school mark for victories in a season.
The Cardinals want nothing more than to stop the Dons from accomplishing the feat.
Fordham Prep (NY) vs. Xavier (NY)
While both of these teams first met in 1905, this New York City rivalry has been pulsing for 85 years, making it the city’s oldest high school football clash. The matchup has occurred on Thanksgiving Day ever since ’23.
This season, Fordham Prep enters the matchup at 3-6 overall and have lost three in a row, including a 63-39 defeat to Holy Trinity Diocesan on Nov. 1. Peter Gorynski’s team will need to put forth their best effort to date to stop Xavier. The Knights are 7-1 overall and have a State PR of 76.49.
Quite simply, the Knights’ offense has been downright explosive. Xavier has scored at least 37 points in all eight of its games. They have scored 397 points in eight games, good for 49.7 points per game.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the year came against Cardinal Hayes on Oct. 11, as the Knights won 86-42. In that game, running back Seamus Kelly rushed for 291 yards and five touchdowns and had 448 all-purpose yards as well.
For the Rams to have a prayer in this year’s matchup, they will certainly need to prevent Kelly and company from putting up points. While the Knights have scored 37 points in every game thus far, the Rams have scored 37 points or more in just one game.
By Brett Manney
One of the few games to be played on Thanksgiving on the West Coast is San Jose High Academy versus Lincoln High of San Jose. These two teams meet every year in the “Big Bone” game which features the winner receiving a cow femur. The game is the longest continuing Thanksgiving Day rivalry in California.
Rumor has it that the first Big Bone game was played in 1943 and the winner received the femur. Supposedly a San Jose High student found a large femur in his father’s butcher shop and claimed it as the trophy. Now the 18-inch femur sits upon a three-tiered base and is painted in the colors of both schools.
Lincoln High is more comfortable with the femur considering they have won the last 10 years and 38 of the 62 years that the game has been recorded. Both teams would rather play this game than a section playoff game because of the history and pride they have for their respective school and the rivalry. With over 5,000 attending each year, the game has become a must-see rivalry in California.
“English vs. Latin”
When it is time for football in the Boston area, there is one rivalry that tops all others. Boston English versus Boston Latin is one of the oldest rivalries in the country. The two schools have played every Thanksgiving since 1887, and is the fourth longest rivalry of all time. Boston Latin is considered the oldest public high school in the country and was founded in 1635.
The first game was played November 25, 1887, with Latin winning 16-0. Latin has dominated the series since the late 60s partly because English has 700 fewer students than Latin. Since 1967, English has only won three games, but the team’s intensity and compassion for the game has never ceased.
In the 123rd meeting of the two schools, both squads look for vengeance. Latin won last year’s game, 33-6, and English hopes they can stop the winning streak in ‘08. Both teams have struggled this year and a win for one of the programs could be a bright spot in their losing season. With such rich traditions the rivalry lives on for bragging rights in Boston.
Since 1905, these two teams have met almost every year for bragging rights. The city of Easton, which is also home to Lafayette College, sits on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, while Phillipsburg is directly across the river on the New Jersey side.
Easton holds the all-time lead 56-40-5, which includes a 17-6 win last year. Neither team has won more than five games in a row. The rivalry was recognized by Sport Illustrated as one of the best rivalries in the country and ESPN covered the game nationally in 1988 and 2006, which was the 100-year anniversary.
Phillipsburg dominated the series in the 1980s, winning eight games, while Easton dominated the 1990s by winning nine games. The turn of the century has seen the two teams battle back and forth. Phillipsburg comes into the game with a 9-1 record, while Easton is 6-6. The battle across state lines is certainly a can’t-miss clash on Thanksgiving.
By Ryan Rohde
Webster Grove Statesman (MO) vs. Kirkwood Pioneers (MO)
The first game took place on thanksgiving morning of 1907. Dubbed as the annual “Turkey Day Game”, Webster Grove-Kirkwood is the oldest Thanksgiving rivalry west of the Mississippi river. Kirkwood leads the series 49-37-5.
The winner receives the Frisco bell, a giant 400 lb. bell donated by the Frisco Railroad Company in 1952. To the loser goes the Little Brown Jug, modeled after the jug given to the winner of the Michigan-Minnesota college game.
The festivities are not just reserved for game day; the celebration takes place all week. Each class from both schools decorates the halls of the high school and a winner is voted on. Pep rallies take place all week and bonfires are set ablaze the night before the game. There is also the “friendship dance”, which is co-produced by both schools and sees a friendship king and queen be selected. There is even a video game tournament held between the two schools during this week.
The 101st edition is sure to not disappoint. Games in the past have been played as “sub-varsity games” due to teams being in the state playoffs, but that is not the case this year. Kirkwood lost on Nov. 10 in the state sectionals, so both squads will be fielding their varsity rosters.
Webster Grove comes into the game at 5-4 and failed to make the state playoffs. The Statesman might be without QB Derrick Dilworth, who suffered a knee injury during the last game of the season. His status is unknown. Dilworth has thrown for 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns to go along with 339 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The defensive front seven is the strength of this team. Defensive end Darion Mcmiller leads the team with 10 sacks, and linebacker Jason Meehan has a team-high 78 tackles.
Kirkwood is 6-5 overall and features a duo of senior running backs that hope to combat that tenacious Webster defense. Deandre Buckner leads the team with 1,461 yards and seven touchdowns, while Kimuel Keller has 348 yards rushing and 427 yards receiving with 11 totoal touchdowns.
The community waits for this all year. Even when the NFL Cardinals were based in St. Louis, members from both communities protested the team from playing on Thanksgiving because Webster-Kirkwood had already established itself. Both teams will dawn throwback jerseys dating to the ‘50s as well. A game of this importance is destined to be a classic.
Wellesley Raiders (MA) and Needham Rockets (MA)
It all started when Wellesley student Arthur Judson Oldham challenged his Needham counterparts to a friendly game of football 126 years ago. The game was played on Thanksgiving morning with Wellesley winning 4-0.
The two towns were originally one before Wellesley defected in 1881. Since then, both towns let the football game decide town superiority. In early years, winning this game was so important that many of the teams played ringers, sometimes even semi-pro and professional athletes that were hired by each respective town. Finally in 1904, the decision was made to play with strictly high school students.
The rivalry has since turned friendly. Both towns hold a rotary dinner the Tuesday before each game for coaches, parents and alumni. School representatives also have a chance to trade stories and poke fun at one another.
Wellesley leads the oldest public school rivalry in the nation 58-53-9. The Raiders come into the rivalry losing their last five games while the Rockets have posted a .500 record sitting at 5-5.
The beauty of rivalry games like this is that the records do not matter. Both teams can make their seasons with a win and cement their place in town history.
Malvern Prep Friars (PA) vs. St. Joseph’s Prep Hawks (PA)
The history of this game is not like any other Thanksgiving Day rivalries, but there is no shortage of bad blood. There were questions over whether or not the game would even be played with St. Joe’s participating in the PIAA playoffs.
The two schools are longtime Philadelphia private school powers. St. Joseph's has captured 15 Philadelphia Catholic League championships, while Malvern has won 27 Inter-Academic league titles. This game will only be the fourth meeting ever between the two schools, but that does not make this game any less important.
There are no trophies handed out when the final whistle blows, just bragging rights. Thse two all-boys schools even compete for the same girls who attend the local all-girls academies. Often times, students will attend their rivals' dances, showing up in force to try and prove their dominance.
The Hawks dominated last season’s game and ended Malvern’s bid at a perfect season. But this season, the Hawks are 8-3 and fell in the Catholic league semifinals to league rival LaSalle. St. Joe’s is no short on talent though. RB Mike Yeager has been steady all year, providing 1,151 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Hawks defense is always big and fast. Senior captain Mike Arciadono leads a defense that has held seven opponents to 14 points or less, including two shutouts.
Malvern comes in at 9-0 with revenge on their minds. The Friars have dominated the Inter-Ac this season by winning their games by an average of 43 to 9. QB Billy Conners has been impressive this season, throwing for 1,241 yards and 15 touchdowns. His main target has been WR Joe Price, who has hauled in 29 passes for 767 yards and 10 touchdowns. Running backs Neil Willis and James Connelly have combined for 1,432 yards and 29 touchdowns.
The game is held at Villanova stadium and you can be sure that both teams will try to prove which prep is better.
You can reach senior editor Adam C. Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org. To reach correspondent Brett Manney, you can e-mail him at email@example.com. And to contact correspondent Ryan Rohde, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.