HAVERFORD >> On a crisp Sunday afternoon, four days before they were to partake in the game of their lives, the Upper Darby and Haverford captains stood united at A.G. Cornog Field for a Daily Times picture shoot.
Haverford seniors Jack Donaghy and Billy Farrell chatted with Upper Darby seniors Christoff Minott and Shawn Page as if they were old friends. There was no urge to tackle each other or talk trash. There was just respect and admiration for what all four players have accomplished this year with their respective teams.
The Royals and Fords will play for an outright Central League championship Thursday morning. Since the tradition began in 1921, there’s never been anything like it. Haverford coach Joe Gallagher remembers a similar situation in 1995, when the Royals had to beat Haverford to force a three-way tie with Springfield for the Central League title.
Haverford was victorious that day, marking the last time the program won the league crown.
But this year’s meeting is uniquely different. It’s one of the biggest games — if not the biggest — in the history of Thanksgiving football in Delaware County, yet will be coached by two longtime friends, Joe Gallagher (Haverford) and Richie Gentile (Upper Darby).
Donaghy, the Fords’ record-setting four-year starting quarterback, said it was a dream come true. Minott, the dual-threat signal caller for the Royals, echoed Donaghy’s sentiment.
“Coming in as a high school kid, you know the rivalry is huge between Haverford and Upper Darby,” Donaghy said. “The talk before every year is, ‘Well, what if we both go undefeated?’ That would be something crazy. Now here we are.
“It’s a dream come true and the only way it can get much bigger is if we have ‘High School Gameday’ with Lee Corso.”
This match made in Delco football heaven is ingrained in the culture of both programs every August.
“Coach Gal always puts out goals at the beginning of the year and the first two are win the Central League and beat Upper Darby,” said Farrell, a starting linebacker. “Those are the two we have on the table.”
Both teams took similar paths to get to this day. The Royals and Fords both went 7-0 against Central League competition. Both earned first-round home games in the District One Class AAAA playoffs. The Fords couldn’t solve Perkiomen Valley, but the Royals blasted Council Rock North, 59-34, to become the first Upper Darby football team to win a district playoff game.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotion,” Page said. “All four of us, this is our last high school game and there’s no better way to go out than to play for a championship. No matter what the end score is, both teams are going to be winners at the end of this game.”
T-shirts were made up to commemorate the big game and alumni returned home. Former NFL lineman and Upper Darby great Todd Rucci was slated to present the Royals with a golden football at their pep rally Wednesday. Meanwhile, Haverford welcomes back the 1995 Central League championship team for a pre-game ceremony to honor the 20th anniversary of that legendary team.
This is not just a game, it’s a spectacle.
“Since I first came into the league and since I’ve known Rich, we’ve talked about this many times, actually,” said Gallagher, the Haverford coach since 1992. “How great would it be that one day, on Thanksgiving, that game would be much more than what it already is and to play for a Central League championship outright. Here it is.”
Gallagher said what makes the game extra special is the mutual respect among the coaches. They are big fans of each other, and have been cheering each other along up until this point.
Every year, the coaches meet nice and early for breakfast. The tradition is such that the first to show up doesn’t have to pick up the tab.
“That’s another thing that’s special about this. Richie and I are good friends and our staffs are good friends,” Gallagher said. “Even though it’s a hard-fought game every year, it’s never bitter. Win or lose, and I’ve lost plenty of them … but after the game there is never a feeling of animosity or bitterness. We’ve both been in this for a long time. When you do lose this game, it’s not quite as harsh because we like each other off the field and have respect for one another.”
It’s funny to think that, if Haverford and Upper Darby had won two playoff games apiece, they would be playing for not only the Central League title, but for a trip to the district final. And had only one team made it that far, as Upper Darby came close to accomplishing, there was never any doubt about Thanksgiving morning.
“Quite honestly, it was never a question — and I know Richie feels the same because I talked to him Saturday about it — that this game would have taken precedence over a playoff game,” Gallagher said. “We both had already talked about (how) this game had a lot more value than a playoff game. It’s just the way it is. We’re similar in the way we view it.
“That’s what makes this whole thing so unique. It’s from the get-go in August when it’s first mentioned. This will be the most important thing. That’s unique to our county and to our rivalry. I don’t think you will see that hardly anywhere else. You just won’t see it.”
Minott and Donaghy mentioned the respect they have for the other as quarterbacks. This year, en route to leading Haverford to a 9-2 record, Donaghy set the school record for most passing yards in a career (4,989) and season (2,399). He needs 338 yards to break Dennis Decker’s single-season county passing record and just 11 yards to become only the second Delco quarterback to reach 5,000 for his career (Chris Gicking of Marple Newtown holds the record with 5,897).
Minott doesn’t have the same resume, but without him, there’s little chance Upper Darby makes team history in 2015. He’s passed for 1,556 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Royals went on to a 10-2 record.
“We know they’ve been working just as hard as we’ve been to get here,” Minott said. “I was at a couple camps that Jack was at the last two years, and I just gained a ton of respect for him. Everybody said he’s all this and all that, and I didn’t really know who he was. But seeing the work that he puts in, I gained a lot of respect and you can tell why he puts up the numbers that he does.
“Coming into the year, we wanted to make history. We wanted to be the first Upper Darby team to win a playoff game and we did that. The No. 1 goal is to win the Central League. With both of us undefeated, and it being on Thanksgiving morning with so much tradition behind it, it will be a real dream come true to win the game.”
In addition to the exploits of the two star quarterbacks, this game also features Isaiah Bruce, the county’s leading rusher, against a stout Haverford defense that has steadily improved against the run as the season has progressed. Farrell and his brother, junior linebacker Jack, key a defensive front alongside Denis Spaventa, who has been Haverford’s top lineman.
The sidebar features what many believe are the top two candidates for the Daily Times Player of the Year honor. It’s Haverford versus Upper Darby, but it’s also Donaghy versus Bruce, which gives the game an added element of importance, however secondary it may seem.
While Donaghy has thrown for the most yards and touchdowns (28) this season of any signal caller, while boasting a county-best 176.16 efficiency rating, Bruce has been the unstoppable force out of the backfield. His performance this year has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Bruce broke two school records for single-season yardage (2,247), single-game touchdowns (seven) and career touchdowns (35). His scoring total is tied for the most all-time in Delaware County. Moreover, Bruce is just 77 yards shy of breaking the county’s single-season rushing mark, which Tony Canci of Sun Valley set in 2004. Finally, with 3,138 career yards, Bruce has an outside shot of breaking Simoni Marco Lawrence’s Upper Darby career rushing record of 3,217 yards.
The battle, so to speak, between two great players is just a story line in the plot. All that matters is what the scoreboard reads when the fourth-quarter clock strikes zero. Haverford is looking to extend its Turkey Day win streak to six straight games over Upper Darby.
“They’re waking up just as early as we are in the summer and they’re waking up just as early as we are on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We’re here for a reason. We’ve all worked hard to get here,” Donaghy said. “This is going to be a game that 40 years down the road we’ll be at a bar talking to each other about and remembering how special it was.”
Gallagher and Gentile were asked if this is a game they could retire on, provided they lead their team to victory, of course. It’s a thought that drew laughter from both coaches. Gallagher and Gentile politely said no way, no how.
“There is not a bigger game, I’ll say that,” Gentile said. “I know there have been some great undefeated teams in this area, but to play for a Central League championship on Thanksgiving, and you’re not sharing it with anyone, is amazing. It will be nuts.”
Farrell ended the interview on that frosty fall Sunday with a quick story about a text he received from his former teammate, Alex Drum, who is a freshman football player at Ursinus College.
“He said, ‘Man, you guys are really playing Upper Darby for the Central League championship on Thanksgiving? I think that’s every football player’s dream to be playing for a championship in your last game,’” Farrell said. “They always say the senior game on Thanksgiving is the one you’ll always talk about. With the title on the line, it’s the one you’ll always remember, no matter what happens at the end of the day.”
And it will be a long time before anyone forgets Turkey Bowl 2015, Upper Darby and Haverford.
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