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Countless memories from OJR-Pottstown Thanksgiving Day rivalry as final game looms

It will be a significant sounding.

When the buzzer goes off at Pottstown High’s Grigg Memorial Field around noon Thursday, it will signal more than just the end of a football game between Pottstown and Owen J. Roberts. It will herald the end of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s oldest Thanksgiving pairing — and one of the area’s most storied Turkey Day matchups — after almost six decades.

The announcement was made on Nov. 9, through a press release from the Pottstown School District. Owen J. Roberts School District officials were also informed, at that time, of Pottstown’s decision to dissolve the end-of-season game.

Darrell Bookard, left, and Pottstown rolled in the 2011 Thanksgiving Day game over Owen J. Roberts. (Digital First Media file photo)

“After evaluating the effect of new PIAA rules regulating the length of the football season and number of competitions allowed, along with the present structure of our Pioneer Athletic Conference playoff system, the Pottstown School District football program will participate in a Thanksgiving Day game for the last time this year,” Pottstown Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said in the statement. “After 59 years of rivalry with the Owen J. Roberts School District, this tradition has been a wonderful part of both communities. However, after changes were made to playoff rules in the PIAA, and the new impact to students, the time has come for change.”

To no surprise, reaction to the decision was met with opposition by the tradition’s many supporters, including those around Owen J. Roberts.

“It’s sad to see this go,” current OJR head coach Rich Kolka said. “There weren’t too many left. Our players liked to play in them, everyone who has gone to OJR has played in that game.

“Other people can relate to it. The league has changed, divisions have changed, but through all of that, all of our players hold one thing in common: They all played on Thanksgiving.”

Jim “Zeke” Zelenak, an OJR player and coach for a combined six seasons between 1976 and 1985, cited as his best childhood memory “the 1970 game, getting there at 6 in the morning for a 10 o’clock game” that capped Owen J. Roberts’ finish as Ches-Mont League champion.

“I’m very sad and angry that it is over,” he said.

Dave Strock, the longtime Owen J. athletic director whose playing days coincided with the series’ lone tie — a 13-13 result in 1965, saw the Thanksgiving Day gridiron rivalry as transcending the actual game.

“The game was one thing. The aura was bigger,” he said. “You’d see people you played against, friends … it was the largest-attended game of the year.”

* * *

The OJR/Pottstown Thanksgiving Day clash has often been the bridge to a league-championship finish by one of the teams in its 59 years. That was particularly true when the Wildcats were under the leadership of Henry ‘Hank’ Bernat for three decades (1960-1990).

Bernat and his staff orchestrated nine league-championship finishes by Roberts between 1970 and 1988 — the first eight in the Ches-Mont League, the ninth as a new member of the Pioneer Athletic Conference. Those years, the Wildcats went 8-2 on Thanksgiving.

“Most of the games were memorable, no question about it,” Bernat recalled. “They were all good games, hard-fought.”

OJR went into the 1980 Turkey Day game vying for a Ches-Mont title, but encountered a unique scenario.

The Wildcats went into their game with the Trojans tied with Spring-Ford for first place in the Ches-Mont standings. A win would insure OJR no less than a co-championship, or an outright title if Spring-Ford lost its game with Boyertown.

Tom Barr gets doused by running back Josh Brumfield after Owen J. Roberts’ Thanksgiving Day win over Pottstown in 2001. (DFM file photo)

As fate had it, the ‘Cats lost to Pottstown 14-7.

“A lot of the players changed quickly and left,” recalled Larry Glanski, a senior and two-way lineman for OJR who is currently athletic director at Perkiomen Valley. “We were very disappointed, losing the Thanksgiving Day game and thinking we had lost the championship.”

But their frowns were turned upside down when it was later revealed the Rams were edged by the Bears, 15-14, to establish the co-championship finish.

“It was probably one-and-one-half hours,” Glanski said of the time frame between game’s end and getting the news from Royersford. “We didn’t pay attention to it at the time.

“We were hoping it was true. I don’t remember exactly where the confirmation came from. There was a pay phone around the corner from the gym. Somebody called his cousin in Royersford and got the word.

“We went from being very low to very high. It was a real swing of emotions. A handful of players were hugging each other.”

Bernat cited the 1970 matchup — a true “championship” game, with the Ches-Mont title the ultimate prize — as particularly notable.

“People were lining up at 5 a.m. for the game,” he said. “That’s kind of memorable. The crowd was into the game, the students were into the game.”

Chuck Nesley, another in the long line of former OJR players/coaches, experienced both happiness and sadness against the backdrop of the Thanksgiving Day rivalry.

His senior year, the 1999 graduate recalled scoring off a pass by Adam Swavely to help the ‘Cats win, 32-0. They finished fourth in the PAC with a 6-3 record, trailing league tri-champions Lansdale Catholic, Perkiomen Valley and Spring-Ford.

Pottstown head coach Bret Myers tries to avoid a dousing by his players at the end of the Thanksgiving Day game. (DFM file)

“Our turkey tasted amazing that year,” he said. “The two years before, when we lost, the turkey was terrible!”

It was a sadder time for Nesley more recently. He recalled how his father — Charles Jr., a 1968 OJR graduate — had died the week before the holiday five years ago.

“That first week without him during Thanksgiving was very emotional for our family,” he said. “That particular Thanksgiving morning, I was very excited for the game itself and very excited to coach our kids in that game. I just loved being around the players, (and) coaching gave me an outlet to get away from all the stresses of what I was going through.

“I honestly can’t tell you if we won or lost that game — that day, it really didn’t matter. I just remember walking to the sidelines after we shook hands with the opposing coaches and breaking down with emotion. I was standing off to the one side by myself, trying to get it together before I walked back to the locker room.”

“And who walks up to give me a hug? (Mercury sports editor) Don Seeley. He knew what my father, this game, this day and this community meant to me. He also understood what it meant to everyone in these communities.

“It was just a special moment that I will never forget. Both he and my father are greatly missed, and I will always give thanks for having those two men in my life.”

Jim Tsakonas had pleasant memories of the rivalry from his time in the Pottstown program … first as a player in the mid 1960s, then as head coach in the late 1980s.

As a player, the 1967 game pitted Tsakonas and his Trojan teammates against a highly-touted OJR squad quarterbacked by Don Strock, who went on to have a 16-year National Football career primarily with the Miami Dolphins.

OJR’s Bryce Weeks stiff arms Pottstown’s Brandon Tinson in second half action in 2015. (Kevin Hoffman – The Mercury)

“And we beat them (25-6),” he recalled. “We knocked them out of the championship.”

In his first year coaching at Pottstown (1988), Tsakonas’ squad came into the game with Owen J. in the running for the PAC title. Led by a solid corps of seniors that included the likes of Brian Campbell, Tom Medvetz, Job Price and Brent Voynar, the Trojans won 35-8 to finish as co-champions with Phoenixville.

“It was a championship game. We had to win it to be champions,” he said.

The T-Day game capped an inspired season for Pottstown. Tsakonas noted the team ended up with only 28 players on the roster, 15 of whom were seniors.

“The guys put a lot of work in,” he noted.

Between his scholastic gridiron career (1976-78), and a quarter-century of service as a coach (1989-2014), Tom Barr had been part of 28 Thanksgiving games between Owen J. Roberts and Pottstown. The one that sticks in his mind the most, as it turned out, was his last one with the program in 2014.

“We had a snowstorm that dropped about six inches of snow on the area,” he said. “The only clear lines were the five-yard ones.

“They thought about playing the next day if it (snow) kept going, but it stopped.”

Another notable one for Barr was the one in 2010. The Wildcats ended up sharing the PAC title with Boyertown after topping the Trojans, 49-17.

“Clinching the championship against Pottstown was a good thing,” Barr said. “We had a good, seasoned group of players.”

From his playing days, Barr made history in the 1978 tilt OJR won by a 34-6 count. Running for 144 yards, Barr collected 2,006 rushing yards for the season, just breaking Denny Laws’ single-season rushing record of 2,005 in 1970.

“Hank (head coach Bernat) pulled me out of the game after I got the record,” Barr recalled. “I was fine with that.”

Jeff Sparagana was never involved with Thanksgiving Day football anywhere prior to becoming Pottstown’s head coach in 1995. But in his three-year stint, Sparagana led the Trojans to victories over OJR all three times — one of only two runs of that duration they made. The first time was the first three games of the series, 1959 to 1961.

“They were all special,” Sparagana, who went on to become Pottstown’s superintendent and retired in 2016 after 20 years in the district, said. “It was a special event for the players, coaches and community.

“When the games were played, records went out the window. We looked at Owen J. Roberts as our ‘bowl’ game.”

Pottstown’s 1995 team went 8-2, led by such notable players as Brandon Tinson, Mike Monroe, Ryan Sellers and Dave Marburger. Sparagana mentioned the likes of Kevin Yonas, Mike Jackowski, Darius Tinson and Anthony Wiggins as stalwarts of the 1997 club.

“It was an exciting time … a lot of fun, great kids. The games had tons of people come out; Standing room only. It was something to be part of a tradition bigger than oneself.”

As is the case with many other football fans in the adjoining districts, Bernat will be sad to see the Thanksgiving Day game end.

“It’s a tremendous tradition,” he said. “I feel bad about it being discontinued, but what can you do? For a lot of kids, that’s the game they’ll always remember.”

Pre-game pep rallies

In keeping with the magnitude of the games, the Pottstown/OJR Thanksgiving Day football rivalry generated a number of traditions designed to get players and fans alike torqued up for the on-field dramas.
Tsakonas recalled how effigies of players would be hung over the South Hanover Street bridge.

“It’s always been a very big rivalry,” the former Pottstown player and head coach noted. “It’s a great rivalry, a Homecoming for the kids.”

Barr, a player and coach for the Wildcats in his time, recalled how Owen J. would hold bonfires at high school, on one of the sports’ practice fields.

“They had a bunch of pallets they piled up,” he said. “It was so neat … the cheerleaders, the heat from the fire.

“But the turf fields killed the bonfires.”

Jeff Endy, a quarterback for Pottstown from 2007 to 2010, remembered how his family would hold a Thanksgiving Day breakfast.

“We had about 50 people come over … teammates, family friends, old high-school friends,” he said. “My dad did most of the cooking.”

Endy also recalled how the team’s coach at the time, Brett Myers, enhanced the pre-game energy.

“He got a bonfire and pep rally going the last three years,” Endy said. “He’d also bring old alumni back, to explain what the game meant to them.”

Mark Fischer has been part of the Trojan/Wildcat rivalry just this year. But Pottstown’s first-year head coach is familiar with Thanksgiving Day football from his scholastic time at North Penn, participating in the Knights’ games with borough rival Lansdale Catholic around the 2000 school year.

“Everyone talks highly about it,” he said. “It’s one thing people pride themselves on.”

In prelude to Thursday’s game, both schools have planned activities designed to stoke the players’ and fans’ energies.

Pottstown will host a bonfire 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the high-school softball field.

On Thanksgiving Day, all Pottstown High School alumni football players, football coaches, football cheerleaders and former members of the high-school band are invited to create a tunnel for the 2017 Trojan football team to enter the field prior to the start of the game. Announcements will be made to join the tunnel at the north end of the field.

As part of the Thanksgiving Day festivities, the school will be honoring two fallen Trojans. Prior to the game, Mr. Ben Eckroth will be honored for his dedication to the Pottstown School District as both an educator and supporter of Pottstown athletics.

At halftime, the granite bench located on the hill — in memory of Pottstown Trojan Jared Bentley — will be rededicated. Pottstown alumnus Russ Gofus (Class of 1982), owner of Gofus Memorials, oversaw the dedication of the new bench.

At Owen J. Roberts, a Pep Rally for Tradition will be held 6 p.m. today at Wildcat Stadium. The gathering will include recognition of Owen J’s fall sports programs, football’s District 1-6A playoff qualifier, the boys soccer team’s district-level qualification, girls soccer’s Pioneer Athletic Conference champion and state-playoff semifinal squad, the state-quarterfinal field hockey team, and the boys and girls cross country PAC champion/state-meet qualifying teams.

Tickets for the Thanksgiving Day game will be priced at $5, with advance tickets being sold today at the Pottstown High main office 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and at the Owen J. athletic office 1 to 3 p.m.

The game at Pottstown High’s Grigg Memorial Field will start at 10 a.m.

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