UPPER DARBY >> The two thoughts will come on schedule, which is as soon as Joe Gallagher wakes up on Thanksgiving morning. One, then the other. In an instant. Guaranteed.
The first: It would be nice if St. James and Chester would still be playing a holiday football game.
The other: At least Haverford is Haverford and Upper Darby is Upper Darby and some things are eternal.
Gallagher is the football coach at Haverford, and that means he will have something to do Thursday. That’s because Haverford and Upper Darby coaches have had something to do every Thanksgiving since 1921. And what they have to do is simple, if nuanced. Out in the open, in a packed stadium, they will be endeavoring to win a high school football game. Deeper inside, they know their real task: To make sure that the game is something worth savoring, worth remembering, worth preserving.
“I know the state is doing everything it can to do away with Thanksgiving games,” said Rich Gentile, the Upper Darby coach. “But this means everything to us.”
Once an area-wide given, and for decades a Delaware County tradition, Thanksgiving high school football is close to extinct. The reasons are plentiful. Consolidation of schools. Schools, like Gallagher’s alma mater, St. James, closing. The pressure to reach and prepare for the playoffs, and a PIAA that never runs out of ways to add another enrollment-based classification, giving the postseason a festival-seating feel.
There has even been pressure on Haverford and Upper Darby from within the Central League to play in the regular season, not nearly a month later, for the purposes of the standings. The thinking, muffled if real: Since Haverford and Upper Darby are typically successful, waiting until the postseason brackets are set before playing one another costs each the potential for valuable seeding points.
“I don’t know why anyone would have that issue, because it only hurts us as far as the playoffs are concerned,” Gentile said. “There has been talk that we should play twice, once during the regular season, and again on Thanksgiving as a nonleague game. But every once-in-forever, the game is for the championship. That’s what happened a couple of years ago.
“And what could be better than that?”
That happened in 2015, and Haverford won, 49-42, and Gallagher has made it plain ever since that nothing he’d ever experienced could top that moment. And yes, that would have been him, playing for the University of Tennessee against Alabama in 1973, on national TV, back when being on national TV meant something.
“Hey, listen,” Gallagher said. “In my entire sporting life as a player, coach or fan, it ranks as the No. 1 event of all time. Of all time. What added to the greatness was that it was for the championship.”
So some things about the Upper Darby-Haverford rivalry can be measured. But not all. How can the value of former Royal and soon-to-be Marine A.J. Covington addressing his former team last year be measured, telling the players what it means and what it will mean later? And what value can be placed on as under-appreciated tradition as there is in the entire scope of Philadelphia sports? That would be the coaching staffs from both teams meeting every year for breakfast at the Perkins Pancake House on Lansdowne Ave., just hours before kickoff?
Where else in sports would that happen?
“I’ve got news for you,” Gallagher said. “In all the years we’ve been doing this, not one time has the game come up. We talk about everything else you can imagine except for the game. It’s awesome.”
Yet by not talking about the game, the coaches, including all of the assistants, are actually shouting about it. They are showing respect — for each other, for the rivalry, for the sport. They are embracing the essence of the Thanksgiving football experience: The anticipation of the day, the value of tradition, the joy of true friendship.
“I tell you what we talk about,” Gentile said. “We talk about stuff that’s happened in the past.”
There is plenty of that. Gallagher is about to coach in his 25th Haverford game. Gentile, who played in his first Upper Darby game in 1975, has not missed one since, even returning as a fan every Thanksgiving for four years when he was playing at West Chester. So they talk and they remember. Even better, they forget.
“It is the combination of intensity and mutual respect,” Gallagher said. “It is what goes on. It’s really a unique thing, because it is very hard-fought and it is very fierce, but at the same time there is an awful lot of mutual respect between the players and the coaches.”
Though Gallagher, 62, and Gentile, 58, have grown deep into the rivalry, they know it predated them, and expect that it will continue long after they allow others to carry that ball. Yet who is to say? Once, Gallagher would have found it impossible to believe there would not be a St. James-Chester game on Thanksgiving. But St. James closed in 1993, meaning it’s been 25 Thanksgivings since last the Bulldogs were involved.
“It was always an awesome day,” Gallagher recalled. “We played Chester at PMC, at the old, original field there. And it was huge. When I first entered St. James as a freshman, I couldn’t wait until I was a sophomore to get to play in that game.
“During the week, we had dinner with Chester High at the old Polish-American Club in Sun Village. That was kind of a cool thing, too, about it. Some years, it used to be the Colony Hotel, which was Chester’s finest hotel. That was a neat thing, too.
“In Delaware County, Thanksgiving football was an awesome thing. And everybody looked forward to it.”
Anymore, few do. Chichester and Sun Valley will play their 50th Thanksgiving game this year. Dating to 1965, the Ridley-Interboro game is a MacDade Blvd. tradition. Yet if the PIAA playoffs interfere, as they have four times since 2006, there is no game.
But Upper Darby and Haverford have played every Thanksgiving for 95 years. The 2021 game will be the 100th in the Thanksgiving series. The Fords lead the overall series, 46-44-6, including an additional game played earlier in the 1943 season. At this point, there is enough tradition and community support and implied pressure that the game will continue. It helps, though, that the two coaches are so deeply committed not just to that game, but to the value of Thanksgiving football everywhere.
“Why,” wondered Gentile, “would you throw it away?”
Kickoff Thursday will be at 10:45, at Haverford. The Fords are 8-3 overall, 6-2 in the Central, and were eliminated by North Penn in the opening round of the PIAA District 1 Class 6A tournament. The Royals are 6-4, 5-3 in the Central.
“I think it will be a really good game,” Gentile said. “Haverford has maybe the best group of skill people. They are good. They are really good. It should be a really good game. It always is.
“We’ve gone over there when we’ve been in the playoffs and they weren’t, and they beat us. We have to be ready. And I think we will. I know it will hit our seniors as they prepare for the game, then during the bus ride over there that, ‘This is it.’”
For one Thanksgiving, one year, it will be it. For the seniors. For the fans. But then, it will continue. How long? Impossible to predict. Will better education about the risk of concussions make football of any kind obsolete in the next 100 years? Will the state tournaments grow so unwieldy that Thanksgiving football will become impractical? Will the next coaches at Haverford and Upper Darby — and no, neither Gallagher nor Gentile are planning to go anywhere — be as committed to working the extra weeks just to prepare their teams for one more game that often doesn’t matter in the standings?
Will the school enrollments forever essentially match, allowing for reasonable competition? Might there ever be consolidation of schools?
“All I know is that this is serious to us,” Gallagher said. “This is huge to us. It probably overrides everything that we do during the season; playoffs, you name it. To us and Upper Darby, it remains a tradition that is honored and revered.
“I’ve been part of it for 25 years. This is my 25th one coming up, and it went on well before me. It has just carried over, man. When I took over, it was just part of what the school was about. I fell right into it.
“Obviously coming from that era where it was huge, I was so happy that I landed at Haverford, which was maintaining that Thanksgiving Day tradition. And at Upper Darby, they are 100 percent equal partners in this. My relationship with them, and Richie in particular, is strong. We are like two peas in a pod as far as what this game means to us and the school.”
He’ll think about that Thursday, before the game, then during and after it, too. So will Gentile. It’s just tradition.
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