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Pottstown vs. OJR: A Thanksgiving Day rivalry about more than just football

POTTSTOWN >> Thanksgiving Day 2017 felt like the rivalry of old between host Pottstown and Owen J. Roberts Thursday morning.

With Pottstown’s Grigg Memorial Field flirting with a capacity crowd — fans on either side sitting elbow-to-elbow in the stands while others lined the surrounding fences — the historic Thanksgiving Day rivalry came to an end after 59 seasons.

The day, which featured a dominating 42-0 win for Owen J. Roberts down on the field, proved to be only a small part of the traditions that lived on in the bleachers.

The Owen J. Roberts band performs at halftime of the final Thanksgiving Day meeting between OJR and Pottstown Thursday morning. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

When the decision came down last month from Pottstown High School that the 2017 season would be the last for the Turkey Day rivalry game, shockwaves rang through the neighboring communities separated by the Schuylkill River.

When the news dropped, faithful fans felt a mix of emotions.

They felt discouraged.

They felt like a major part of the Thanksgiving tradition was being ripped away from them.

“You hate to see a tradition like this end,” said Gary Kirby, a 1958 graduate of Owen J. Roberts. “We’ve been coming to this game a long time, and every year it’s a get-together for us — family, friends, college kids, neighbors. I came through Owen J., so did my two sons and my grandson. So this game has always been a bond for us.”

Pottstown’s Daniel Darden (24) dives to tackle Owen J. Roberts’ Hunter Hinrichs after a reception Thursday. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

The Thanksgiving Day rivalry game kicked off in 1959, “when football was football,” according to Rick Webb, a 1975 graduate of Owen J. Roberts who spent his youth watching from the stands before playing tailback for the Wildcats. In those days, fans lined up at the gates while the sun was still rising.

“In our day, you didn’t have the fence or the track around the field,” he recalled with a bright smile. “You could stand right along the field, right along the edge of the end zone. You were right there on the field with the players — you could hear the guys snorting and cussing on the field. It was a great atmosphere.”

As the years went on, though, the interest and attendance levels declined, especially of late, as the band members began to take up more space than the fans in the stands.

The tradition was fading all around the area, as three Thanksgiving Day games were dropped between the 2009 and 2013 seasons, and OJR-Pottstown soon stood as the area’s only matchup. Even as the rivalry stood alone in the league and the area, the magic had seemingly worn off.

On Thursday morning, the down years felt like distant memories.

Owen J. Roberts coach Rick Kolka. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

With each snap of the ball and each bang of the drum, the Thanksgiving Day buzz was all over the stadium.

For William Day, the annual rivalry game had officially come full circle.

Day, a 1959 Pottstown graduate, played in the programs’ first Thanksgiving Day matchup and was able to watch from the stands during the final showdown.

Of all the moments, all the memories he’s made playing in and watching the games, Day noted that the most important part has been watching two communities come together each year.

“Everybody comes together as one,” he said prior to the game. “We work together, we socialize together and everybody can relate to each other and their families. It’s always been such a great day for both communities.”

John Johnson, a 1964 graduate of Pottstown, echoed similar sentiments.

“It shows that from one side of town to the other, we can all come together and enjoy this,” said Johnson, sporting a hat honoring the Trojans’ 1961 undefeated Ches-Mont champion team. “It’s a good camaraderie — it shows that we can all get along. In the world we live in today, it’s important for us all to have something like this. Something that keeps us all going.”

Of course, football is family. Just ask Jim Bauer, a 1958 graduate of North Coventry (now Owen J. Roberts). Bauer paved the way for his sons, Randy and Jim Bauer.

“They were all Ches-Mont … they were better than me,” he said wi

The Pottstown cheerleaders perform during the Trojans’ football game against Owen J. Roberts Thursday morning. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

th a hearty laugh. “I attend most of the games, but I don’t see too many Owen J. games because my son (Jim) coaches at Muhlenberg.”

Old friends and former teammates linked up again and rekindled the old spirits that still have yet to fade away.

“If you look up at the stands, this place is packed,” said Bob Stuart, a member of the OJR booster club. “There are people here today that haven’t seen each other in years renewing old friendships. That’s what we’re all going to miss the most.”

“I bumped into some guys that I haven’t seen in years,” said OJR grad Bill Nesley. “I’m sitting here like ‘Who are you?’ And then it hits me. That’s what this day’s all about — seeing some old friends out here and reliving some of our memories.

“It’s a shame to see something like this come to an end. I know this day means a lot to so many people from both communities.”

As one tradition comes to a close, Pottstown’s director of communications and former longtime athletic director John Armato hopes to start a new one in the coming years.

“We’re hoping to put together a Labor Day tradition with Owen J. Roberts called the ‘Route 100 Challenge,’” said Armato. “Like Thanksgiving, that’s a traditional weekend where a lot of people are back home. It would be a season-opening game for both schools and a great way to keep this tradition alive.”

Members of the Owen J. Roberts football team celebrate with the winner’s trophy after defeating Pottstown in the final Thanksgiving Day meeting between the schools Thursday morning. (Austin Hertzog – Digital First Media)

It may not be Thanksgiving morning, but it’s no secret the surrounding communities would love to see the legacy live on.

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