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Way: Hustle, intensity defined Norristown-Upper Merion Thanksgiving Day games

Norristown's Eleazar Hill takes a hit from Upper Merion's Marc Clayton during their Thanksgiving game on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)

For me, the end of the Thanksgiving Day area football tradition is pretty meaningful.

I’m an Upper Merion High School grad, class of 1972, and for me, the Spartans/Vikings-Eagles on Turkey Day was part of something very special.

It meant getting up at the crack of dawn on Thanksgiving morning and bundling up against the cold, then driving with my dad to Roosevelt Field and trying to find a place both to park and to sit, which usually meant getting there at 8 a.m for a 10 a.m. game.

It meant watching the field area fill up to capacity and then some.

It meant watching two of the area’s best programs (in most years) go at it like no two other rivals I’ve seen before or since.

This was Upper Merion-Norristown, this was the crème de le crème.

This was blood and guts, this was hated rival facing hated rival. This was the be-all and end-all of every scholastic football season.

Roosevelt Field was huge, even by today’s standards. But even then the place was mobbed (as it was every year).

Neighborhood residents used to charge for people to park in their driveways, and they would demand and get top dollar.

Of all of the games I saw there as a kid, the one I most remember was in 1966.

I don’t remember the stakes, although in those days it was probably for a Suburban One League title, as most of those games were.

My memory insists the final score was 0-0, and my memory (at least in those days) was pretty good.

But what I remember most is that the teams never took a play off.

It was a true rivalry void of pats on the back after whistles, and the thought of helping a rival up after a tackle was unheard of.

It was how the game was played back then, and I’ve been covering games for 35 years and I’ve not seen an intensity like it since.

But one play probably best defines what this game meant to the combatants.

It was late in the game and a Norristown running back named Cliff Giddens broke free, certain to score.

Out of nowhere, however, an Upper Merion defensive back named Jack McAllister ran him down from behind and forced a fumble that rolled out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.

It prevented a touchdown and preserved the scoreless tie.

In these days of taking plays off and end zone celebrations better suited to a circus than a football game, it was hustle the likes of which I’ve seen few times in my many years of doing what I do.

But it summed up what it meant to play in an Upper Merion-Norristown football game.

Ask anyone who was there that day what they remember most and they’d probably give you a quizzical look or shrug their shoulders.

But me, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Even today, it reminds me of what the rivalry meant, and will never mean again.

My dad and I went home after the game and enjoyed our Thanksgiving meal with relatives.

In researching this story I came across the names of Giddens and McAllister.

McAllister died in 2010, while Giddens is still alive and living locally.

Ask Giddens if he remembers the play and he may or may not.

But I do.

It was the definition of Norristown-Upper Merion Thanksgiving Day football.

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