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Toohey: Turkey Day games increasingly at risk of extinction

There was a time when you could throw a dart at a map of Delaware County and stand an excellent chance of hitting a school district that played football on Thanksgiving Day.

Of the 15 public school districts in the county, 13 played on Thanksgiving at one time or another. Only Radnor and Garnet Valley did not play on the holiday.

Chester, Marple Newtown, Penncrest and Springfield all played on Thanksgiving at one time. Springfield and Marple Newtown played for 41 years. When that holiday game ended, the Tigers played Cardinal O’Hara for two years before starting a series with Conestoga that lasted 14. Academy Park and Penn Wood dabbled briefly in the tradition.

Many schools that no longer exist either through closing or consolidations — Clifton Heights, Collingdale, Eddystone, Lansdowne-Aldan, Ridley Park, Ridley Township, Sharon Hill, Swarthmore and Yeadon — also had traditional Thanksgiving games.

And those are just the public schools.

St. James and Chester played 29 times on Thanksgiving from 1962-1992. The only year the teams did not meet on the holiday was 1968, when St. James played Cardinal O’Hara. In 1977, the Bulldogs and Clippers played the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Archbishop Carroll, O’Hara and Monsignor Bonner also played on the holiday at one time or another.

There are three Thanksgiving Day games in Delco that have lasted: Haverford-Upper Darby, Sun Valley-Chichester and Ridley-Interboro. That’s it. And there aren’t many around the state, either — just 18, from information gathered on the Internet. Only two of those games, Catasauqua against Northampton and the legendary rivalry between Easton and Phillipsburg, are held outside of Southeastern Pa.

And those numbers are dwindling. Earlier this month, the Pottstown School District announced that it is ending its Thanksgiving Day game with Owen J. Roberts, the oldest in the Pioneer Athletic Conference, after this year.

“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,” Stephen Rodriguez, Pottstown’s Superintendent of Schools, said in a district 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.”

The teams will meet for the 60th and final time Thursday at Grigg Memorial Field in Pottstown. And that’s a shame because, with apologies to Jim Nantz and The Masters, Thanksgiving Day games are a tradition unlike any other.
Thanksgiving games are about more than just football. It’s a social gathering, a chance for the communities to come together. Former players routinely come back and talk to the teams about what the game meant to them.

“I’ve been here for 25 years and I know I’ve had at least one player from each of my teams show up at practice the week of the game,” Haverford coach Joe Gallagher said.

This year’s game at Upper Darby is homecoming for the Royals. It’s the same when the game is played at Haverford.

“I’ve been involved in this game as a player, fan and coach since 1975,” Upper Darby coach Rich Gentile said. “I don’t know what I would do without it. It is part of my Thanksgiving routine and it’s that way for a lot of people. It’s part of the fabric of both communities.”

Pretty soon, though, Thanksgiving Day games may go the way of the single-wing offense. The growth of the PIAA playoffs to a ridiculous six classifications has made it more difficult to keep the Turkey Bowl tradition alive. Ridley and Interboro did not play in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012 because one or both were still alive in the playoffs.

Easton, on the other hand, has played its Thanksgiving game with Phillipsburg even when the Red Rovers were in the PIAA tournament. Several times, Easton played Phillipsburg on Thanksgiving and a state playoff game two days later. That’s how important the rivalry is in those communities.

New Jersey schools don’t have to make that choice because the NJSIAA has a regional playoff format, not a statewide one, specifically in deference to the Thanksgiving tradition. The state is divided into five regions: North Jersey, Section 1; North Jersey, Section 2; Central Jersey; South Jersey and Non-Pubilc (what a novel concept, but that’s another subject). Each region, except for the Non-Public, has five groups, which are similar to the classifications in the PIAA. The Non-Public playoff has three groups. Each group tournament has eight teams, which makes each tournament a three-game affair to win.

However, those three games are spread over four weeks to accommodate the Thanksgiving rivalries. The playoffs take off this week and resume next week with the group championships in each region. There are 62 non-playoff games in NJ this week — 16 Wednesday, 45 Thursday and one Saturday.

Teams in Pennsylvania don’t have that luxury, and a rule change will make it harder to keep the tradition alive.
Teams that play on Thanksgiving used to be able to schedule what they called a contingency game in the event the team did not make the playoffs. It required a waiver of the 10-game rule from the District 1 office, which was never denied, but not anymore.

Starting next season, those games are not allowed, which means the teams that play on Thanksgiving but don’t make the playoffs will have to wait nearly a month to play. Ridley and Upper Darby did that this year; Thursday will mark 27 days since those teams met in each team’s regular season finale.

That could mean the death knell of a great tradition, and that would be a shame.

To contact Terry Toohey, email ttoohey@delcotimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @TerryToohey.

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