Isn’t Thanksgiving Day Football Supposed to be the Pinnacle of Our Local Sports Love?
If you’re from New England, or even more so, Massachusetts, you may feel you have a certain inalienable right to claim Thanksgiving as your own. It was, as many know, Plymouth, Massachusetts where the Pilgrims landed, and in turn, eventually established the very tradition of Thanksgiving through a chain of events we’ve all come to know through years and years of school and family tradition.
Here in Massachusetts, there’s a little something else which we tie to Thanksgiving, something many sports fans feel they have an inalienable right to: Thanksgiving Day High School football. That’s right, high school football. This is the point in the blog where you, not being from these parts, has a nice chuckle while thinking I may just be crazy. Well, I’m not.
Thanksgiving Day high school football has its tradition rooted deeply in the culture of this great state, and it goes back, in some cases, over 100 years. Rivalries between neighboring towns, neighboring schools, and in some cases, just places that don’t much like each other, highlight the schedule of games which grace the typically muddy, barren and beaten football fields across Massachusetts, in late November.
The list of games to be played on Thanksgiving could go a mile, and take up several posts in reality, but to boast the nation’s oldest, and the nations fiercest rivalries, is already quite enough.
First, the oldest, where the Needham High Rockets and Wellesley Raiders have carried on this time-honored tradition since 1882, a whopping 132 years! And secondly, the fiercest.
This is sort of tricky, because the answer really depends on where you are, or who you ask. You see, because in Massachusetts, every Thanksgiving Day football rivalry, is the fiercest.
That, is Where the Fun Lies.
Were you to ask your faithful narrator/writer, he would tell you that the Northbridge Rams and Uxbridge Spartans is by far and away the fiercest high school rivalry in all the land, and he wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Honorable mentions would likely include Boston Latin versus English High (est. 1887), Malden vs. Medford (1889), and East Boston vs. Southie (South Boston).
Today, these rivalries mostly live on, but with the MIAA (Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association) and its’ new playoff structure, Thanksgiving Day football has become something much less revered.
Even sadder, they’ve become much less important.
Gone are the days where a Thanksgiving game could mean the difference between a playoff appearance & the end of a tough season capped by a loss to your most hated rivals.
You see, Thanksgiving falls at the end of the traditional schedule, right around Week 11. With a ten game regular season, then your T-Day game, the playoffs would rightfully start in Week 12. It was all just so perfect that someone, or something would have to come along and mess it all up.
Enter the MIAA, and their new, seven-game regular season schedule. With such a change (instituted in 2013), Thanksgiving Day games have been rendered all but meaningless, and that, for many, is both sad and infuriating.
These days, teams play seven games, then enter into an 8-team, three-week postseason tournament to decide a District Champion (there are 4 Districts in the state, North, South, West, and Central). Each of those 4 winners play in a semifinal, and the two winners meet at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium- this year on December 6th- to play for a “unified” State Championship.
That’s all well and good, but what about Turkey-Day?
Let’s look at Northbridge-Uxbridge. These are two very good teams, and that showed this year particularly, with the Rams and Spartans meeting in the District Championship game this past Friday night, Nov. 14.
Northbridge went on to win the game, without much ado, 25-7, earning their spot in the state semis. Meanwhile, the Spartans are eliminated from postseason play; their season over and completely meaningless from here out…except that in ten days, they’ll have to strap on the pads one more time, as these two teams meet again, and that typically historic Thanksgiving-morning clash will be played…for nothing.
Admittedly, Uxbridge will arrive, back at Lasell Field to play for the pride they lost the first time around, but the win will mean nothing to their season, except as a mere bookend to a 13-game season of what-ifs, and what-could-have-beens.
In the meantime, Northbridge prepares to play this coming Saturday, Nov. 22, in a gargantuan test versus the Western District champs from Pittsfield High School; this coming a mere five days before a rematch with Uxbridge looms; which to them the Rams, amounts to little more than a high-profile scrimmage.
Storied rivalries, dead in an instant.
Northbridge may not even play the majority of their starters this Thanksgiving- which would not exactly go over well for the hundreds in town to be with their families on the holiday, and many, specifically arriving early to catch a 10:15 a.m. kickoff that morning to see their alma-mater battle its’ hated next-door neighbors from Uxbridge.
Should they defeat Pittsfield, they’ll have bigger fish to fry than the already fallen Spartans, with an impending trip to Gillette Stadium just nine days the latter. If a starter or key contributor to get injured in a meaningless contest, and be lost for a state championship contest, how could one be happy?
How could a team prepare for a situation like this? Too often, high school athletes are looked at like professionals, especially around here. I realize we didn’t invent football, and we’re not the only place that has Thanksgiving Day football, but we’re certainly the only place who disregards its importance, albeit for just the second year ever.
Just play the game and deal with it
They could, but if it were your son, would you want him to miss the chance of a lifetime; playing on the same field as the New England Patriots for a state championship, all because of an injury suffered due to some years-old tradition that the 70-somethings in town care more about than the teens? Something needs to be done, a change needs to be made.
We want our Thanksgiving football to mean something again. MIAA, I’m looking at you, and the ball is in your court.Should you find yourself interested, you can read all about the specifics of the game mentioned in this post, Uxbridge @ Northbridge, from 11-14-14, in the latest Blackstone Valley Tribune. Please visit: http://www.webstertimes.net/pdf/BLA.2014.11.21.pdf.