It is supposed to be the football highlight of a high school senior’s life. You invest a great part of your youth playing football and it culminates in the annual Thanksgiving Day game against a century-old rival. Morning football jousts give way to afternoon turkey, stuffing, and canned cranberry sauce.
The rest of the country has Friday Night Lights. Here in Massachusetts we have Turkey Day bragging rights.
But our ancient ritual has been modified and in many cases, severely diluted.
This is not the fault of global warming, the Internet, or millennial apathy. The change in our traditional Thanksgiving football rivalry games is owed to changes in the MIAA state football playoff format.
Massachusetts is home to most of the oldest football rivalries in High School America. And our jousts take place on Thanksgiving. Wellesley and Needham this week will play for the 132nd time, Barnstable and Falmouth for the 130th time, Winchester and Woburn for the 115th time. Swampscott and Marblehead have met 109 times. Ask anyone from Quincy if they think Quincy vs. North Quincy will be a big deal. Ditto for Boston Latin and Boston English, Newton North and Brookline.
Unfortunately, playoff format changes imposed in 2013 have dented interest in the Thanksgiving game in many communities. Due to the current state playoff format, a 2019 Thanksgiving game might feature two teams who have already played this season; or worse: the Thanksgiving game can result in the farce if one squad decides not to compete because there’s a Super Bowl coming up. Due to the current format, some teams have playoff games this weekend, five days before Thanksgiving.
Which game would you try to win?
“We’ve played Foxborough 89 years in a row,’’ says Mansfield coach Mike Redding, who is planning to go all out this Thursday even though his team is bound for a Division 2 Super Bowl. “We want to be respectful, but you only get so many shots at a state championship. The good part for us is that we don’t have to play the weekend before Thanksgiving. A lot of the schools do.’’
Some Thanksgiving games have been “tanked” in recent years. In 2016, Duxbury was 11-0, ranked No. 1 in EMass going into its Thanksgiving game against Marshfield. Duxbury coaches elected to rest their starters for the following weekend’s Super Bowl and lost on Thanksgiving to Marshfield, 53-0. The Dragons then won nine days later, beating Shrewsbury at Gillette Stadium, 40-7.
In 2014, Holliston rested its starters against Westwood on Thanksgiving, lost 33-0, then won its Super Bowl, 43-0, the following week against Wahconah Regional at Gillette Stadium.
In 2013, the first year of this format, Redding watched Mansfield’s best player, Brendan Hill, tear his ACL in a “meaningless” Thanksgiving rivalry game vs. Foxborough. Mansfield went on to win its Super Bowl anyway.
“In 2013, we asked our players, ‘Do you want to play in this [Thanksgiving] game?’ And every player said, ‘We want to play. We don’t want to lose our undefeated season.’ But then Brendan tore his ACL and our best running back separated his shoulder. We don’t have a game [the week before Thanksgiving] this year, so we are going to play Thanksgiving as a normal game.’’
Jim O’Leary, chair of the MIAA’s football committee, and a former AD and football coach at St. John’s Prep says, “I have a problem with coaches that don’t coach or try to win the game and play their freshmen and lose, 42-0, but I understand why some people would do it.
“People very clearly don’t want to get rid of Thanksgiving. We have to work around that and that’s what we did. This isn’t Texas or Western Pennsylvania. I think we have good perspective on football here. I would hate to see Thanksgiving go by the boards.”
“The games mean nothing now,’’ says Mike Lynch, longtime Channel 5 sports anchor who has dedicated much programming to high school sports.
Lynch played at Swampscott High and his late father was a longtime staff member under legendary Stan Bondelevich at Swampscott before serving as athletic director at Danvers High.
“Covering Thanksgiving games for Channel 5, we’ve been burned by going to games where teams played their JV players because they are going to be in the Super Bowl the following week,’’ says Lynch. “I can’t imagine not playing in my Thanksgiving game. It’s unthinkable. They’d have had to have chained me to the door to keep me from playing.’’
“The crowds are a lot smaller,’’ says Catholic Memorial coach John DiBiaso, who had a long career at Everett High with multiple state championships. “At Everett, we used to play our Thanksgiving game at Harvard Stadium. It didn’t matter what the records were. It was the last time the kids played together. Now it’s a little different and it’s a sin because this is unique to Massachusetts. This was a nice little thing we had.’’
DiBiaso’s CM squad has a chance to win a state championship on Dec. 7. Meanwhile, the Knights will play BC High Thursday, continuing a series that started in 1962. The Thanksgiving rivals already played Nov. 8 in a “tournament” game, with CM winning, 27-16.
John Bartlett, who coached BC High for eight years and has been AD for 20 years, said, “There’s definitely been a drop in attendance for Thanksgiving. When you play them in the playoffs, then play them again two weeks later, there’s not as much at stake. There are not as many fans attending.
“It’s definitely a conundrum for the state. I understand and I like that there are more teams in the playoffs, but there’s not as much at stake now. I can see how each side looks at this differently.’’
BC High-CM will be one of nine 2019 Thanksgiving games that will be “rematches.’’
“I was talking to one of my high school teammates the other day, and I asked him if he was going to the BC High-CM Thanksgiving game,” said former Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker (CM ’63).
“He thought I was incorrect about CM’s opponent because CM already played BC High. He just moved back to Boston recently and didn’t know about the new format. He was surprised at the weirdness of such a format.
“Am I the only one who thinks the system is ridiculous?”
Longtime Newton North athletic director Tom Giusti notes, “Crowds for our Thanksgiving game have been down. It used to be that our game could be for the league championship, but that’s gone now because of the format. We’ve already played Brookline in our first seven games. We could have played them again in the tournament. This could be our third game with them. And the game doesn’t mean as much. The kids lose a little something when this happens. It’s harder to motivate them.’’
“Thanksgiving is just not the same,’’ argues Lynch. “And it’s a huge financial hit for some of these schools. When my dad was athletic director at Danvers, the gate from the Thanksgiving game would fund the entire winter sports program. Now it means nothing. The crowds have dwindled. The people are not there.’’
“This is not Swampscott in 1970,’’ counters O’Leary. “I think everything has been diluted in every sport in every manner in every tournament by attendance. It’s not the same. But that’s where we are. I just don’t think football has the same status of 15 years ago.’’Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.