No one debates that Thanksgiving is about turkey and family. Third on that list is probably football, with America’s pigskin pastime taking solo center stage on a national holiday while America feasts.
This year, forget about the Lions (no Tigers) and Bears (oh my!), forget about the Redskins and the relative inappropriateness of a team with that mascot competing on a holiday based around friendship between Native Americans and white settlers. Even forget about traditional college rivalry games like Mississippi’s Egg Bowl and the since departed Lone Star shootout between Texas and Texas A&M. The real thread of football tradition on Thanksgiving goes back much farther than that, and it’s all tied in with high school football across the country.
In total, there are dozens of prep football games that take place across 10 U.S. states on Thanksgiving Day. Here’s how the biggest and most notable shake out:
The State Line Game: Easton (Pa.) vs. Phillipsburg (N.J.) — It’s impossible to reference high school football on Thanksgiving Day without discussing Easton and Phillipsburg. The schools sit on opposite sides of the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, and the game is played at a neutral site at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. The game has often been a sellout or near sellout and has even received national TV treatment from ESPN in years past. Given that the contest has been played since 1905, and on Thanksgiving since 1916, there’s plenty of heritage and history here (and some fantastic snowy highlights to boot), not to mention heated passions fighting for the Forks of Delaware Trophy, named in honor of the Delaware River, which (along with a bridge) is all that separates the towns.
After a one-year miss, when the game was moved to the Saturday following Thanksgiving 2014 due to a freak snowstorm (Phillipsburg won that contest, 19-14), Easton blanked Phillipsburg, 26-0, in the 109th iteration in 2015 and also captured the 2016 game, 24-14, to cap a winning season … while keeping Phillipsburg from achieving precisely that. The 2017 iteration finished as a tight, 21-14 Easton win, helping the Rovers finish 8-5 while sending the Stateliners to their first loss; Phillipsburg would go on to be eliminated from the state playoffs nine days later.
In 2018, Phillipsburg enters as the NJSIAA North 2 Group 4 champion at 10-1, while Easton is 8-4 and more than a week removed from its playoff elimination. If that sounds like a recipe for another year of the Rovers playing spoiler in the bitter, bitter cold, you might just be on to something.
Ye Olde Ball Game: Norwich Free Academy (Conn.) vs. New London (Conn.) — No, it’s not called that, but perhaps it should be. Believed by some to be the longest running annual football game in America — the Northeastern Connecticut towns have played each year since 1875 — this annual matchup has made Turkey Day its own for decades. The teams have faced off more than once in some years, 42 to be exact, which makes the 2018 edition the 157th game between the rivals.
NFA topped New London in 2016, 13-0, and shutdown the Whalers in 2015 as well. In 2017, it was the Whalers who did the shocking, pulling out a 26-22 victory after entering the game with just a 3-6 record.
The scene in 2018 is set for more drama. New London enters 5-4, needing a victory to wrap up a winning season. Norwich Free Academy’s mark is exactly the same. Only one team will go home to eat turkey happy.
Old Firm Friends: Winchester (Mass.) vs. Woburn (Mass.) — Like many Massachusetts rivals, Winchester and Woburn have faced each other annually since the 1890s. The rivalry has rolled on uninterrupted since 1893, and there’s no risk of that abating any time soon. The problem is one of too much familiarity, with the two teams now facing off in the playoffs before the annual Thanksgiving Day game. Since Thanksgiving Day 2012, the teams have played five times before Thursday’s game. Most recently, Woburn knocked off Winchester in the MIAA Division 3 Northwest tournament in 2014, then returned to play on Thanksgiving, just like always. Woburrn won an all-time classic in 2016 with a 22-21 victory serving as the official send off for longtime Woburn coach Rocky Nelson. Then Woburn rattled off 34 consecutive points in 2017 to mark a 34-14 victory.
And if there was any question that the rivalry is a collegial one, just check out the gesture from the 2014 edition of the Woburn team below.
Maryland’s Holy War: Loyola Blakefield vs. Calvert Hall College — This game between two Catholic prep schools goes back 94 years and is said to be the longest running Catholic prep school rivalry in America. Loyola has a 10-win edge on Calvert Hall entering 2016, and local fans can catch the game on Baltimore ABC affiliate WMAR. Want to be there in person? Show up bright and early, 10 a.m., at the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium, as per usual. Stuffing not required, though an appetite for wild competitive swings can be helpful; the 2015 contest finished as a 6-0 Calvert Hall win while Calvert scored 40 points to capture the 2016 iteration, 40-21.
Loyola Blakefield entered 2017’s face off at 2-7 while Calvert Hall was 6-5, and the game played out about as you’d expect, with Calvert cruising to a 27-6 victory. Perhaps 2018 will be different. The Dons are more competitive with a 6-3 mark while Calvert enters a near immaculate 11-1. There’s no question each side desperately wants to use the game as a bow to tie off a successful season.
Thanksgiving Football Where Dreams Are Made: Xavier Prep (N.Y) vs. Fordham Prep (N.Y.) — How long have Xavier Prep and Fordham Prep been playing football before eating turkey? So long that the first game was called due to darkness while still a tie because the field had no lights. The game is considered the oldest sports rivalry in New York City, with official results tracked since 1906. The contest was initially hosted at the legendary Polo Grounds until the stadium was demolished, and now alternates between Fordham University in the Bronx and Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.
The Rams crushed Xavier, 28-0, in 2017 to cap a 10-2 season. This year Fordham is a more human 6-4, while Xavier enters at 7-4. Perhaps the tables are turning?
Show-Me the Turkey: Kirkwood vs. Webster Groves — There’s only one Thanksgiving Day game in the state of Missouri, and it’s contested between two suburban St. Louis rivals. There was a three-year spell from 2010-12 in which only junior varsity squads competed in the rivalry because of a playoff scheduling conflict, but the tradition has continued. The winner earns the Frisco Bell, which was donated by the Frisco Railroad Company in the 1950s.
Kirkwood became the first school to capture both a state title and Turkey Bowl victory in the same year in 2016 with a 17-6 victory. The Pioneers fell early in the state playoffs in 2017, but rebounded for a 35-7 rout of Webster Groves. The 2018 contest — the 111th between the teams — will be competed between a 7-4 Kirkwood squad and its 0-9 counterpart from Webster Groves. A single win for the Statesmen would certainly make the season feel a lot different.
Way out West: San Jose (Calif.) vs. Abraham Lincoln (Calif.) — This is the best-named Thanksgiving Day game by far: The San Jose Big Bone Game. It’s been contested since 1943, with a preceding “Little Bone Game” between the schools’ junior varsity teams always taking center stage a week earlier. As for the big bone in question? It’s a rather large cow femur used to record results from the game, not a giant wishbone from a gobbler. Lincoln is the current holder of the Big Bone dating back 20 years, thanks to a tight 7-0 victory in 2015, a 41-14 blowout in 2016 and a 49-14 victory in 2017.
Could San Jose overcome the odds and take back the Bone in 2018? The odds probably aren’t in its favor: The Bulldogs enter at 1-9 while Lincoln is 7-2.
WHEN TURKEY IS FOR CHAMPIONS:
Live Free for Pride: The Manchester city Turkey Bowl — A relatively recent addition to the Thanksgiving Day lineup, the Manchester city Turkey Bowl is a yearly contest for bragging rights in New Hampshire’s largest city. It’s also the only Thanksgiving Day game in the Granite State. The game has been contested between Central and Trinity more than any other teams — one local writer has even taken to calling the game the “Little Green Invitational” in honor of Central’s mascot — with Central earning the most Turkey Day berths with a spot in 30 of the 37 contests heading into Thursday’s game between Central and Manchester West.
True to type, Central is the current back-to-back holder of all the Turkey Bowl pride after a 48-8 rout of Trinity in 2016 and 47-22 blowout in 2017. The Little Green will be favorites again in 2017, entering with a 5-4 record compared to West’s 2-7 slate.
Battle for the Capitol: The District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association Turkey Bowl — The annual title game for members of Washington D.C.’s governing body for high school sports, the D.C. Turkey Bowl may have received the most attention when it featured female head coach Natalie Randolph, who led Coolidge High to the title game in just her second year at the helm.
For the second straight year, H.D. Woodson and Ballou will face off to take the top honors in the nation’s capital. The 2018 edition comes one year after one-game suspensions handed down to 18 Woodson players because of a fight following a playoff game against Eastern Senior High transformed the 2017 edition into a public firestorm. Woodson appealed the suspensions, unsuccessfully, and Ballou eventually earned a hard-fought, 21-14 victory against an undermanned Woodson team.
This year could be different. The Ballou Knights enter at 6-4 while Woodson’s Warriors are 8-3 and … importantly … at full strength for the big game. A win would mean Woodson’s fifth state title in the past six years, with only that 21-14 setback in 2017 remaining as a blemish.
Wherever you are this Thanksgiving Day, there should be some high school football action to sate your appetite. And unlike the turkey on the table, it can be enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans, too.