Thanksgiving Day has come and gone for another year, but not without leaving the satisfaction and joy of another great traditional holiday feast and time shared with family and friends. The Old Coach is a tradition-loving kind of guy. I always look forward to holidays and special events throughout the year that combine people I love, great food and sporting events. I am truly thankful that we live in a country that makes that possible.
Thanksgiving Day traditions that I’m sure many readers share with the Old Coach are watching our favorite college basketball team play in one of the many holiday tournaments that are aired round-the-clock, watching the giant balloons and spectacular floats in the Macy’s parade, tuning in to a traditional college football rivalry game, or completing the Thanksgiving Day marathon with the final NFL game of the day.
So how do those kinds of traditions get started, Coach?
Although we were taught back in the day that Thanksgiving was first observed in Plymouth Colony in 1620, the tradition actually is pre-dated by European peoples who celebrated the end of harvest season with a feast to thank God for delivering bountiful crops to help them survive the coming harsh winter. Similar harvest-season rituals were practiced by even more ancient cultures around the world. Here in the U.S., two Presidents recognized a day of thanksgiving: George Washington in 1789 with his Thanksgiving proclamation and in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a national holiday of thanksgiving for the Union victory at Gettysburg.
When it comes to college football, reportedly the first collegiate football game on Thanksgiving Day took place in 1876 between Rutgers and Princeton Universities. Starting in 1882, the college national championship game was decided when the two best college teams, as determined by the Intercollegiate Football Association, were paired against each other on that holiday. Of course, today’s NCAA BCS title won’t be decided until after New Year’s.
There are, unfortunately, numerous college rivalries that used to take place on Turkey Day, but have since been rescheduled to other dates to accommodate the many conference re-alignments that have taken place and TV/cable contracts, etc: Texas/Texas A&M; Alabama/Auburn; Utah/Utah State; and Penn State/Pitt, to name four.
In 1934, the first broadcast (radio) National Football League game played on Thanksgiving Day was the brainchild of Detroit Lions owner George Richards, who owned WJR Radio, an NBC affiliate. He had just purchased the team and moved it from Canton, Ohio, and needed a publicity stunt to get people in the stands. He had a team and a media outlet, the perfect marriage. The opponent was the Chicago Bears. Over the subsequent 85 years, the Lions and Bears have met on the holiday 19 times. The Lions played division rival Green Bay Packers 21 times over the same period. Starting in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys played on every Thanksgiving Day but two against various teams.
Of course, before Maryland high schools had a state football tournament, many teams played their final game of the season against their rival on Thanksgiving Day, usually dubbed the Turkey Bowl. The intracounty rivalry that was played that day every year in Western Maryland was the Fort Hill/Alleghany game, played at Greenway Stadium in Cumberland. Some 15,000 to 20,000 fans would pack the grandstands, one side wearing blue, one side red. The games were tyipcally hard fought, regardless of teams’ records.
There were several Baltimore city high school games traditionally played on that holiday Thursday. Two parochial high schools, Calvert Hall College High and Loyola High, both founded in the 1850s, first met in a Thanksgiving Day game in 1929. Two city public high schools, Poly and City, had started playing each other in football in 1889, and started playing a Turkey Day game in the early 1900s. These two Baltimore rivalries were combined into a doubleheader that was held in Memorial Stadium, then later in the Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium, for many years prior to state-tournament play.
In Annapolis, where the Old Coach grew up, the Turkey Bowl was played in the late 1950s and early 60s between Annapolis High and crosstown St. Mary’s High School. During my three years, the game was played in the newly built Naval Academy Navy/Marine Corps Stadium, the present site of the Maryland high school state finals. I remember what a thrill it was to play our games on Friday nights under the lights, but it was even more thrilling to be playing on a college football field in front of thousands of spectators.
These days, with the college and high school playoff systems that are in place, Turkey Bowls have all but disappeared. I’m sure players and coaches are thankful that the prospects of playing for a state, conference, or national title far exceed the traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalries, but those of us who remember them still have fond memories.
I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving. There really is so much to be thankful for.