The tradition of Thanksgiving Day football is nearly as old as the game itself. The first Thanksgiving game took place in Philadelphia in 1869 between the Young America Cricket Club and the Germantown Cricket Club.
The tradition remains strong to this day, especially on the high school level. Locally, several longtime rivalries will be renewed this Thanksgiving: Atlantic City vs. Holy Spirit, Ocean City vs. Pleasantville and Mainland vs. Egg Harbor Township will all be played on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 23.
Absegami and Oakcrest will renew their intra-district Thanksgiving rivalry Wednesday evening, Nov. 22 under the lights in Galloway.
Atlantic City and Holy Spirit have a natural parochial and public school rivalry, and once shared the same city. The late Holy Spirit coach Ed Byrnes described the tradition this way: “There are two things people want to do around here on this day. They want to eat turkey, and they want to watch Atlantic City-Holy Spirit before they eat.”
Atlantic City-Holy Spirit is also the only South Jersey football rivalry ever to be played indoors. For years the teams played inside Atlantic City Convention Hall the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. In those days, Kentucky bluegrass was trucked in to the hall and installed in slabs.
In 1963, just days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a crowd of more than 10,000 filled Convention Hall as Atlantic City and Holy Spirit played their annual Thanksgiving game on Wednesday night. Atlantic City won the game 7-0. Halfback Charles Garrett scored the only touchdown on a 55-yard run early in the second half.
That game also marked the end of the 35-year city series between the teams. The next year Holy Spirit moved from Massachusetts Avenue to Absecon, though the Thanksgiving tradition continued, with the teams sharing Boyd Stadium at Bader Field as their home field for a number of years.
Ocean City and Pleasantville first met in 1917, making it the second-longest Thanksgiving rivalry involving former Cape-Atlantic League teams (Millville-Vineland is the oldest). The first game of the Ocean City-Pleasantville series took place the year the United States entered World War I, and Pleasantville rolled up the astonishing score of 107-6.
Thanksgiving high school football is a time for alumni to reunite, for parents, friends and former students to reminisce and catch up with tailgate parties hours before the game and social gatherings long afterwards.
For some area teams it's a chance to end disappointing seasons on a positive note and bid farewell to seniors playing in their last game.
The Thanksgiving games mark the end of a season and often the end of a chapter in young people’s lives. For some of the seniors, it’s the final organized football game they will ever play, the last time they will be together with the team.
The EHT-Mainland games often produce an unpredictable result. The 2004 and 2006 games went to overtime. Mainland scored in the final minute to win in 2008, and kicked a late field goal to win in 2015. The winner gets the Kiwanis Trophy.
“It’s always been a hard-fought, physical game, regardless of who’s the better team that year,” said EHT coach Kevin Stetser, who took part in the rivalry as a star player for EHT from 1990-1992. “But that’s Thanksgiving, and it’s high school football. That’s the cool part about it. These kids played each other in youth football. They know each other. They’ve played against each other for a long time. There’s a lot of tradition.”
People who don’t go to a game all year will somehow show up for the Turkey Day kickoff Thanksgiving morning. Alumni and friends might be bleary-eyed from reunion parties the night before, but they shake off the cobwebs to show up for the traditional rivalry game.
“It goes back to playing for the community,” Stetser said. “It’s always your biggest attended game, with the alumni and other stuff. The kids know that the people come back for it, and they want to see a good game. That’s the pride in your school. It makes it a big deal.”
Below are previews of the local Thanksgiving football matchups. Note: Cedar Creek, St. Augustine and St. Joseph do not play Thanksgiving games this year.
Oakcrest (2-7) at Absegami (4-5)
Kickoff: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Place: Braves Field, Galloway.
Series: 41st meeting, Absegami leads Oakcrest 22-18; Absegami has won two straight
2016 Result: Absegami, 27-26
Last Week: Oakcrest beat Pinelands 45-12 in a regional crossover game. Absegami lost to Shawnee 41-0 in a South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal.
What’s at stake: For the first time in 40 years, this game between intra-district rivals will be played on Thanksgiving Eve, and both teams are trying to end sub-par seasons on a positive note. Both schools are members of the Greater Egg Harbor School District. The winner receives the Joe Mohr trophy and bragging rights in the district. The late Mohr was the long-time athletic director of Oakcrest and also was athletic director of the now defunct Egg Harbor City High School.
Coaches: Absegami’s Dennis Scuderi is 49-69 in his 11th season, 47-50 at Absegami. Oakcrest’s Eric Anderson is 8-11 in his second season as head coach of the Falcons.
Mainland Regional (1-8) at Egg Harbor Township (1-8)
Kickoff: 10 a.m. on Thursday
Place: Silver Eagle Stadium, EHT
Series: 35th meeting, Mainland leads EHT 22-11 (1 tie); Mainland has won two straight
2016 Result: Mainland, 13-7
Last week: Mainland lost to Clearview 34-25 in a regional crossover game. EHT beat Cherry Hill West 33-26 in a regional crossover game.
What's at stake: A lot. Both teams are trying to avoid back-to-back one-win seasons. These games have been closely contested. The 2004 and 2006 games went to overtime. Mainland scored in the final minute to win in 2008, and kicked a field goal late in the 2015 game to send longtime coach Bob Coffey into retirement on a winning note. The winner gets the Kiwanis Trophy and a measure of redemption in a disappointing season.
Coaches: Chuck Smith is 2-17 in his second season as Mainland head coach after six seasons at Oakcrest. EHT’s Kevin Stetser is 12-27 in his fourth season.
Holy Spirit (8-2) at Atlantic City (5-4)
Kickoff: 10 a.m. on Thursday
Place: Eisenstein Athletic Complex, Atlantic City
Series: 89th meeting, Atlantic City leads Holy Spirit 51-33 (4 ties); Holy Spirit has won one straight.
2016 Result: Holy Spirit, 29-25
Last week: Holy Spirit lost to Mater Dei 35-34 in an NJSIAA Non-Public II semifinal. Atlantic City beat Southern Regional 33-21 in a regional crossover game.
What’s at stake: This is Atlantic County's oldest rivalry with the first meeting in 1926, and the teams play for the John Boyd-Stan Marczyk Memorial Trophy. The Spartans' last-minute loss to Mater Dei denied them a chance to play for the Non-Public state title against St. Joseph, so they will look to take out their frustrations on the Vikings in one of the area's great rivalries. Atlantic City nearly is trying to finish an up-and-down season on a positive note.
Coaches: Holy Spirit’s A.J. Russo is 21-10 in his third season as head coach. Atlantic City’s Thomas Kelly is 43-37 in his seventh season as head coach.
Pleasantville (7-2) at Ocean City (6-3)
Kickoff: 10 a.m. on Thursday
Place: Carey Stadium, Ocean City
Series: 96th meeting, Ocean City leads Pleasantville 49-40 (6 ties); Ocean City has won three straight.
2016 Result: Ocean City, 24-8
Last Week: Pleasantville lost to West Deptford, 51-12, in a Group II quarterfinal; Ocean City lost to Delsea, 56-34, in a Group III quarterfinal.
What’s At Stake: These schools first met in 1917, making it the second-longest Thanksgiving rivalry involving Cape-Atlantic League teams (Millville-Vineland is the oldest). The schools play for the Mike Slaveski-Bob Thomas Memorial Award, which is named for deceased coaches Slaveski (Ocean City) and Thomas (Pleasantville). Pleasantville has enjoyed a breakthrough season, making the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, with a chance to register eight wins after going winless in four of the previous five years.
Coaches: Ocean City’s Kevin Smith is 27-41 in his sixth season. Pleasantville’s Chris Sacco is 11-18 in his second season.