High School Football’s Turkey Day Tradition

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While nearly everyone knows Thanksgiving includes a big helping of NFL football during the holiday gathering, not as many know that high school football serves-up a lot of football on Turkey Day. That’s probably because the Thanksgiving high school football is mostly a tradition from the northeastern part of the country.

The Detroit Lions’ tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day began in 1934, while the first Thanksgiving high school football game was played in 1882 in Massachusetts. On November 30, 1882, America’s oldest Turkey Day high school football game began with next-door neighbors Needham and Wellesley doing battle. It was a natural rivalry, because until 1881, Wellesley was actually called West Needham.

The rivalry began when Wellesley’s quarterback Arthur Oldham, who served as the team’s captain, suggested that the two schools play a “real” game. The reason for the description of a “real” game is, that at that time, most games we’re more informal that media reports called casual free-for-alls.

Wellesley won the first game by a score of 4-0 and the rest is history as the two schools have now played 132 Turkey Day games. This year’s 133rd game was cancelled when the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association moved the 2020 high school football season to the Spring of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, it isn’t just the Needham/Wellesley game that has been cancelled. All games have in the Bay State, which featured 126 Turkey Day games in 2019, have been called-off due to COVID-19.

With the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island also waiting until next year to play the 2020 season, approximately 100 other major rivalry games are sitting on the sidelines.

The annual New Jersey/Pennsylvania battle between Easton (Pennsylvania) and Phillipsburg (New Jersey) isn’t being played this year even though both states are playing through the pandemic. The 114th meeting was cancelled earlier this week when school officials decided that safety came first.

The Easton/Phillipsburg game may be America’s best known high school football Turkey Day game, because ESPN has broadcast the game LIVE twice to the nation while 15,000 fans packed Lafayette College’s Fisher Field. The two rivals, who are only separated by the Delaware River battle for the Forks of the Delaware Trophy.

Right now, it appears the only Turkey Day game being played Thursday will be in Pennsylvania where Pennridge and Quakertown will meet for the 91st time.

The oldest rivalry (1893) in New Jersey — Vineland vs. Millville — is being moved from Thanksgiving morning to Saturday. Two other 100+ year old rivalries — Haddonfield vs. Haddon Heights and Salem vs. Woodstown — are trying to play, although it may be on a different date.

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About the Author

Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.