Thanksgiving games

Football rivalries keep tradition alive

Staff Writer

 MATT DENTON MATT DENTON The staples of Thanksgiving have always included family, turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and high school football for many across New Jersey.

What was once a traditional game for virtually every high school across the state is becoming a rarer occurrence as many of the rivalry games have been moved to earlier in the season largely due to changes in the state’s postseason playoff system.

However, the few that are left hold a special place for many, especially in Long Branch, where the annual Long Branch High School game against Red Bank Regional High School is the longest Thanksgiving Day rivalry game in Monmouth County and the 11th longest in New Jersey.

“It’s good for our community. It’s good for the Red Bank Regional School District to keep this game going,” Long Branch School District Athletic Administrator Jason Corley said. “It’s an exciting time for the community, for people to come back and see some of their siblings come back and play in the traditional game. “We don’t have many traditions left, so to have a grip on something like this being so legendary it is something that can’t change.”

 Thanksgiving Day Games Nov. 26 Thanksgiving Day Games Nov. 26 The 2015 version of the game, which is being held at Red Bank Regional High School, will be the 93rd straight game played, with the Green Wave holding a 60-29- 3 advantage all-time.

Corley said when Long Branch hosts the game many former players come to the game for a trip down memory lane.

“What’s good about it is we get a lot of old timers coming back,” he said. “It’s always been the most talked about game. You have elders come back who have no relatives participating, but just for the camaraderie with old friends and buddies that they’ve played with.

“It’s a reason for people to come back and see the changes and talk about old times.”

While the teams in Long Branch, Red Bank, East Brunswick, Old Bridge, and a handful of other schools in Monmouth and Middlesex counties are still holding Turkey Day games, the majority of schools have moved the rivalry game from Thanksgiving to earlier in the season.

“Basically, it is power points related, a lot of the residual points from these games means a lot coming down to crunch time with the new format, which I believe is five or six years old,” Corley said. “A lot of schools don’t want to risk their players getting hurt if they make it to the championship game because [Thanksgiving] falls one game prior to the championship game.

“The game really has no significance except for history and tradition.”

Playoff positioning is now calculated using power points, a system in which teams are awarded points based on the opponents they beat but also the teams their opponents play throughout the season.

The power points are awarded based on a team’s first eight games, meaning many of the schools opted to move the Thanksgiving Day game, traditionally the ninth game on the schedule, to earlier in the season for the additional power points.

However, Corley said history and tradition carry more weight in Long Branch than it does in other places.

“Going forward, the Long Branch-Red Bank game, even when I played, that was the game you get up for,” he said. “The kids understand and for some of the seniors it is their last time ever putting on football equipment, and for others it is their last time wearing that green and white.

“The kids have their own reasoning behind the game, and we instill in them the tradition of the game.”

With the increased crowds Corley said the district makes about $3,500 from the gate for the Thanksgiving game, which is about $1,500 more than home games take in during the rest of the season.

Phlip McGuane, the head coach at New Egypt High School, agreed that changes to the playoff format are forcing many schools to eliminate the annual game.

“The year has become extended. In the old days only four teams would make the playoffs; now it’s eight,” he said. “So you have more and more teams that will make it to the playoffs.

“So I think a lot of schools are just opting to maybe open up with that team that traditionally they would have played on Thanksgiving.”

However, McGuane, who is in his second season at New Egypt, said he’d like to keep the annual Thanksgiving Day game against Bordentown High School alive for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a tradition that I inherited, but if you speak to long-time football fans it’s something they look forward to,” he said. “It’s been a tradition here that we’ve certainly embraced and will continue to do so.

“It was a great crowd that came out and it turned out that it was our Senior Day, too, so it made it kind of doubly festive. It’s always a special day and always a festive atmosphere for a football game.”

Another school that has kept the tradition going, despite the playoff changes, is East Brunswick High School, which will play Old Bridge High School in a game East Brunswick Supervisor of Athletics Christopher Yannazzo dubbed the “Battle of Route 18.”

Yannazzo said while the playoffs are important, he felt it was necessary to keep the tradition alive.

“It’s been a long-time tradition here, and I think it is great for the kids when these teams get together,” he said. “We have members come back, not only to the Thanksgiving game but to a bunch of our home games.

“It is a great tradition, something the community always knows there is a game on Thanksgiving. Everyone is home and comes out and watches the game.”

Yannazzo also said he understands why schools are shying away from the game.

“If you don’t make the playoffs now, you have two more weeks of football,” he said. “If you do make the playoffs and make it to the championship game, I guess coaches are afraid of the kids getting hurt.”

While some teams are embracing the Thanksgiving tradition, Metuchen High School Director of Athletics John Cathcart said this year’s upcoming game against Highland Park High School might be the last in the series.

“If we had played this game on the 31st of October, we’d be in the playoffs instead of sitting out watching it,” Cathcart said. “I can’t really say that would be my number one thing to keep alive the Thanksgiving Day game.

“Right now we should be in the playoffs, and we are not.’’

Cathcart said the value of playing the game might not outweigh the value of improving the school’s playoff chances.

“A lot of faculty members like it, the kids I don’t think they care one way or the other because all they are going to do is play, go home and eat,” he said. “The rivalries are interesting in one way, and they create havoc in your season in the other.

“It is a lot of fun for the people on the outside looking in. People love football on Thanksgiving, but from a practical standpoint I don’t know if it cost us the playoffs this year or not.”

Freehold Township High School is one of the schools that have removed the Thanksgiving Day tilt against Freehold Borough.

Freehold Township High School coach Cory Davies, who was a long-time coach of Howell Township High School, said he was always in favor of playing the game.

“When I first got to Howell in 1991, we did not play on Thanksgiving,” he said. “We were one of the only schools, and I was for a Thanksgiving Day game, and we eventually got one.

“As a coach I liked it because I don’t like seeing the season end, so it would always go another two weeks or three weeks.”

The long-time coach joked that some of the holidays lacked the spirit of thankfulness in the Davies household if his team lost.

“I know my wife didn’t like it because if you lose and you are a poor sport like I am, you come home and you are not always in a good mood,” Davies said.