Friday, November 18, 2005

Home for the Holiday

Fifteen years ago I graduated from high school. Fifteen years. I’ve been out of school for almost as long as I was in. Would I ever go back? Very doubtful. There is, however, one thing that I would love to do again. I’d love to play one more Thanksgiving Day football game.

The Westerly/Stonington Thanksgiving Day Football Game has been going on for almost 100 years. It is the oldest high school football rivalry in the country. And I was a part of it for four years.

Every year around this time, my sleepy little hometown and our cross state neighbor draw lines in the sands of Long Island Sound. People don’t wear the other school’s colors. Banners, buttons, and flags appear on front porches and on car antennas. Suddenly, these two towns, interconnected all year long, could not be farther apart.

The night before the game, there used to be a pep rally in the Westerly town square. Hundreds of kids would pour into the streets, effectively shutting off one of two crossing points over the river that separates the towns. Faces would be painted. Small brown bags of Peachtree and Peppermint Schnapps would be secreted in bulky jackets. No harm or damage was ever done, just lots of taunting.

Then Game Day is here. ESPN is right on the money. It is different. Thanksgiving for me will always have a special feeling around it when we’re in Connecticut.

The usual crowd for a high school football game in New England is a couple of hundred people, if the weather is nice. When there has been snow on the ground, the attendance for the Thanksgiving Day game tops 9,000 people. That’s a lot of cups of hot cocoa.

Walking through the crowds, you inevitably encounter some friend you haven’t seen in years. It is an open air reunion, where everyone is dressed in winter coats, wool hats, and gloves.

My freshman year, we all knew we had no chance of playing, but we dressed for the game like we were about to turn pro. Stonington won 13-0.

My sophomore year, we were thumped soundly by a superior Westerly team 27-0. The real fireworks came after the game, during dinner. My family lived on both sides of the river, and the ensuing argument between my mother and my uncle is one that I will never forget.

My junior year, we scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of play to come back and tie the game 21-21. That’s one that still comes up in conversations and newspaper articles.

My senior year, there was a blizzard on Thanksgiving, forcing the postponement of the game. The town brought in industrial sized snow blowers from the New England Patriots organization to clear the field. We played on Saturday, on the proverbial field of frozen tundra, and punished Westerly 22-0.

Just one more time. . .