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Northeast and Central renew Thanksgiving rivalry for 122nd time after last year was canceled due to COVID-19

In one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the country, Northeast beat Central 62-22 to retain the Wooden Horse.

Northeast's Terail Greene gives Central's Bryce Hill a look on his 40-yard TD run during the first quarter Thursday.
Northeast's Terail Greene gives Central's Bryce Hill a look on his 40-yard TD run during the first quarter Thursday.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Northeast High played Central High in football on Thursday for the first time in two years in a Thanksgiving rivalry that dates back to 1892. At stake was a trophy called the Wooden Horse, which will stay in a case at Northeast after the Vikings won for the seventh straight time.

“We’re hoping to never have to open that case until the end of time,” said first-year Northeast head coach Eric Clark, who played in this game for the Vikings 19 years ago.

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Northeast’s 62-22 victory in the 122nd edition of the rivalry was special, in part, because the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 game — and the whole Public League season. Last Thanksgiving was rather depressing for both Central and Northeast: players, coaches, students, alumni.

Asked what he was doing on Thanksgiving morning a year ago, Ken Talley, a senior defensive end from Northeast who is bound for Penn State, replied, “Wishing I had a season.”

The cancellation was only the second since 1896. The other came in 1918 — not because of the influenza pandemic that year, but because Northeast shut down its sports program so students could train for the U.S. military if they were called on to fight in World War I.

“That is crazy,” said Talley, who scored two touchdowns Thursday. “That shows its age.”

But the tradition hangs on. Only about 1,000 fans shelled out $5 to attend the game at the 5,000-seat stadium at Northeast, which was overflowing for this game decades ago.

Northeast, the five-time Public League Class 6A champion, was coming off a 41-6 loss to St. Joseph’s Prep on Saturday in the PIAA District 12 championship game, the state round of 16. Despite Central’s 1-7-1 record entering the game, winning was still important — to both teams.

“Nobody wants this tradition to die,” said Central coach Rich Drayton, who scored five touchdowns in a 60-3 Central victory in 1986, one of the most infamous games in the series.

Northeast, which extended its lead to 63-52 in the series, with 10 ties, rolled to a 34-7 halftime lead. The Lancers made it a little more interesting by scoring twice in the first four minutes of the third quarter, but the Vikings pulled away with four touchdowns in 12 minutes.

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Largely because of school closings and the expansion of the state playoffs, Thanksgiving Day football games are not the tradition they used to be around here. The Central-Northeast game was one of only 23 in the city and suburbs Thursday. There were 60 such games in 1986.

“Fortunately, in my opinion, playoff games did not interfere with the tradition,” said David Kahn, an official with the Associated Alumni of Central High School.

At Northeast, the tradition included the resumption of Spirit Week, which would have only been possible a year ago via Zoom. Northeast has lost to Central only once on Thanksgiving since 2004, but the students were again made aware of the tradition.

Compared with playoff games, the Central game “is not a big game for us,” said Ibn Malik, a history teacher at Northeast who helps out with the football team. “But it’s like, Central. We’ve got to keep the Horse on our side.”

Central-Northeast has been touted as a “Turkey Day” game, but the contest in early years was often played either the day before or the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Between 1895 and 1960, the big game in town was almost always the Penn-Cornell tilt at Franklin Field.

The attendance at Thursday’s game might have been limited because the pandemic is not over and life has not exactly returned to normal.

“I’m looking for the crowd to be louder,” said Rahmin Romeo, a senior Northeast cheerleader who wore a mask.

Still, the scene sure beat last Thanksgiving. Trang Nguyen, another Northeast senior cheerleader, said, “Normally there would be more people. But it upholds the tradition. It’s something to remember the football team by.”

The two schools first faced each other in football in 1892, only two years after the Northeast Manual Training School opened. The series took a couple of decades to reach a boil, because Central, which was founded in 1836, won the first 13 games and 21 of the first 25.

In 1929, the two teams squared off the day before Thanksgiving at the Phillies’ Baker Bowl before 10,000, including Mayor Harry A. Mackey. Central clinched the Public High School League championship with a 20-7 victory.

But soon, the momentum in the series swung to Northeast. Between 1937 and 1950, the Archives (Northeast’s nickname back in those days), won 14 games, with one tie, against the Mirrors (Central’s old nickname).

Central quarterback Mike Roche set a city record by passing for 409 yards in the Lancers’ 60-3 rout of Northeast in 1986, the most lopsided decision since Central’s 62-6 victory in 1897, but a post-game scuffle between the coaches became the bigger story.

Convinced that the Lancers ran up the score, Northeast coach Harvey “Brew” Schumer refused to shake hands with Central coach Bob Cullman. Three years earlier, Northeast scored a touchdown on the last play of the game, of a 48-6 victory for the Vikings.

Schumer had been an assistant under Cullman for 10 years, and as Cullman told reporters, “I didn’t like him then, either.” Roche apologized to the Northeast players, saying later, “That was something between the coaches. I was just doing the quarterbacking job.”

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Thursday’s game was much more cordial, though Drayton used a couple of trick plays — “It’s their Super Bowl,” said Clark, a friend — and the Central band tried to fire up its fans by playing “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” after the Vikings took a 32-point lead.

Northeast junior running back Terail Greene, who scored three touchdowns, said after the game that he was thankful and called it a blessing to play in his first Thanksgiving Day football game. This felt more like Thanksgiving, he said.

“It’s time to go eat,” he said with a smile.

Dave Caldwell covered sports for The Inquirer from 1986 to 1995. The first of six Thanksgiving Day games he covered was Frankford’s 1987 victory over North Catholic.