Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Football an integral part of Thanksgiving

Football inevitably colors most Americans' Thanksgiving memories. Mine are no different. In the earliest recollection, it is the 1950s and I am gripping my grandfather's hand. On this cool holiday morning, we are walking along Wakeling Street, beneath an awning of bare poplars just east of Roosevelt Boulevard.

(Editor's note: This column from Thanksgiving 2015 elicited such a positive response that we decided to publish it again.)

Football inevitably colors most Americans' Thanksgiving memories. Mine are no different.

In the earliest recollection, it is the 1950s and I am gripping my grandfather's hand. On this cool holiday morning, we are walking along Wakeling Street, beneath an awning of bare poplars just east of Roosevelt Boulevard.

I am not sure if he has a destination in mind, but after a few blocks I suddenly see foreboding walls and hear the muted percussion of snare drums, the hum of many voices.

It is a siren song.

We are at Frankford Stadium, the handsome little field where North Catholic and Frankford are staging another of their annual football wars. My grandfather is artistic and sentimental, but no fan. He has brought me here because he recognizes something beautiful, enduring, and utterly American and he wants me to experience it.

At one point, I am lifted above a stadium gate. The scene is breathtaking and I know instantly that this is the beginning of something. The shifting colors on the still-green field, the animated fans, the scent of popcorn and hot dogs, the warmth of my grandfather's gloved hands, it all combines into a sensory overload that has never left me.

All these years later, a long line of Thanksgivings stretches behind me, extending so far now that many of the holidays - filled with a remarkably constant cast of family and feasts - seem indistinguishable.

It's only football that allows me to sort them out, the best-remembered holiday games and performances serving as welcome signposts on these excursions into an ever-more foggy past.

Thanksgiving may be a secular holiday, one originally dedicated to quiet reflection, but over the years Americans have thoroughly infused it with what in 2015 is our noisiest national religion - football. We've reached the point where we don't break bread until we watch others break heads.

Whether it's high school rivalries, traditional NFL matchups or neighborhood Turkey Bowls, these two beloved American rituals have combined to form a more perfect union in ways that basketball and Christmas, or even baseball and the Fourth of July, can't match:

Crisp mornings standing in the grandstands with a cup of hot coffee. Unexpected reunions with the holiday pilgrims returning to their hometowns and high schools. Televised games that help break down barriers among dinner guests. The enjoyable mix of food, family, and fanaticism.

Interestingly, the custom of joining football and Thanksgiving started in Philadelphia, a mere two weeks after Rutgers and Princeton had introduced this new, hybrid sport to the world. At noon on Thanksgiving Day, 1869, 11 men from the host Germantown Cricket Club met the Young America Cricket Club's footballers.

At the heart of the national passion that followed are the high school rivalries that, though far fewer in number now thanks to the demands of a state playoff system, continue to be played. Typically, for most schools, these morning games serve as both informal reunions and the season's highlight.

Sadly, the North-Frankford rivalry is no longer among them. That neighborhood faceoff, played every Thanksgiving beginning in 1926, ended in 2009, emotionally stranding generations of fans, players, coaches, and alumni from both schools.

But as late as the 1960s in Philadelphia, these high school matchups outstripped the day's professional games. They were so popular that in 1963, WCAU-AM radio decided to air live mini-broadcasts from a dozen or so of the best Thanksgiving rivalries.

My dad was then the part-time sports editor - actually, the entire sports staff - of weekly newspapers in Germantown and Roxborough, so he was asked to provide commentary whenever WCAU switched to the game between those neighborhood schools.

He took me along, my first visit to a working press box. In my 14-year-old eyes, it was as near to heaven as I dared imagine. I don't recall who won, only that my father had a place in this great American ceremony. And I had a place at his side.

Once untethered, the memories float easily to the surface.

In 1962, instead of playing or watching football, my brother and I engaged in another Philadelphia custom, taking the 47 trolley in-town to the Gimbel's parade. The event was disappointing, but we got back to my grandmother's Olney rowhouse in time to watch the Lions' Alex Karras, Roger Brown, and teammates sack Packers quarterback Bart Starr 11 times in a historic upset.

Football couldn't redeem Thanksgiving 1967. Stranded at college in Wisconsin, I tried to counter the loneliness in the dormitory's basement TV room, consuming so much football that I felt uncomfortably full, as if I'd overeaten. I stopped only long enough to brave the icy chill and walk to the one cafeteria that stayed open. Its version of Thanksgiving dinner was as unpalatable as my holiday isolation.

A year later, having transferred to Temple, I reunited on Thanksgiving morning with friends returning from college. Playing pinochle and drinking beer as we watched, we saw Sam Baker, in Detroit's snow and rain, kick four field goals in a 12-0 Eagles victory.

Marriage, moves, kids, and career ensued, but Thanksgiving football remained a constant. The family feast shifted from Olney to Edison, N.J., but the day always began with a local high school game and ended with football on the radio as, kids asleep in the minivan's rear, we made the long ride home.

Then, in 1990, before traveling to Edison, I had to cover a high school game, North Catholic at Frankford, for The Inquirer's Northeast Neighbors section.

For the first time since that morning decades before, I was back at Frankford Stadium, surely the city's most charming football venue.

Returning a favor, this time I brought my father along.

This year, my oldest daughter will set up a football-watching theater in the basement of her home so that all those early arrivers interested in the Eagles-Lions game can watch without disturbing the frenetic dinner preparations upstairs.

If things get too hectic, maybe I'll take the grandkids for a walk. I'll grab their little hands and set off. If we're lucky, we'll hear a muffled drumbeat in the distance. And we'll head in that direction.