A look back at the most famous Thanksgiving Day game in South Jersey football history
In 1948, Collingswood completed a 10-0 season with its legendary coach, Howard "Skeets" Irvine, on his death bed.
Seventy years later, Gordon Leslie still remembers walking around the corner and telling his best friend, the team's star quarterback, that their coach was dead.
It seemed surreal at the time to Leslie, who was a 17-year-old halfback for Collingswood's undefeated 1948 football team.
It still belies belief today, as Leslie looks back across the decades to the most cinematic Thanksgiving Day in South Jersey football history.
"It was such a shock," said Leslie, 87. "Nobody could believe it."
When high school football teams and their fans gather Thursday morning for a Thanksgiving tradition as much a part of the holiday as turkey and stuffing, they also will mark an anniversary: It will be 70 years since Collingswood played a game that still seems like something out of a storybook.
In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction scenario, Collingswood beat Woodbury, 20-6, before 12,000 spectators that day to finish the season with a 10-0 record.
But here's the dramatic twist: The Panthers won the game as their legendary coach, Howard "Skeets" Irvine, lay on his death bed in a local hospital. Irvine, whose record of 223 victories stood atop South Jersey's all-time list for another 45 years, passed away that night.
"I scored the last touchdown," said 86-year-old Ben Addiego, then a junior halfback for the Panthers. "They said he heard it on the radio, smiled, and died right then."
Leslie has much the same recollection: "The story we got is that they told Skeets we won, he smiled, and then he died."
Regardless of the details, Irvine's death on the night his final team completed a perfect season stands as perhaps the most compelling story in the history of South Jersey football.
His passing sent an entire region and football community into mourning, as it's almost impossible to overstate the coach's influence on the town, the sport, the school, and the Panthers program during his 30 seasons from 1919 to 1948.
Irvine's record was 223-56-19. His teams won 16 championships. He had six undefeated teams and 11 one-loss teams.
Beyond the wins and losses, Irvine was a coach out of central casting. He was the personification of that bygone era, a perfect gentleman who rarely raised his voice but still brought out the best in his players.
"He was a beautiful man," Addiego said. "He inspired me. He inspired so many people."
Said Leslie: "He was so idolized. You couldn't wait to play for him. Growing up, going to games, jumping the fence when you're a young kid, that's all you want to do, play for Skeets Irvine."
Donald Douglass, a sophomore on the 1948 team, said his family's backyard was adjacent to Collingswood's practice field during his youth.
"I would watch them practice," Douglass, 85, said. "I always wanted to play for him. Everybody wanted to play for him."
Irvine was so widely respected that earlier that season a banquet held in his honor at Collingswood's Masonic Hall just after the team's 6-0 win over Bridgeton – the defending South Jersey Group 4 champion that entered with a 16-game winning streak – was attended by more than 1,000 people.
A table was set aside for players from each of Irvine's 30 teams. At the end of the night, the coach was presented with keys to a new Oldsmobile.
When Irvine died, a fellow Collingswood teacher named J. Arthur Ferner sent a letter to the editor of the local newspaper that read, in part: "There will be many more games played at Colls High, and many a victory gained by the Blue and Gold. But there will never come a day when someone won't remark, 'Wouldn't Skeets have loved to see that run?' "
Irvine was 51.
"When you're 17, you think 51 is old," Douglass said. "Now I realize how young he was."
Irvine coached three more games after the midseason banquet. His last appearance on the sideline was a 20-6 win over Haddonfield on Nov. 13. He was hospitalized that weekend with a kidney ailment.
"When you're young, you go out and practice and you're like, 'Oh, he's sick. He'll be back next game,' " Leslie said. "But it went on."
Assistant coach Cliff Rubicam directed the team to a 19-0 win over Audubon on Nov. 20 and into the annual Thanksgiving Day clash with Woodbury, set for the afternoon of Nov. 25.
More than 12,000 spectators packed Collingswood's Shields Stadium for the season finale. Those kinds of crowds were typical in those post-World War II days, when high school football's popularity was at its peak.
"High school football was the only thing going," Douglass said. "There was no TV, no nothing."
Leslie and Addiego scored touchdowns in the victory, as did quarterback Ted Narleski, who in the early 1950s became the last single-wing tailback at UCLA.
It was the perfect end to a perfect season. Collingswood outscored 10 opponents by a combined 240-32, with six shutouts.
But that team's flawless mark forever will be accompanied by a sad footnote: Those athletes were the last to play for Irvine, and their final victory came on his final day.
That night, Leslie heard the news and walked around the block in his Woodlynne neighborhood to Narleski's house.
"I told him and he didn't believe it," Leslie said. "He said, 'Gordie, I didn't know he was that sick.'
"I said, 'I didn't either, Ted.' "
Collingswood 1948 results
Sept. 25: Gloucester 59-0 W
Oct. 2: Woodrow Wilson 33-0 W
Oct. 9: Vineland 20-7 W
Oct. 16: Atlantic City 25-0 W
Oct. 23: Bridgeton 6-0 W
Oct. 30: Camden 12-0 W
Nov. 6: Phillipsburg 26-13 W
Nov. 13: Haddonfield 20-6 W
Nov. 20: Audubon 19-0 W
Nov. 25: Woodbury 20-6 W