On Thanksgiving two years ago, Pitman football coach Chris Thomas stood on his team's home field after the annual game against Clayton and pondered his program's future.
"It was bright," Thomas said.
On Thanksgiving of this year, Thomas will stand on that home field again after a varsity game for the first time since that contest in 2016.
He will look forward again.
He will see a glimmer again.
"The light at the end of the tunnel, it's getting closer and closer," Thomas said.
The coach knows that the job of rebuilding the Pitman program, almost from scratch, is far from finished. But the Panthers coach and his players, along with the team's faithful fans, will mark a milestone on Thanksgiving with a home game against Clayton.
It will be the renewal of a rich rivalry that began in 1925, and always was a favorite of former Eagles general manager Harry Gamble, who played for Pitman and coached at Clayton.
It also will mark Pitman's first home game in exactly two years and a key moment in the program's recovery from near-extinction.
"It's been tough," Thomas said. "It's been tough on everybody: the players, the coaches, the school administration.
"But this is an exciting time. We're not there yet. We're not finished. But we feel good about where we are at this point and where we're going in the future."
Pitman was 1-8 in 2016 but the Panthers had some talented young players. Thomas, then in his second season as the head coach of his alma mater, figured the foundation was there for some good football in the seasons to come.
Things fell apart the following spring and summer, when the decision by some prominent players to transfer led some other athletes to decide not to come out for football.
It snowballed on the program. Since Pitman is a small school, with 293 students in grades 10-12, the Panthers soon found themselves in an untenable position: They didn't have enough players to field a varsity team. At a practice in August 2017, Thomas and his coaches were working with 16 players, including nine freshmen. None of the athletes were seniors.
Today, Pitman has 34 players.
"We left camp with 34, and we still have 34," Thomas said.
After playing an abbreviated junior-varsity schedule in 2017, although the Panthers did visit Clayton on Thanksgiving for an "unofficial" renewal of the old series, Pitman has taken a step forward this season. The Panthers have played three games, losing to Lower Cape May and Riverside and beating Wildwood.
But Thursday will be something special, as it will be the program's first home varsity game in two years.
"It's like a big payoff for what these kids have gone through," Thomas said. "They're excited. Everybody is excited. We went through a lot to get back here. But we wanted to do it the right way. We wanted to only have to do this once, never again."
Thomas points to senior captains such as Alex Mennella, James McPeak, and Adam Good as leaders who have helped to guide the program through the last two seasons.
"It's their program," Thomas said.
Thomas said Pitman plans to play an expanded varsity schedule as an independent program in 2019 and to rejoin the West Jersey Football League as a full member for the 2020 season.
Thomas said he has a "vivid memory" of standing on the field at the middle school after the Thanksgiving game two years ago and seeing nothing but good things in the future for Pitman football.
He believes now he was right, just off in the timing.
"A lot has happened in the last two years," Thomas said. "A lot of twists and turns that nobody could have seen. But to be back and playing a varsity game on Thanksgiving in a game with so much tradition and history, it shows that, 'Hey, we're still here.' "
Thanksgiving football schedule
Absegami at Oakcrest, 6
Egg Harbor Township at Mainland, 6
Cherry Hill West at Cherry Hill East 6
Timber Creek at Winslow Township, 6
Cumberland at Schalick, 6
Camden Catholic at Paul VI, 7
Bishop Eustace at Pennsauken, 7
Delran at Cinnaminson, 7
Kingsway at Clearview, 7
Bordentown at New Egypt, 10
Lower Cape May at Middle Township, 10
Rancocas Valley at Pemberton, 10
Ocean City at Pleasantville, 10
Atlantic City at Holy Spirit, 10
Triton at Highland, 10
Deptford at Glassboro, 10
Lenape at Shawnee, 10:30
Millville at Vineland, 10:30
Clayton at Pitman, 10:30
Woodstown at Salem, 10:30
Gateway at Woodbury, 10:30
Gloucester at Gloucester Catholic, 10:30
Florence at Riverside, 11
Woodrow Wilson at Camden, 11
Haddon Township at Audubon, 11
Haddon Heights at Haddonfield, 11
Burlington City at Palmyra, 11