Thursday, 28 November 2019

THANKSGIVING AT IRON MIKE'S FOUNDRY

I wrote this for my weekly Patreon column, Friday Morning Tight End, as a freebie special, so I decided I should offer it here to those of you whom I have disappointed by not posting more here in the past few months. The column picks all the games every week, I'm running at about 2/3 correct, and subscriptions are $3 a month. Try it at patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte 

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday, just as fall may be my favourite season. In the US it is the biggest travel weekend of the year, and with the traditional turkey, like Christmas without the attendant trauma of gift-giving. In Britain, Christmas is the biggest travel time, even though it seems to torture most people (Scrooge is after all, British) and being British they took the day they dislike and extended it by another day, then closed all public transport and annually locate highway works where no one is working along most of the major roads. But it's also the greatest football holiday, and football permeates not only the day but the whole weekend.

Oddly enough, I never played in a Thanksgiving game. Most colleges don't have them, because their students (including the football team) head home, but nowadays, of course money talks, and it's also a late Thanksgiving, which means that although the Egg Bowl, between Mississippi and Mississippi State will be played on Thursday, the rest of the weekend will also feature such match-ups as The Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, between Georgia and Georgia Tech; Vanderbilt vs Tennessee; Clemson vs South Carolina (Palmetto Bowl); Ohio State vs Michigan; the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and two of the West Coast's biggies: Oregon vs Oregon State (The Civil War) and Washington vs Washington State (The Apple Bowl).

Of course the extending of the college season through conference playoffs has been a factor here too, not least because conferences realigned to add enough teams to justify a playoff. So the Texas-Texas A&M match which was a staple of the November calendar is now gone.

Thanksgiving morning was usually the time for the great high school rivalries. My dad played for West Haven against New Haven's Hillhouse High in a game in 1943 that drew over 20,000 to the Yale Bowl; Hillhouse had the legendary Levi Jackson, one of the best players to by-pass the NFL, on their team. But I played at a prep school, whose team was mostly local post-grads doing a 'prep' year before college (our most famous was Yale's Albie Booth; now it's Shady McCoy) but whose student body was about half boarders, who like college students went home for the holiday.

West Haven wasn't playing Hillhouse any longer when I was a kid; New Haven's Commercial High had been rebranded Wilbur Cross and they now played, so West Haven had no natural rivalry, and my dad wasn't interested. He also didn't care about the traditional Milford-Stratford game: teams from towns on opposite sides of the Housatonic River. That one disappeared as both towns added a second school, when Milford added a third, Milford High itself disappeared. There is a more famous cross-river rivalry, however, the State Line Game between Easton (Pennsylvania) High against Phillipsburg (New Jersey), towns on opposite sides of the Delaware River, and each a power within their own state. So we would play touch football in the yard, or down by the right of way to the beach, at least until the year we were up at my uncle's in Chelmsford, Mass and our game attracted a group of neighbours. The game sort of broke up after my brother's complaint about my coverage degenerated into a fist-fight: Myles Garrett eat your heart out.

Connecticut, where I grew up, boasts the oldest high school rivalry: New London High against Norwich Free Academy, now called, somewhat tackily,Ye Olde Ball Game, which started in 1875, but hasn't been played continuously. The oldest one that has been played continuously is between Boston Latin and English High (which for some reason isn't called Boston English) which has been played every year since 1887. Most of the rest of the oldest rivalries are between the posh New England prep (ie private) schools, and probably featured people who went on to run America: Andover/Exeter; Milton/Noble & Greenough; Groton/St Mark's. You also get anomalies: in Connecticut Derby/Shelton and Ansonia/Naugatuck are both big games in the Housatonic Valley that draw Thanksgiving crowds, but the Ansonia/Derby game during the season is actually bigger.

People think the Bears-Lions was the start of Thanksgiving pro football, but actually there were four games in 1920, a couple featuring NFL teams against non-league teams, including the Elyria (Ohio) Athletics, who played a scoreless draw with the NFL's Columbus Panhandles. The Bears (then called the Decatur Staleys) played the Chicago Tigers. Fixed rivalries came and went: the Packers and Lions was the big one when I was a kid, at least until Vince Lombardi refused to continue playing on Thanksgiving after a 13-13 draw in Detroit (in which Nick Pietrosante, who played his high school ball at Ansonia High scored the Lions' only TD. “Four days is not enough time to get ready for a game” Lombardi told commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Three games is overkill, but this is America and we give thanks that more is always better and money (more money) always talks. But we really should allow some time for people to enjoy their dinner without the TV drawing them away—it used to do that even when there was only one, or two (the AFL's made it two, then in 1966 the NFL moved against the AFL by adding the second, with the Cowboys as regular hosts) to distract you. The prime time game is fine, I guess. It's a shame the oddities of the NFL schedule make it hard to make Dallas-Houston, for example, or the Giants-Jets a permanent Thanksgiving Day game; you'd think their computers could deal with that. I'd love to see Chicago-Detroit be regular, and maybe Green Bay-Minnesota too (you could play the late one in whichever dome team was at home).

So enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, even if you're here in Britain and it's not a holiday. I used to enjoy hosting the triple header at the Number One Sports Bar into the wee hours of the morning, just to be left with the real hardcore who were flipping  metaphorical bird, not a turkey, at their jobs. Whether you do celebrate or not, whether you watch the games or not, stop for a moment and just think about what you have to be thankful for. It's worth a special day to remind you.

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