Classic Philly Thanksgiving Football Game Returns: Central vs. Northeast
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The holiday was only six years old and the sport had been played for less than a month when Philadelphia kicked off an age-old American tradition by hosting the country’s first Thanksgiving Day football game.
The 1869 match at Germantown pitted Germantown Cricket Club against Young America Cricket Club. No winner has been registered.
Just 23 years later and a few miles away, there was another historic first (at least as far as local rivalries go). In 1892, Central High School and Northeast High faced off in their first Thanksgiving Day game.
The tradition is back this year after a rare break in 2020. In fact, the pandemic break was only the second game missed since 1896, the other coming in 1918 when Northeast didn’t field a team due of the First World War.
Several other local high school football rivalries also found a home for Turkey Day. Neumann Goretti and Southern played each other during the holidays from 1934 to 2015 and resume this year at the South Philly Supersite. Cheltenham v Abington went 100 years before being moved to another date.
” There are others [Thanksgiving] games that have come and gone,” said current North East head coach Eric Clark, “but he’s the granddaddy of them all.
The 122nd meeting between the Northeast Vikings and the Central Lancers kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Vikings home ground at 1601 Cottman Ave. What to expect if you attend? Passion, pride, tradition and serious excitement.
Christian Madison was a star for recent Central teams now playing at Cornell. “These matches are always intense,” he said. “You feel the energy as soon as you step onto the pitch and see the two fanbases rocking.”
Former North East player Anthony Franklin, now Philly’s head writer for Pennsylvania Football News, agrees. “I played in the 2000 game,” he said, recalling crowds that felt 10,000 strong. “I remember looking at the two sidelines and seeing standing room only, hearing the fans.”
Playing Franklin in that game was Marcus Maxwell, and he remembers getting really excited. “It was about getting that horse. About getting this trophy.
The trophy in question is known as the wooden horse, a hand-carved mahogany statuette that has been awarded since 1947, taking pride of place in the winning team’s trophy case.
“The playoffs are great, but the rivalry makes it the game of the year,” said Eric Heisler, another Central alum who played in four Thanksgiving games, “It’s for the wooden horse and the bragging rights means as much to the teams on the pitch as it does to the generations of veterans in the stands.
Clark, the Northeast head coach, has experience in many roles. He played the game himself, watched it as an alum, and was an assistant coach for the Vikings. This year is his first run.
“I know what this rivalry means for both schools and for the city of Philadelphia. In the three games I played, I had two wins and one loss. The only loss was to the best team I was on. It goes to show that at any Thanksgiving, there’s so much at stake, and it’s such a great rivalry that anyone can win.
Anyone can win, but a certain team can dominate throughout an era. Recently it was Northeast, which has won every year since 2004 but one. “2013 was a huge upset,” Franklin, the Pa writer, told Football News, when Central pulled off a 6-3 shock.
In the 80s, Central dominated the rivalry, as evidenced by their 60-3 victory in 1986. “That”, said Michael Mulcahy, a player for this North East team, “was a kick of all time.” His favorite memory was of an old three years later when it snowed: “Howard Eskin showed up to that game in a fur coat and we pelted him with snowballs.”
There were also times when the two teams couldn’t have been more even.
“My junior and senior year, we were the top teams in our divisions, so every one of those games meant a lot to the title chase,” said Lou Tilley, longtime sportscaster and North East star of the early years. 1970. “Both years we had to beat them to beat them for the public league championship, and every year it ended in a tie.”
What will be the result this year? Few people follow local high school football as closely as reporter Franklin, and he predicts a continuation of the recent trend. “Central has improved a lot. I think you’ll see a tight game early on. But I think Northeast will eventually pull out in the second half and win.
For coach Clark, this match is not limited to the final score.
“Our young men will have the chance to shake hands with former students who are 50 or 60 years older than them,” Clark said. “It’s one of the most emotional moments, when these alumni come into the locker room to say a few words. In that moment, you know you’re part of something special. Something bigger than you. Few people can play in a game as special as Central and Northeastern.
Sportscaster Tilley agrees. What advice does the former North East player have for teams entering the pitch?
“Enjoy it. Soak it all up. Revel in it,” Tilley said. “Because it’s not getting better.”