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Thanksgiving and Football Go Together Like Turkey and Stuffing

November 25, 2011

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- I’m a Thanksgiving pilgrim. Just like last year, the year before and the year before that, my brothers and I will be standing in wooden bleachers at 10 in the morning, probably freezing, and watching the Swampscott- Marblehead high school football game in Massachusetts.

Thursday’s match is the 102nd between these two beach towns north of Boston. I’ve seen almost half of them -- even though I moved away 40 years ago.

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays, marked by the carving of native bird. It’s the high holiday of cranberry and Jell-O molds. From coast to coast it’s a sober moment of reflection and a raucous celebration of gluttony.

It is also, improbably, a great day for football.

Tuskegee and Alabama State will meet for the 88th Turkey Day Classic in Montgomery, Ala., a rivalry between historically black colleges that dates to 1901. Texas plays Texas A&M in College Station. Talk about tribal warfare. In the NFL, San Francisco takes on Baltimore, Miami plays Dallas and, in the oldest Thanksgiving rivalry in pro ball, Green Bay travels to Detroit.

The Detroit Lions have played a home game on Thanksgiving since 1934, the year independent front-wheel suspension first appeared in all General Motors Co. cars, and Lions games have been a TV staple since 1956.

Detroit clings to this tradition with determination, recently batting back a challenge from Kansas City (eager for a marquee event) and the television networks (lusting after fans from bigger markets) to rotate the game. It’s staying put, where it belongs.

Old-Time Rivalries

Over the years a lot of these rivalries have migrated away from Thanksgiving. Take a look at the 1919 college-football season, and you’ll see Penn State visiting Pitt, Syracuse at Nebraska, a much-anticipated game between Vanderbilt and the University of the South and an important match between two powers whose prominence on the gridiron has declined, Kentucky’s Centre College (which beat West Virginia that year) playing Georgetown (which defeated Navy).

For many years, the most important Thanksgiving battle was between Penn and Cornell -- “two institutions which from time immemorial have represented the top-notch of Thanksgiving Day football,” according to a 1919 account in the New York Times.

That year’s game inspired perhaps the greatest college- football program cover of all time, a brilliant drawing by Penn’s Thomas Byrd Epps portraying an angel trying to predict the winner of the game, which Penn won, 24-0. (A copy of that program will cost you $150 today.)

Less Romantic

That Penn-Cornell rivalry remains tied for the second- longest uninterrupted college match-up, but now the game is played the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a more convenient but less romantic juncture.

On my own annual November pilgrimage I carry more than a suitcase. I bring along memories -- not only of the time Swampscott’s Mike Lynch, now a fabled Boston sportscaster, kicked a last-minute field goal to beat the dreaded Magicians of Marblehead. No one who was there will ever forget it.

My family likes to remember the year I brought my college friend George Shackelford to his first Bay State Thanksgiving. George was a foreigner in every respect -- a Louisiana native who grew up on a cotton plantation, had masterly skills in the kitchen and wasn’t interested in football.

My family went to the game. George, who in six weeks takes over as senior deputy director at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, stayed home and basted the turkey. Every year we say it was the best turkey we ever had. We’ll say it again Thursday, after the game. Like football, it’s a Thanksgiving tradition.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Laurie Muchnick, Lili Rosboch.

To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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