Down and distance: Thanksgiving without football hurts

For the first time in almost half a century, Abington football coach Jim Kelliher will be waking up in his own bed on Thanksgiving morning.
The longest-tenured head high school football coach in Massachusetts is a creature of habit. He always felt it was easier to stay at the school the night before the traditional holiday contest, putting the finishing touches on the game plan.
“There was so many things to do to get ready for the game that it was easier for me to sleep in the locker room,” said Kelliher, the head coach at Abington since 1974. “I’d do some last-minute preparations, then get some sleep. It just made more sense for me to do that.”
Like many coaches in the state, the loss of Thanksgiving Day football due to the coronavirus pandemic created a void many are struggling with. Kelliher relished the annual Thanksgiving Day battle with Whitman-Hanson, the contest giving him a lifetime full of memories.
“I’ve been playing and coaching in this game for more than 50 years now,” said Kelliher, who captained the Abington squad in 1965. “My high school teammate was Bob Bancroft and he wound up coaching at Whitman-Hanson, which made that game even more special for me.”
Kelliher and Bancroft meeting together on Thanksgiving are just one of countless stories which make the Turkey Day game an annual reunion of sorts. Shawsheen football coach/athletic directors Al Costabile says a lot of former players come back on Thanksgiving and one of the reasons is to see who is wearing their uniform now.
“That’s what really makes the game so special,” said Catholic Memorial coach John DiBiaso, who was quick to say within earshot of his wife Maureen that no Thanksgiving Day game meant more chores around the house. “You just see so many alumni coming around, people you might not have seen for years. I’d love to get up early on Thanksgiving, head to the field and see a lot of former players, teammates and the families.”
One of those families DiBiaso could see was the McGowans. For nearly a decade, the McGowans would head from Canton to either West Roxbury or Dorchester to see their son Jack (now at Harvard), Owen (a senior) and Brady (a sophomore) competing for Catholic Memorial against BC High.
“Certainly Thanksgiving Day has been a big day in our house,” said Brian McGowan, the patriarch of the family. “It’s one of the things we really looked forward and we are going to miss. The kids are working hard, but with no football, it’s been tough.”
Owen McGowan has blossomed into one of the top linebackers in New England. The Boston College-bound recruit has been on the field for the past two Catholic Memorial victories on Thanksgiving and was looking forward to an opportunity to extend that streak to three.
“It’s definitely a weird feeling not have a Thanksgiving Day this year,” McGowan said. “Being a senior, it makes it ever tougher because you always want to have that last memory of a Thanksgiving Day game.
“I love playing against BC High because it’s such a big rivalry. That game means so much to us because BC High is just about double the size and enrollment that we have so we go in there with an underdog mentality.”
Thanksgiving Day is renowned for coaches throwing out all the old cliches: “anything can happen” … “you can throw out the records when these teams meet” … . It’s also a day where legacies are cemented by leading a team to victory with something on the line.
Consider St. John’s Prep coach Brian St. Pierre. His 43-yard touchdown jaunt, followed by a two-point conversion run by Brian Lentz in the fourth quarter, gave the Eagles a 15-14 victory over Xaverian in the legendary 1997 Thanksgiving Day classic, giving his team the Catholic Conference crown.
“People still bring it up to this day,” St. Pierre said. “I still remember how big the crowd was (an estimated 10,000) and how good the two teams were. I don’t think it was the best-played game because of the weather conditions, but we were the two best teams in New England that year.”
The memories are not limited to the winning side. Mark Ciccarelli played at Central Catholic in the early 1980s and his high school career ended with a loss to Andover in 1983. As much as the loss stung, he was happy to be part of one of the biggest Thanksgiving Day rivalries in the Merrimack Valley.
“We didn’t care what the record was, Andover was the biggest game of the year,” said Ciccarelli, now a lieutenant in the Lawrence police department. “My senior year, we lost the game 12-6, but just playing in that game was special. I still have a photo of myself and Kevin Sullivan and I get choked up every time I see it. I just loved playing football – it’s the greatest sport.”
Ciccarelli was hoping to see his son wear the Central Catholic uniform for the final time on Thanksgiving against Lawrence. The void has forced the senior Ciccarelli to become more than just a parent.
“I just tell him that this is tough, but you just have to be able to plow through it,” Ciccarelli said. “Every time we seem to make progress, the rug gets pulled out from under these kids. We watch a Jimmy Johnson video where he talks about fatigue making cowards out of us as a reminder to Mark that he has to be able to fight though this and show mental toughness.”
The Thanksgiving Day game itself is special, but many feel it’s only part of the experience. Like a cook who spends all day in the kitchen preparing a meal which will get devoured in minutes, the game itself is two hours long. The week leading up to the game is something coaches are missing.
“I loved Thanksgiving week,” Costabile said. “The Wednesday practice before the game, we’d get out of school early, head to the locker room for practice and there was an electricity in the air. Then the day of the game comes around and kids are getting into the locker room earlier than usual, the music is blaring a lot louder – there’s just a lot of excitement.”
Football practice at Central Catholic on a normal Thanksgiving Day week is akin to an alumni reunion. Chuck Adamopoulos has been the head coach of the Raiders since 1997 and the tradition never gets old for him.
“The Thanksgiving Day game is unique in itself, but this is my favorite time of the year,” Adamopoulos said. “It’s my favorite week because of the excitement leading up to the game. It’s also pretty special because we get a lot of former players coming by practice and it’s great to see them. It’s a pretty emotional week because, for a lot of these seniors, it’s the last time they will play football.”
At Stoneham, the Burning of the Boot is a Wednesday tradition that brings many to tears. Head coach Bob Almeida has been a head coach at four different schools since 1990 and says this is as emotional a ceremony as any he’s been around.
“The whole week is very special, but the burning of the boot is special,” Almeida said. “We have a bonfire where each senior will throw some special memento into the fire, it could be a cleat, an old t-shirt or something like that. Right after that, they will say something on the team and it’s pretty emotional.
“I feel really bad that the seniors are going to miss out on that.”
Bridgewater-Raynham coach Dan Buron joked that he will be able to sleep in a little later and actually be home on time for dinner for once. But he admitted not giving his senior players a proper sendoff bothers him.
“Not being able to say goodbye to the seniors after the game will be tough,” Buron said. “Most of those senior players we worked with for four years and built up a camaraderie over the season. It’s a special day and I feel badly for all the kids who are missing out.”
It isn’t just players, coaches and their families who are feeling the void this Thanksgiving. Joe Cacciatore assigns officials for five different leagues and has worked a Thanksgiving Day game every year since 1982. Not putting on the stripes early Thanksgiving morning is something Cacciatore is still coming to grips with.
“Every time I talk to one of my officials, all we talk about is what are we going to do with no Thanksgiving football,” Cacciatore said. “It’s so weird not preparing the night before the game, heading out at 7 a.m. Thanksgiving morning to meet up with my crew for breakfast or going out with them after the game.
“I’ll miss the opportunity to officiate on Thanksgiving, but I feel so bad for the high school kids who are missing out on a chance to play on such a special day.”

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