Kicking around memories of Thanksgiving games past
By Steve Krause
Former Lynnfield High football coach Bill Adams tells a story that illuminates the importance of the Thanksgiving Day rivalries in a unique way.
And it involves a game that wasn’t even played on Thanksgiving.
The year was 1989. Lynnfield, as always, was to play North Reading. But the weather was horrible.
“We got to the field, and that’s where (North Reading Athletic Director) Roy Condon called to tell me they’d post- poned the game til Saturday,” Adams said.
“He asked me if noon Saturday was OK. I said it was. I told him I had to go to a wedding later in the day, but that noon was fine. He asked me who was getting married. I told him I was.”
Adams married Jane Dempsey that day, and if it had been anyone other than the sister of a football coach (Lynn Classical’s Dave Dempsey), chances are this wouldn’t have gone off nearly as well as it did.
“Dave was to bring her down the aisle,” Adams said. “I think we ended up playing at 11. The wedding was at 3. I had to get my son, Bill Jr., home (his son played in the game) so he could change into his tux, and I had to change into mine. I ended up being a half-hour late.”
Dempsey’s Rams also played that day – and lost to English. He and his sister showed up five minutes later than Adams.
Thanksgiving football is more than a game. And more than even a tradition that dates back, in some cases, for more than 100 years.
“It’s the last time you’re all going to be together as a team, unless you’re lucky enough to be in a Super Bowl,” said Dan Schena of Saugus, whose 1990 against Peabody was one of the most ballyhooed around that year. Both teams were vying for Super Bowls, with a victory being crucial in both cases.
“We’d have needed help even if we’d won,” said Schena, a two-way lineman and captain for the Sachems. “Everyone, all the media, all the fans, was talking about it like it was going to be the game of the day. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
Peabody struck early and often, winning the game, 39-8, and going on to win the Division 1 Super Bowl.
“We were both very good teams,” said Mark Bettencourt, who coaches Peabody now and was a tight end on the 1990 team. “We may have gotten them that day, but I’ll bet if we played a couple of more times, things would have been different.”
The Saugus-Peabody rivalry dates back to 1943, with the Tanners holding a 41-29 edge. But that’s due, in large part, to a winning streak that began in 1989 and lasted until 2005. Until then, Saugus had the edge, especially when it came to springing upsets.
Bettencourt said he never fully realized the importance of Thanksgiving football until he came back to coach at Peabody.
“You don’t have it in perspective until later on,” he said. “The you realize that it’s a lot of fun, and you see what it means to seniors, especially the kids who don’t go on to play a college sport. It’s very emotional.”
Sean Fitzgerald, Peabody High Class of 1988, recalls the loss to Saugus at Stackpole Field his senior year in a miserable
Thanksgiving Day game after the Tanners went for a two-point conversion rather than an extra point that would have resulted in a tie. Afterward, coach Ed Nizwantowski echoed the famous words of former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards, saying “we play this game to win.”
Still, Fitzgerald felt forlorn and empty as he left the field.
“I recall Niz always saying to seniors, ‘this is your last game. You’ll never be together again. Some of you will never play again.’
“So I’m walking off the field after that game and I’m crushed,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m hearing all those words that Niz spoke for the three years. Then he comes up behind me and says to me, ‘don’t worry, Fitzy, you’re gonna play.’ Then it was shortly after I found out I had a scholarship to Central Connecticut State.”
Those involved in the Saugus-Peabody rivalry have a unique perspective on it because for two years (2007-8) the teams did not play each other. The series resumed in 2009, but was not moved back to Thanksgiving until well after that.
“I remember when I started coaching,” said Bettencourt, who is in his fourth season, “we played Malden Catholic the night before Thanksgiving. Talk about a buzzkill.”
Another rivalry that was moved back to Thanksgiving after a lengthy absence is St. Mary’s and Bishop Fenwick. The game was discontinued after the 1991 so that the Spartans, who were about to change leagues from the Catholic Central to the Commonwealth Conference, could play Lynn Tech as part of an effort to get Lynn’s schools playing each other. It didn’t pick up again until 2006, when St. Mary’s, which had rejoined the CCL, moved to the upper division.
Finally, last year, the Thanksgiving Day rivalry was reborn.
While all that was going on, Fenwick was nomadic as far as Thanksgiving rivalries go. The Crusaders played, among other schools, Malden Catholic, Austin Prep and Pingree.
Mark Nerich (St. Mary’s) and Dave Duggan (Fenwick) both played in the 1989 game, but they are united in their love for the old rivalry.
“It was nice when St. Mary’s played Tech,” said Nerich, “but it wasn’t Fenwick. I’m glad they’re back to the way it used to be.”
“Same with Saugus and Peabody,” said Nerich, who is now a Lynn Police officer. “They broke apart for a few years and now it’s back. I look forward to it every year.”
Nerich is the youngest of six, and St. Mary’s-Fenwick on Thanksgiving was a big part of his life.“Ever since I was a young child, I remember the Fenwick-St. Mary’s rivalry,” he said. “I love the tradition of it.”
Conversely, Duggan was the oldest of three.
“It was great to be a part of it,” Duggan said. “I’d been going to that game since I was in the fifth grade. I think having the two schools so close to each other made for a better rivalry, too.”
In that 1989 game, “I remember (Mark) had a huge game, and no matter what we tried to do we couldn’t stop him,” said Duggan, now an assistant for Dave Woods at Fenwick. “I remember our coach, Jim Lyons, trying to figure out a way to stop him. But we scored first in that game (Fenwick won, 20-14) and that was the difference.”
“That was the end of our football careers,” Nerich said. “It meant a lot to our schools and to our families. I was fortunate in that I played in prep school and (at Fordham), but you felt bad for the kids who were playing their last game. You go through so much with those guys over the course of a season. It really is something you remember for the rest of your life.”
“Years and years later, when you all get together, that’s the game you’re going to talk about.”
The Lynn Classical-Lynn English rivalry celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013. And for many of those years, says Dick Newton, who played in the famed 1976 game that put the winner in the Division 2 Super Bowl, “we didn’t know them and they didn’t know us. And I think that made for a better rivalry.
“Now, there’s no more (Washington Street) dividing line. It’s open enrollment. Everybody knows everybody. You’ve had brothers playing against each other. You could have kids who live next door to each other playing for different schools.
“But I went to the Ingalls Elementary School and Eastern Junior High and I knew from the time I was old enough to know that I’d be going to English,” Newton said.
Ed Thurman, who played for Classical in that 1976 game (which Classical won, 7-0), said “we didn’t hang around in the same places either. We wouldn’t go to Goldfish Pond or anyplace like that.
“I knew I wanted to go to Classical,” he said. “I’d met Coach (Bill) Wise. He asked us what we all wanted to do. We all said we wanted to go to college. Bill said, ‘you go to Classical, you work hard, and I’ll work hard for you.’”
Adams recalls Thanksgiving from two perspectives, as a player for Swampscott and a coach for Lynnfield.
“As a player, of course, all you’re worried about is going out there and playing. As a coach, you have to worry about any number of little and big things.”
As a coach, Adams tried to borrow freely from Stan Bondelevitch, his coach at Swampscott, “who was always doing things to get you properly motivated to play. He was a real character.
“So we’d do things like have T-shirts made that said ‘finish the job’ or ‘make the turkey taste good,’ or something like that, and, of course, we’d expect the kids to wear them under their pads during the game.
“It’s not always the game itself,” he said. “It’s the stuff leading up to the games. It’s the rallies in the gym, it’s the special awards, special themes.
“I always saw Thanksgiving as its own separate season,” Adams said. “There’s the regular season … and there’s Thanksgiving.”
But for some, what goes on during the game bears little resemblance to real life. One year, after Saugus had defeated the Tanners on Thanksgiving morning at Coley Lee Field in Peabody, Kevin Ward, Saugus’ coach, was asked whether the turkey was going to taste better as a result.
Ward just smiled.
“The turkey,” he said, “always tastes good.”