Commentary

Old rivals can't get fill of Turkey Day games

Updated: November 25, 2009, 1:21 PM ET
By Mark Tennis and Jon Mahoney | ESPN RISE

A team with a 0-9 record normally might not have much to look forward to, but the football players at Lincoln High (San Jose, Calif.) are pumped up nonetheless.

SF Turkey Game
Willie Eashman/ESPNRISEMore playoff divisions have led many areas to do away with Thanksgiving games, but a few teams still play these games.

At Lincoln and its city archrival, San Jose Academy, Thanksgiving isn't just about family gatherings and eating turkey. It also means the Big Bone Game.

The Big Bone is so ingrained in the blood of players, coaches and alumni at Lincoln and San Jose that they choose continuing their Thanksgiving tradition in lieu of participating in the CIF Central Coast Section playoffs.

"For at least the last five years prior to this one we could have gone to the playoffs," said Lions coach Kevin Collins. "Of course, there's been discussion about changing things, but most people outside of our two schools just don't understand the situation."

As Thanksgiving rivalries around the nation have dwindled mainly due to the ever-increasing number of playoff divisions, schools like Lincoln and San Jose Academy value tradition more than anything.

Unlike San Jose and Lincoln, which must choose between the rivalry game and the playoffs, other schools -- mainly in the Northeast -- can continue playing Thanksgiving rivalries because their state playoffs get scheduled around them. And in some places, Thanksgiving rivalries may be gone but have been replaced by championship games.

This year's Big Bone Game, the 67th in the series, will be hosted by San Jose City College. Lincoln has been dominant in recent years, winning 57-0 last season.

Collins says it's not just the game that makes it special. There's the frosh-soph game held the previous week -- yes, they call that the Little Bone Game -- the seniors' annual walk around the field the night before, a coaches' breakfast and more.

San Jose Academy coach Jason Pierce feels just as passionate about the event as his rival coach.

"It's the two oldest schools in San Jose and everybody who went there often goes to the game," he says. "It's just what people do. They go to the game, then go home and eat turkey."

It's just what people do. They go to the game, then go home and eat turkey.

--Jason Pierce, San Jose Academy head coach.

Pierce's team enters this year's game with four wins and seems to have a good chance of breaking an 11-game Lincoln winning streak.

"It's such an honor to be part of it, especially when I know I'm going to start," San Jose senior Jose Arellano says. "Knowing we have a chance to win makes it even more exciting."

Of course, even at 0-9 Lincoln may be tough to beat. Rivalries like this bring out the best in teams.

"This year, it is different because we have a lot of inexperience, but we're still looking forward to the game," Lincoln senior Jorge Escobar says. "We know there will be no empty seats and it will be a great atmosphere."

In New Jersey, football teams play the first two rounds of the state playoffs before participating in their annual Thanksgiving games. The playoffs then resume a week later with the championship games of each division.

Consistently dominant Garden State programs like current ESPN RISE FAB 50 No. 2 Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) have followed this schedule for years with the Ironmen usually taking on rival Paramus Catholic (Paramus, N.J.) on Turkey Day.

Bosco switched things up this year and will play fellow Jersey power St. Joseph Regional (Montvale, N.J.). Then next week Bosco will go to Giants Stadium and try to win state.

Playing a non-playoff Thanksgiving game in the middle of the postseason might seem odd to outsiders -- not to mention risky -- but longtime Bosco coach Greg Toal doesn't have a problem with it. He's been taking part in Thanksgiving rivalries since he was in high school at Hasbrouck Heights (Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.).

[+] EnlargeThanksgiving Football Sign
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesWhile fewer high school games are played on Thanksgiving, there are still plenty of options for Turkey Day football fans.

"I grew up playing on Thanksgiving and I think football should be played on Thanksgiving," he says. "I think it's a great tradition. I love it.

"If (an injury) happens, it happens," he adds. "You can't worry about it. If you do, it makes your team soft."

While the New Jersey Thanksgiving games have no impact on playoff outcomes, games in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., serve as championships for the CIF San Francisco Section and D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association.

"There has never been any discussion of moving the game," San Francisco Section commissioner Donald Collins says. "Although there may be some extremely small percentage of team supporters who miss the game due to holiday travel plans, that small percentage is more than made up by the rather large percentage of people who plan their day around it."

This is the 40th year in D.C. that the East and West divisional champions will meet in what's known locally as the Turkey Bowl.

H.D. Woodson and Dunbar have tied for the most Turkey Bowl titles with nine each. H.D. Woodson will go for title No. 10 this year -- and its second in a row -- with a Thanksgiving matchup against Ballou.

Dunbar, which lost to H.D. Woodson in last weekend's semifinals, will be missing its first Turkey Bowl since 1997. Not playing on Thanksgiving will be an unwelcome change for Dunbar coach Craig Jefferies.

"We're the face of Thanksgiving morning because we're the only game in town at that moment," he says. "This is it. This is for all the marbles. Just the attention and the fanfare these kids get, it's like it's their day."

Dunbar might not be playing this Thanksgiving. But thankfully plenty more teams are playing and get to have their day.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.