The tradition of Thanksgiving and football

Ken Morse

Ken Morse

In 1620, colonists left England to set sail towards a place that would one day be called the United States of America. The brave souls, 102 in all, spent 66 harrowing days traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a ship named the Mayflower. They landed on Plymouth Rock in Cape Cod and settled on this new continent.

Only half of them survived that first brutal winter to see their very first New England spring. They befriended a tribe of Wampanoag natives who taught them how to plant and cultivate corn. In the fall of 1621, the Plymouth colonists joined the natives to celebrate the first harvest in a great three-day feast that is now known as Thanksgiving.

For more than two centuries, colonies and states celebrated their own version of a year-end harvest until 1863, when in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

The tradition of Thanksgiving and football was soon to follow as Yale and Princeton played in the very first holiday football game in 1876, shortly after the game was invented. The National Football League followed suit by playing its first Thanksgiving games in 1920. Now, there are three NFL games played on this holiday along with a slew of high school games across this country.

Many cultural and family traditions have been implemented over the generations involving this holiday.

As far as traditions go, Connecticut’s oldest high school Thanksgiving rivalry belongs to the Garnet and Grey of Naugatuck and the Lavender of Ansonia, which began in 1900.

In 1952, the very first All-Naugatuck Valley League football team was announced shortly after Ansonia defeated Naugatuck, 13-0.  Among those honorees from Ansonia were Bill Elko and John Andrusko and from Naugatuck were Joe Ruccio and Ray Tolbert.

Despite the 114-year history of this rivalry, only 13 NVL titles were decided on this day with Naugatuck holding a slight, 7-6 edge in these championship contests. In recent years, some memorable championship games come to mind.

In 1981 Naugatuck put an end to the Chargers’ eight-game winning streak in Thanksgiving Day games as the Greyhounds defeated Ansonia, 24-20, to wrestle away the NVL title. A year later, Naugatuck did it again by earning a hard-fought, 7-6 win to defend the NVL championship.

In 1994 the Chargers upended Naugatuck in a game that is still talked about to this day as Ansonia survived a hair-raising, 28-21 overtime game that decided the title.

As far as overtime games go, nothing will ever compare to the double-overtime battle that the Chargers managed to win in 2000 as the 15-12 confrontation landed the NVL title back in Ansonia.

The Greyhounds returned the favor a year later with a stunning comeback in a 14-13 white-knuckle affair in Naugatuck, as the fans knocked down the fence when they stormed the field to greet their football heroes with a well-deserved back pounding.

But in all the games through this storied football rivalry the most entertaining game that ever took place was not to decide an NVL title. In 1985, fans in Naugatuck were treated to a shootout as the Greyhounds pulled out an edge-of-your-seat, 33-28 win over the Chargers. 

Thanksgiving and football is all about tradition that began a long time ago, and in honor of the excitement and memories of this day, I would like to leave you with this piece I wrote many years ago to honor this holiday:

Held up in the galley beneath the ship’s deck, I rode the Mayflower’s adventurous trek. Upon this great land our treasure was found; we settled our homes on this new broken ground. The harvest was plenty that very first year; we planned the Great Feast for all who lived there. And on that great day when they broke the bread, I yelled, “Let’s call this Thanksgiving instead.”

Ken Morse is a contributing writer to the Citizen’s News.