Football in the Valley on Thanksgiving is a longstanding tradition, but will shrinking crowds and talk of changing the schedule make Turkey Day games dead as the bird?
Once upon a time, Thanksgiving football games were the end-all, be-all in the Naugatuck Valley. Here’s a sample agenda of a Valley Thanksgiving morning: Wake up around 8 a.m. (or earlier), wrap up in the warmest gear you can find, and head out to the game with the rest of the family while the turkey is busy doing its thing in the oven.
“It’s part of Thanksgiving around here,” says Naugatuck athletic director Tom Pompei.
“That’s part of my Thanksgiving. I think of my family and the meal, but I think of a 10:30 football game.”
It’s a tradition that has always started when children are too young to really even understand what’s going on.
“I know I went to the Naugy-Ansonia game since I was four or five when my father started taking me,” says Woodland coach Tim Shea.
In Naugatuck and Ansonia, thousands upon thousands once followed that ritual. A routine attendance at the Turkey Day classic was 12,000. Now, that number struggles consistently to reach 4,000.
“I think anywhere over 2,500 would be tremendous,” says Pompei of the potential attendance for this year’s edition, which will be for the NVL championship and a state playoff berth for Naugy.
2,500? I’m not sure I can speak on the behalf of those who have lived in this area far longer than I, but I’ll try—that number is pathetic, and I’m fairly sure most involved with the game would agree.
They say Thanksgiving football is a tradition, and it’s one of the finest, most special traditions the Valley has to its name. So why have people slowly let the games lose their luster?
Less than two decades ago, the crowds for the Naugatuck-Ansonia game were still reaching the tens of thousands. Heck, in 2001, the last time the game was for the league title, there were about 8,000 people at Veterans Field. But as Bob Dylan said, the times they are a-changin’.
Everybody seems to have their own reasons why Thanksgiving football is losing its place in the Valley.
Some, like Shea, who has coached at Woodland for nine years and played for Naugatuck in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, think it’s due to the movement of people.
“People don’t grow up in the town, go to school in the town, or move back to the town,” Shea says. “I think a lot of us now, once we get out of school, move on and move out. I think that hurts. There might be a lot of people who live in the town, but they don’t know what it means to play around here.”
Others, like Woodland athletic director Brian Fell, say the lack of popularity of the games is from the social behavior of society.
“I think the crowds have diminished in part due to the changing nature of social interaction in society,” Fell says.
“The Thanksgiving game used to be a community event where students, graduates and the community at large could meet, talk, hang out, and reminisce. I’m sorry to say, but it seems that social events like this are going the way of the barn-dance and neighborhood block party.”
But there might be another, simpler reason for the decline, at least in Ansonia and Naugatuck.
“We haven’t done our part in making that game of any importance in terms of league titles or state berths on the line,” says Naugatuck coach Rob Plasky. “We haven’t made it competitive; they’ve been beating us by big margins. The fan who comes home for the holiday would probably choose to stay with their family instead of go see a lopsided football game.”
There’s no doubt the way Ansonia has gotten the best of Naugatuck of the last two-plus-decades—winning 22 of the last 24 games—has put a damper on the game’s allure. But shouldn’t a tradition hold up through even the dull and boring?
I say yes. Christmas happens every year, whether or not you got a bad gift last year. The ball drops in New York every year, even though we all know it’s going to light up big at midnight. It doesn’t matter how disappointing or boring—we enjoy them anyway.
I never played football, and even if I did, it wouldn’t have been in an era, unfortunately, where I got to play in front of 15,000 fans on Thanksgiving. Those who have had that chance can’t compare it to much else.
“My sophomore year in Ansonia there was a crowd of about 10,000 people,” Plasky says. “I was a special teams player and pregame you’re punting the ball 60 yards because you’re pumped. It definitely raises the kid’s level of adrenaline. If they can’t get up for an atmosphere like that, they don’t belong playing anything.”
“In 1990, we got there and the place was empty,” Shea says, “but as the game went on, I got a chance to look up and it was pretty impressive to see that amount of people there for a high school game. It’s pretty impressive, for two small towns, how many people want to come out and watch football.”
But the number is no longer impressive, so a conundrum arises: Should the Thanksgiving games be preserved for the sake of a tradition that isn’t as strong as it once was or are they expendable to modify the state playoff system?
Despite the diminishing popularity of the games, most seem to be opposed to the notion of change.
“There have been so many kids who have put that jersey on and it’s meant so much, even when it hasn’t been for league or state titles,” Plasky says. “You’re missing a huge game there. That would bother me.”
“I tell these guys all the time: You seniors will remember your last Thanksgiving game,” Shea says. “I remember mine; we got buried. It brings a climax to the season, good or bad.”
The area athletic directors are split on the issue. Pompei says he would be “fiercely opposed” to getting rid of the game.
“This game is so meaningful to us,” he says. “That’s not something I want to play with.”
Fell is open to change, including integrating Thanksgiving football into the playoffs, but doesn’t think a change is likely.
“I like the idea of the Thanksgiving game becoming part of the playoff system, either by the state or by the league,” Fell says. “I don’t think we’ll see either of these ideas soon, though.”
The change might be imminent, though, if we don’t see more support for the games soon. This year is the perfect chance to get back in the mix if you’ve been out of it, so on Wednesday night or Thursday, leave the turkey in the oven, get off your keister, and get out to a game.