It's around 6:30 a.m., and you're hopping out of bed ready and raring to go. You have played the possible scenarios out in your head for today's game, and you play until that final whistle sounds and the last man steps of the field.
The night before was always a hectic one in my house where my mother and sister would have the meat grinder going making stuffing for the Thanksgiving Day feast and baking pies. Of course, I would be picking at all the sweets and getting yelled at, but that's beside the point. The point I am trying to make is that high school football on Thanksgiving is as much as a tradition as the cranberry sauce or the mashed potatoes.
Football is like gravy on the top of mashed potatoes; it just goes hand in hand. The new state football championship pilot plan I spoke to last week says it won't cause any harm to the current rivalries. All Thanksgiving rivalries will remain intact, and I think that is a great thing. What better way to bring a community together than a football game?
Thanksgiving Day games are typically the big-ticket games for high school football teams. Alumni are all there to witness the seniors crack the shoulder pads if only for another game. At my high school, football players two years graduated to players decades removed all join together to watch a game.
It is so much more than just a game to the players involved. Sleep wasn't an option the night before because all you could think about was what to do when your opponent runs that play coach has been harping on all week.
You are about to embark upon one of the toughest days of your football careers; the day where most of you will button your chinstraps one last time. The majority of Friday night warriors will not play football at the collegiate level, and will be forced to hang up the cleats for good following the annual Turkey Day clash. Players will end their high-school careers with a culmination of one or all of the following things. Anyone who has played football will leave with scars, a championship ring, lasting friendships and memories. Man, oh man, will you have some great memories.
I recollect my final Thanksgiving game as a Gael, knowing that I would never play football again. Clinton would have a pasta dinner the night before at Turner Hall where I always seemed to be one of the only guys going up for thirds, sometimes even fourths. The late great head Gaels' football coach Archie Cataldi would give us some words of wisdom about the game the next morning. We'd always leave the dinner smiling eager to take to the gridiron the next day.
Regular-season records? What are those? You throw those out the window when you face off against your arch nemesis on Thanksgiving. During my senior year, we were 0-10 going into Thanksgiving morning against Maynard. Maynard was a mere 1-10, not much better than we were. I remember Cataldi came to the banquet as a friend of the program and not a coach for the first time. He basically told us seniors it'd be our last time wearing the Clinton uniform and to make it a memorable one, win or lose.
As a five-foot-nine then 200 lb. lineman, your chances of playing college football anywhere are slim. When I was playing, playoffs were a far-off fantasy. Now teams like Groton-Dunstable and Tyngsborough battle for the regular-season crown on Turkey Day. Both teams will play at least for another day come playoff time, so they are able to put off the pain of leaving the game for a while.
No matter how big, how strong or how tough you are, it will hit you. The moment when you walk off that field for the final time you will know you gave everything you had in those 44 minutes to those seniors out there playing in their last game in their respective schools' colors. Go out there and cherish it. Try to fight back the thought that this is your last game. Go out there and just play the game you love with all you have. Make your town and family more proud of you than you ever thought possible. Most importantly, remember what you are truly thankful for. The chapter entitled football may have come to a close, but the bonds and lessons you learned over the years will come up again in other parts of your life.
I remember walking off the field along with my teammates swallowing our pride and stepping on the bus. It didn't hit me until about five minutes down route 117 that my football career had just came to an end. I remember sitting in the locker room along with my fellow seniors in our uniforms a bit longer than usual.
We then one by one made that long trek into the gymnasium to walk the uniform return line. First the bag for the girdles, then the leg pads, knee pads, then you hand in your shoulder pads and helmet. And, finally the jersey, the one article of clothing you wanted to wear each week through the halls. For some, you have worn that number for four years, others maybe just one. When you leave the game, there will be someone else to fill out that same uniform and the trend will continue on.
So seniors: Leave it all on the field. Play like it is your last down, regardless of the score. In life, when it's fourth-and-long you don't have the option to punt the ball out of danger. Hey you with the knife, cut me off a piece of that Americana. Remember, Thanksgiving Day memories are leftovers that never spoil and will last the rest of your lives.