It is a Thanksgiving Day tradition: The season-ending football game between high school archrivals. At times, playoff berths are at stake. More often, though, there is nothing more on the line than bragging rights, for the next year or for the rest of the players’ lives.
In Lynn, there is a twist to that tradition that makes it even more special. On Thanksgiving Day, there is no visiting team. Two public high schools, Lynn English and Lynn Classical, will square off again, as they have since 1911.
For English (1-3 in the Northeastern Conference, 2-7 overall) and Classical (4-1, 5-5), it will be the last game of the season for both teams. Don’t let anyone tell you that doesn’t matter.
This year marks the 100th playing of the traditional game. Classical holds the edge, 53-37-9. The game was not played in 1913 or 1914, and the two schools combined in one year, 1961, as the Lynn Lions.
“It’s a grand day,” said Pete Petras, who graduated from Classical in 1949 and played on powerhouse teams quarterbacked by the legendary Harry Agganis.
Rich with tradition, the game is played these days in a city that has dramatically changed since Agganis was the showcase.
In the last 20 years, the number of Latinos in Lynn has more than tripled, now nearly one third of the city’s population. Another example of the city’s diversity: There are 32 languages in Lynn Classical’s student body, while English has 26.
“Most of our students speak English well enough to communicate even if English is their second language. When we have difficulty, we use other players to interpret,’’ said Classical Coach Tim Phelps.
“When I was a student, probably about 90-plus percent was white. Our current demographics are only 24 percent of the school is white and the remaining 76 percent are minority population,’’ said Tom Strangie, the English principal, who graduated in 1982. “The kids are great. They’re fantastic to work with. It’s a great school, with a superb faculty that works very hard. Everybody does what they need to do to succeed. I wouldn’t want to work anyplace else.”
The rivalry used to be East Lynn and English vs. West Lynn and Classical, the city split virtually down the middle by Washington Street. That changed nearly a generation ago, with a policy change in the 1990s allowing the city’s students to choose their high school.
“We have kids from West Lynn on our team, and they have kids from East Lynn on their team,” said English athletic director Gary Molea, a former head coach.
“One year we had brothers on Thanksgiving Day, kids who lived in the same house playing on different sides. So it’s definitely evolved.
“It’s just a whole different day. I think the kids respond differently on Thanksgiving. They’re in front of the whole city. They’ve got friends on the opposite side of the field. So I think it brings out the best in our kids on Thanksgiving Day.”
And the significance of the 100th game has not been lost on today’s players.
“That’s big,” said Classical captain Brad Scuzzarella. “We’ve actually been looking at that since our freshman year. The other captains playing with me now, we’d always look up to it as, ‘Hey, our senior year is going to be the 100th game. We have to do something big.’ And we’ve kind of been looking forward to it ever since we came into the school as freshmen. It’s a really big deal, and I know there are going to be a lot of people at the game because it’s the 100th year.”
Just don’t tell them the outcome doesn’t matter.
“It’s kind of a bragging-rights game for the rest of the year,” Scuzzarella said. “And since we’re seniors, it’s kind of for the rest of our lives, talking back to the kids that we know on the other side.”
As much as the city has changed, the event still brings out oldtimers who appreciate the history even more.
Petras plans to be at the game this year, wearing his special Classical ’49ers sweatshirt, as he has almost every year. Gerry LeBrasseur, who graduated from Classical in 1953, will be there too, wearing a Rams hat that he wears almost daily. He hasn’t missed a game in more than 70 years, as a player, a fan, a coach.
“The competition was fierce,” LeBrasseur said. “I had a lot of friends that went to English. We just had tough competition from the time we were 12 years old on the playgrounds against each other.
“Everybody points to Thanksgiving: ‘We’ve got to beat our cross-town rivals.’ And that’s all sports, and the competition was always strong playing against English. It was the biggest thing on the schedule.”
It’s a game that is played by kids who have known each other all their lives, playing on youth teams together or at the playgrounds against one another. It has been played by generations from the same family, sometimes on opposing sides, sometimes in the same year.
“The game was such a tradition that the team records really didn’t matter,” said Mike Pazik, who quarterbacked the English Bulldogs from 1966 to 1968.
“The whole week leading up to the game was actually bigger than the game itself with the rallies. The game itself had the traditional pageantry. [But] the best memories for me were after the games and going home to be with family and enjoying the day.”
For Pazik, now a scout for the Kansas City Royals, that bantering included familial bragging rights. His father, Henry, scored the first touchdown in the inaugural game of the old Manning Bowl, on Thanksgiving Day 1937, when the elder Pazik’s Classical lost to English.
Matt Curtis, who was a captain at English, scored a touchdown in the final game at the old Bowl on Thanksgiving Day in 2004. His older brother, father, and grandfather all played for English, too.
“My favorite memory would probably be when I was young kid and my brother was playing. He had lost all three seasons prior to his senior year,” said Curtis, who went on to captain the Harvard football team before his 2009 graduation. “I remember being a little boy and I remember how excited my father was for the game. It was very cold, and my brother’s team, Lynn English, ended up beating Lynn Classical, 49-0.
“I remember how happy my father was for my brother, and being a younger football player, it’s something that really stuck with me.”
The old Bowl, a monolith of intimidation for visiting teams, capable of holding more than 20,000 fans when stretched to capacity, has gone the way of the wrecking ball, replaced by the smaller, sleeker Manning Field. That hasn’t dimmed the rivalry, though.
But once they get past that, there’s something else the players can look forward to.
“Some of those kids I played against back then at Classical are some of my best friends now,” said English head coach Peter Holey, who graduated from English in 1981 before playing at Boston College. “And I think that will be true for these kids as well. Those kids across the field on Thanksgiving Day may be some of their best friends 20 years from now.”
There’s a kind of caring wrapped in the rivalry, too.
“There’s a lot of familiarity with the kids because we all live in the same city,” said Phelps, the Classical coach who is himself a 2001 grad. “A lot of times our kids, if we have a Friday night off or a Saturday, they’ll go to the English game, and vice versa. So they’re always looking in the paper to see how the other team did.”
“It’s a very special game,” said Curtis. “It’s not just a rivalry game. It’s a game where the other team has a face.
“I remember when I was young, on Saturday mornings, you get your newspaper and your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. One time my father goes, ‘Dang, Classical lost.’ And they were playing Swampscott. And I was confused because Classical was always the rival. ‘Are you rooting for Classical?’ He said, ‘We’re still all from Lynn and I’d much rather see a Lynn team beat Swampscott than lose.’ ”
For most of the players, the Thanksgiving game will be the last football game they will ever play. Regardless of the outcome, the bittersweetness will be there for both sides.
“I can remember it like it happened yesterday,’’ said LeBrasseur, the 1953 Classical grad. “You never forget it.”
Maureen Mullen can be reached at mullen_maureen@ yahoo.com.