It used to be easy.
Thanksgiving Day in Massachusetts signified high school football. It was a day for decades-old rivalries, when undefeated seasons, roughly 70 playoff spots, and dozens of league titles could hang in the balance for communities across the Commonwealth.
For many towns, and most especially for the seniors on the field, it was the biggest day of the year. Whatever was being played was their version of The Game, without the Ivy League exclusivity.
Now, the focus has shifted.
As a result of the new state playoff format that kicked off this season — the first year of a two-year trial period — the significance of the Thanksgiving game isn’t quite the same. The postseason already began for 160 teams this month and is already over for all but 12, who are set to clash in six Super Bowl contests at Gillette Stadium Dec. 7. One winner will represent each of the state’s divisions, a stark contrast to a previous system that acknowledged 19 schools as champions.
The new system — with its seven-week regular season and four-week playoff (or “exhibition season” for non-qualifiers) — isn’t perfect, but it’s a large step in the right direction. Changes needed to be made and the new configuration has its flaws, whether they be in the standings-driven points structure, the need for automatic entrants, late-season scheduling, playoff seeding, or division alignments.
But the discussion revolves around Thanksgiving.
Coaches with teams fighting for Super Bowl glory are questioned regularly by parents as to whether they’ll play to win on the holiday or save their key players for what’s largely considered a bigger game. The numerous other teams preparing for their final game, though, have no reason not to dress starters, leading to potential varsity-vs.-junior-varsity showdowns.
In most towns, the Thanksgiving game is all that’s left, even if there is nothing on the line but pride. The common criticism is that the new system renders the game meaningless, or turns it into a glorified scrimmage.
And, not to be lost in the debate, many schools already played their traditional rival this year with the thought that beating the top teams in their leagues early would help cement playoff berths.
It’s a scheduling gaffe that didn’t have to happen and likely won’t be as common in the future, according to Swampscott coach Steve Dembowski, who says he hasn’t heard a complaint from anyone about the existing arrangement, even from teams such as his that failed to advance to the playoffs.
The 15-year coach was heavily involved in the development of the new format, and also sits on the executive board of the Massachusetts Coaches Association, representing the Northeastern Conference.
“A lot of athletic directors and football coaches didn’t believe this plan had a chance to pass a vote, so they didn’t read the proposal,” said Dembowski. “These leagues could have chosen a formula for which you’d choose your playoff teams. You didn’t have to play your full league schedule and play your Thanksgiving opponent twice, possibly three times.
“A lot of athletic directors don’t understand that if you’re playing in a league of five, you’re still going to have three nonconference games that should get you into the tournament. You don’t have to be the first or second team in your league; you just really needed to have a winning record.”
Plymouth South and Plymouth North are among the squads preparing to clash for a third time on Thanksgiving.
“We’re not going to play any of our starters,” said Plymouth South coach and athletic director Scott Fry, whose team has qualified for the Division 3 Super Bowl against Tewksbury. “In talking to our kids, the chance to play in Gillette is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I owe it to those kids to put them in the best position for that game.”
Fry noted that his decision will take away from the importance of the Thanksgiving contest, but his younger students are excited to play in a game they otherwise would not have, while the upperclassmen are content with having already beaten North twice to secure a league title. Those two South-North games, he said, had more magnitude than any Thanksgiving confrontation.
“We’re not going to have one practice,” said Fry. “We’re getting ready for Tewksbury, not North.”
Fortunately, that’s not the consensus approach.
Brian Aylward is in his 17th year as head coach of Tewksbury. Before he took over, his father, Bob, led the program for two decades. Having been to every Thanksgiving game in his lifetime as a fan, player, or coach, he sees things differently heading into Tewksbury’s first matchup of the season against longtime foe Wilmington.
“It’s an 80-year tradition, and I think for anybody who plays football, it’s a rite of passage to play in the Thanksgiving game,” said Aylward. “It’s our next game, and that’s the way we’re treating it. Then we’ll get ready for the next game.”
Aylward acknowledged that it would be nice to have the depth to sit his starters, but he’d never do so since the game provides an opportunity to get ready for a Super Bowl.
“To hold off for two full weeks from playing at game speed is crazy, in my opinion,” he said.
Central Catholic coach Chuck Adamopolous, a member of the football staff for 30 years, also plans to play his starters against 40-year rival Andover, despite a Super Bowl appearance waiting with Xaverian. Division 1 schools had one fewer playoff round than the other divisions, so resting players would mean a three-week gap between games.
Adamopolous said his biggest challenge is preventing people from looking ahead.
“We had parent-teacher night and I had parents coming up — I don’t have their kids in class — and all they wanted to talk about is December,” said Adamopolous. “In the past, people would stop by and say, ‘Are we ready for Thanksgiving?’
“I had to keep saying, ‘We’ve got a game on Thanksgiving.’ That’s our focus. It’s Andover’s last game and they’re on a three-game winning streak. It would make their season to beat us on that day.”
Bishop Fenwick coach Dave Woods, who will lead his team against Northbridge in the Division 5 Super Bowl, knows what it means to have a game on Thanksgiving, even though his school doesn’t have a traditional rival.
“I can’t even imagine, a couple of our kids, if I tried to take them out of the game or tell them they couldn’t play, they’d rip my head off,” Woods said with a chuckle. “For our seniors, it’s their last chance to play at Donaldson Stadium. We’re going to play to win.
“People have made the comment that this system turns Thanksgiving into an exhibition game, and I just don’t buy that. Any person who’s ever played high school football will tell you Thanksgiving is a special, special day, whether you have a rival or not.
“When I played, we didn’t have a win, we had no chance of going to the playoffs, and it was still the most special game of the year. Players, once the whistle blows and the game starts, they’re not thinking about the Super Bowl or anything else other than playing football that day.”
Dembowski took it a step further, saying that back in 2007, his Swampscott players were more interested in winning on Thanksgiving than in the Super Bowl.
“We had already clinched a playoff spot, Thanksgiving’s outcome didn’t mean anything to us, and we were playing on Tuesday no matter what,” he said. “But my kids wanted to win the game. When asked what their favorite game was, it was Thanksgiving.”
Easing the crunch
The most common complaint from coaches about the old playoff system, outside of having nearly two dozen state champs, was the jam-packed schedule for the season’s most important games. As Dembowski mentioned, teams would play on Thanksgiving — in many cases already with an indication of their postseason fate — and that was followed five days later by a playoff game. A win there meant a Super Bowl the following Saturday.
Playing three games in a span of 10 days was simply too much. Now, for the remaining teams, there are eight days between games. More time to enjoy the togetherness and unity of readying for a big game, and unquestionably better as it pertains to players’ well-being.
The popular opinion is that the adjustments have sent the system in the right direction.
Woods called the new plan “outstanding — 100 times better than it was before — and I would say that even if we weren’t in the finals,” and he has heard very little criticism.
“I think it’s going to be a good system over the course of years,” said Aylward, who teaches American government and certainly recognizes the value of change. “They needed to do something to get more participation in the playoff system, and I think they did a good job.
“If you look at the excitement level around the state, the way the papers have covered it, the Internet, I think it’s been great and exciting for us to be part of.”
Still, not everyone is sold.
“I’m still not sure how I feel about it,” said Adamopolous, whose school was one of the 131 dissenters in the 30-vote defeat.
Adamopolous has been around long enough to remember when there were no Super Bowls, and only a ratings system determined the state champion. There wasn’t even one championship game, let alone the 19 that have taken place each of the last dozen seasons.
The Central Catholic coach recently went to scout Andover and Chelmsford in preparation for his Thanksgiving game and observed that the crowd was only about 150 people, whereas it would have had playoff or league implications in the past. Adamopolous said his school’s first playoff game also stood out, since the opposing team brought only about 20 people, in contrast to the late-season interest there would have been when all league games came in the second half of the season and each one had a postseason atmosphere.
“In a perfect world, the playoffs would take place after everyone’s regular season is done,” said the coach. “If you lose in the playoffs, your season is over and you’re not playing afterward. That would be my one negative, but, if you asked my kids right now, they’d say they love the new system.”
Nothing like it
As with anything new, more change is inevitable.
But the biggest mistake anyone could make is diminishing the value of the Thanksgiving game. Rivalry games may not have those playoff spots or league titles on the line as they once did, but the singular day still matters to those players on the field as much as it ever has. And for the communities, filled with weeklong celebrations and pep rallies, that view should be the same.
There’s a buzz in the air on Thanksgiving, fueled by the return of thousands of locals who have moved and may journey back for only one game a year to sit among the masses and catch up with old friends and classmates. It’s a big town reunion, one that transports a person back in time to when the boys in the uniforms were different but the names on the front were not. A time when defeating that same opponent in enemy colors meant just as much. For one day, an entire community is a close family.
We can all agree it would be lunacy to not play on Thanksgiving; that feeling couldn’t be replicated by moving the game up on the schedule to, say, homecoming, when the turnout wouldn’t be nearly as substantial. Unfortunately, reigniting the importance of the holiday in the standings by pushing up the playoffs is no answer either, on account of the start of winter sports.
In the end, only a dozen teams could possibly view the Thanksgiving game as something less than it once was because they have another challenge in front of them. Rest assured, most won’t.
There can be both Super Bowl glory and the romance and pageantry of tradition. There is, in fact. You’ll be reminded of that Thursday. Just don’t forget it, as I did when wishing Coach Adamopolous well next month.
“See! You just did the same thing everyone else is doing,” he bellowed with a laugh. “You didn’t say, ‘Good luck on Thanksgiving!’ ”
Good luck, Coach.
Adam Kaufman is a Boston.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @adammkaufman.