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No Friday night lights or Thanksgiving Day games: What we lose when we lose Mass. high school football

``You don’t realize how important sports are to us until it’s taken away from us. I think I’d rather win a Latin game than win the Super Bowl," said Ryan Conway (left), a former Boston English player and current coach
``You don’t realize how important sports are to us until it’s taken away from us. I think I’d rather win a Latin game than win the Super Bowl," said Ryan Conway (left), a former Boston English player and current coachJosh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

For 133 years, through world wars, the Great Depression, global epidemics, and the somber aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Boston Latin School and the English High School of Boston have gathered on Thanksgiving Day to play football.

Not this Thanksgiving, however, in the cursed year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

High school football, one of the state’s hallowed traditions, will not be played this fall as the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, acting on guidance from state agencies, made history Wednesday by canceling interscholastic competition in the sport.

No Friday night lights. No marching bands on crisp October afternoons. Gridirons will be barren and spirits low, no more so than on Thanksgiving, typically an indelible day of community and family reunions, touchdowns and turkey.

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“You don’t realize how important sports are to us until it’s taken away from us,” said Ryan Conway, a former English player who now coaches the team and is steeped in the deep-rooted rivalry against Latin.

"I think I’d rather win a Latin game than win the Super Bowl,” Conway said.

There may be hope on the horizon, though. The MIAA has left open the possibility that schools can schedule a "floating season’' for football, from Feb. 22 to April 25, wedged between abbreviated winter and spring sports seasons. Questions abound about the feasibility, but the prospect has struck many coaches as tantalizing.

"The 134th meeting of Latin and English will not be on Thanksgiving this year, so that’s disappointing,’' Latin coach Ray Butler said. "Maybe we can play on Patriots Day this year. Or Saint Patrick’s Day. That would be special.‘'

Cheerleading is also forbidden this fall. Cheerleading, like football, requires coordinated close contact and has been deemed by the state to pose a high risk of participants transmitting the potentially deadly contagion. So, forget about envisioning Norman Rockwell images in autumn of cheerleaders and football stars in celebration.

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No one in Massachusetts under 19 has died of COVID-19. But nearly 7,700 in the age group have contracted the virus, more than 120 have been hospitalized, and the rate of those with confirmed cases has been rising. Public health specialists say young people, while generally not susceptible to severe symptoms, are considered at high risk of transmitting the pathogen.

Still, student-athletes generally want to play. Many multi-sport players lost the end of their winter seasons and their entire spring seasons. Now this.

"The kids are devastated,’' said Milton High coach Steve Dembowski, the coaches’ representative on the MIAA’s football committee.

Thanksgiving would have marked the 90th edition of Milton’s holiday game against Braintree. Massachusetts is home to most of the oldest football rivalries in the nation. The Needham-Wellesley contest, for instance, dates to 1882, though their games were canceled during the world wars.

In 2015, Needham and Wellesley played their annual Thanksgiving Day game at Fenway Park. The series dates back to 1882.
In 2015, Needham and Wellesley played their annual Thanksgiving Day game at Fenway Park. The series dates back to 1882.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

In recent decades, players and families have gathered before their televisions on Thanksgiving nights to watch Mike Lynch’s signature recap on Channel 5 of the day’s games and his "High Five Salute’' to the day’s stars. Not this year.

But all may not be lost. Dembowski said many coaches and players are encouraged that the state’s guidelines empower school districts to decide if their football teams can participate in limited forms of practice this fall. Players would be barred from wearing pads or engaging in contact, but there could be socially-distanced workouts and instruction. Some coaches have indicated they may try to play intramural 7-on-7, non-contact games, similar to flag football.

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Dembowski said he is keenly concerned about the social and emotional harm students have suffered while they have been barred from athletic activities. Limited football practices would be "great for kids who can’t transition to another fall sport,’' he said. "They’ll be able to have some continued conditioning and will be able to get some teaching on football concepts and schemes.‘'

The prospect of fall practices are especially significant at inner-city schools such as English, whose football team includes players from New Mission High School.

"Football is a big part of their lives, and for some of our kids it’s an absolute critical part of them getting through high school,’' Conway, the English coach, said. "You can see it with the violence in the city on the uptick, that young people are lacking structure. The sooner we can get back, that would take some of the stress off some of these young people.”

School districts that begin the season with only remote learning may find it difficult to justify allowing students on campus for sports.

"Hopefully, it turns into a situation where everyone within reason is able to’' hold practices, Dembowski said. "You’d hate for certain schools to say `no’ and other schools to have the green light.”

Butler, the Latin coach, previously served on the coaching staffs of numerous colleges, including MIT, Framingham State, and Curry. He said the canceled fall season and the loss of some summer football activities, such as showcases and clinics, has complicated matters for an untold number of high school players who aspire to collegiate careers.

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But he said colleges at every level need to fill their rosters and there will be a natural "trickle-down process’' in which players will generally find colleges that fit their skill levels, even during the pandemic.

The "floating season’' in late winter would give seniors a last chance to prove themselves to colleges that are still recruiting players then. For that reason and others, many high school coaches said they are eager to start their pandemic-delayed seasons early next year.

"It’s going to be different, so that’s exciting,’' Butler said. "There’s enough negativity to go around, so we’re trying to stay positive about all this stuff.‘'

Craig Larson, Jim Clark, and Trevor Hass contributed to the story.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.