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Thanksgiving in March? Some high school football teams are celebrating old rivalries on new dates

As head coaches, and assistants at Needham and Wellesley, respectively, Roy Johan (left) and Bill Tracey, have embraced the nation's longest public school football rivalry. Playing in March, though, is a new wrinkle.
As head coaches, and assistants at Needham and Wellesley, respectively, Roy Johan (left) and Bill Tracey, have embraced the nation's longest public school football rivalry. Playing in March, though, is a new wrinkle.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In their 50 years on the respective sidelines of the oldest public school football rivalry in the country, Roy Johan and Bill Tracey have witnessed upsets, last-second thrillers, wild weather, and contentious battles between Needham and Wellesley.

Except for the renewal of their annual Thanksgiving game in March.

“It’s pretty strange, I won’t lie,” said Tracey, the head coach at Wellesley from 2001-2012 who is now the Raiders’ offensive line coach.

“There is so much build up to the Thanksgiving game that we won’t experience this time around, especially in just our second game of the season.”

Johan, now an assistant at Needham for one of his former players, Doug Kopsco, embraced all those experiences as head coach of the Rockets from1982-1997.

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With the Fall I football season cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, players and coaches from Wellesley and Needham could only commemorate the 133rd meeting with a photo shoot on the hill sloping above Memorial Field last November.

So in a sense, there has been nearly four months of buildup to the matchup Friday night at 5 between the old rivals in Week 2 of the Fall II season.

“Usually we spend almost 14 days on ‘Needham Week’ at the end of the season,” said Wellesley coach Jesse Davis, who, as a player in 1998, captained Wellesley to a 27-20 win in the 110th meeting.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the history. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to do that, so that’s missing, but the rivalry is still the rivalry. The biggest part that’s missing is that extra stuff we do off the field.”

The same goes for most of the other Thanksgiving rivals slated to play in Week 2.

Medway and Millis, Newton South and Lincoln-Sudbury, Newton North and Brookline, Braintree and Milton, and Walpole and Weymouth, all renew their rivalries Friday or Saturday. The 85th matchup between Wayland and Weston is off due to a positive test in the Weston program and Natick postponed its rivalry game with Framingham to April 16 due to a positive test.

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“It’s a different feel, but as we start get back out there and discuss the juices could get flowing again,” said 10-year Braintree coach Brian Chamberlain. “Once we get to Milton and see the other team I think all the emotions will come back.”

Due to the pandemic, only two spectators will be admitted per student-athlete at most venues and temperatures are expected to drop below 30 degrees on Friday night. There are fewer alumni and extended family members around to add significance to the event, and several ceremonies — including a post-game handshake – are off the table.

On Thanksgiving Day, the seniors on the  Needham and Wellesley High football teams gathered above Memorial Field to commemorate what would have been the 133rd meeting.
On Thanksgiving Day, the seniors on the Needham and Wellesley football teams gathered on the hill above Memorial Field commemorate what would have been the 133rd matchup in the rivalry. COURTESY PHOTO

But the Frederick Gorman Centennial Trophy will still be awarded to the victor at Needham, and the result will count toward a rivalry series that Wellesley leads, 63-60-9.

“It’ll be different, but the folks who are able to come will be ecstatic to see Needham and Wellesley back together,” said Kopsco, who captained Needham in the 1998 Thanksgiving bout against Davis and Wellesley.

“It can provide some normalcy in this crazy time. It’s a tradition that extends back to [former head coach David] Duffy and Roy Johan’s years, and even before that. It’s the oldest in the country and we want our players to represent that with class and dignity.”

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The Needham-Wellesley tradition began in 1882 and paused during the late 1910s due to World War I and the influenza pandemic. In 2019, Wellesley led 27-0 when the game was called with 2:05 left after a brawl broke out.

In response, Needham expanded its Leadership Council to include eight seniors, four juniors, and four sophomores, with senior Andrew Barnett, a 6-foot-7-inch wide receiver, serving as the prevalent voice of the student-led organization.

“As soon as the [2019] game ended, we got our Leadership Council together and thought, ‘How do we make sure that doesn’t happen again?’” said Barnett. “How do we instill the values we have as Needham Rockets to the rest of the team, and get everyone on board with the process?”

This year, the Rockets are wearing wristbands with the acronym, “R-Fate” — standing for Respect, Family, Accountability, Toughness, and Effort.

Respect for the tradition is essential for Johan, who has resided behind enemy lines in Wellesley since 1973. The Newton native started his coaching career at Needham in 1969, eventually becoming head coach in 1982, then athletic director before retiring in 2004.

He couldn’t stay away from Needham football, though, and hired himself as offensive line coach under his former player, Duffy.

“I just didn’t want to part with football,” said Johan. “I could part with the day-to-day work, but couldn’t stay away. I thought it would be out of my system in a year or two, but at 76, it still hasn’t happened.”

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Johan and Tracey are quite familiar. In fact, Johan’s daughter took wood shop with Tracey at Wellesley Middle School.

Tracey, who was born and raised in Wellesley, said the memory of losing, 27-0, to Needham as a senior in 1975 sticks with him, as do many of the fond memories acquired during his 20 years as defensive coordinator from 1981-2001.

He left Wellesley in 2013 and 2014 to coach at Newton South, which has a relatively young rivalry with Lincoln-Sudbury, now in its 48th year.

“With Needham and Wellesley, the history behind the rivalry, the time frame, the tradition — all those things combined make it special,” said Tracey.

“When we play at Needham, there is nothing like the sight of that hill full of people and I’m sure a large element of that will be missing, but we’re really all about what’s going on between the lines.”

“I think our kids right now are just so happy about playing football after having it taken away from them. I think they’ll be thrilled to go out there and give it their all.”

“When we play at Needham, there is nothing like the sight of that hill full of people and I’m sure a large element of that will be missing, but we’re really all about what’s going on between the lines," said former head coach Bill Tracey (right), seated alongside former Needham head coach Roy Johan.
“When we play at Needham, there is nothing like the sight of that hill full of people and I’m sure a large element of that will be missing, but we’re really all about what’s going on between the lines," said former head coach Bill Tracey (right), seated alongside former Needham head coach Roy Johan. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe