To play or not to play? Tradition says lining up on Thanksgiving for a Turkey Bowl against your high school rival is a no-brainer. But for teams that have Super Bowl games lined up a week later, the calculus around going all-out for tradition or saving their best for the chance to win a championship becomes complicated.
Take Duxbury in 2019, for instance.
With a Super Bowl matchup ahead of him against Division 3 powerhouse Springfield Central, former Duxbury coach Dave Maimaron thought about how he wanted to handle the Thanksgiving game against Marshfield.
Even though Marshfield was a rivalry game, he decided to sit his starters, knowing Central would be the toughest opponent his team would face all season. Central was a monster of a program, playing one last season in Division 3 before making the jump to Division 1. It was averaging 47 points per game.
Duxbury’s Thanksgiving result was a lopsided 41-0 loss to Marshfield that left both sides unsatisfied. Cam Bowden, a senior at Marshfield at the time, said, “I was pretty upset. I wanted to play the starters vs. starters. It would have been a good game.”
Maimaron, knowing his choice had complicated ramifications, seemed almost guilty.
“It’s a horrible position to be in to make a decision like this,” Maimaron said at the time. “I feel bad for Marshfield.”
Strategically sitting players didn’t pay off. Duxbury played Springfield Central nine days later and lost, 38-13.
The debate about the merits of playing on Thanksgiving and then turning around and playing in a Super Bowl a week later has coaches and athletic directors across the state divided. A format change in 2013 resulted in the playoffs starting weeks before Thanksgiving, making Thanksgiving games mostly an exhibition with only pride on the line.
On the whole, there’s no rhyme or reason for the results.
Of the 74 teams that have played in Super Bowls since 2017, 46 won on Thanksgiving, 19 lost, and nine didn’t play. The teams that won on Thanksgiving went 24-22 in Super Bowls. The teams that lost on Thanksgiving went 9-10. The teams that didn’t play on Thanksgiving went 4-5.
Of the 37 teams that lost Super Bowls, five didn’t play on Thanksgiving, 10 lost on Thanksgiving, and 22 won on Thanksgiving.
Of the 37 winners, four didn’t play on Thanksgiving, nine lost on Thanksgiving, and 24 won.
Duxbury’s loss was the second-most lopsided loss over that span.
In 2021, Hull chose to sit its starters on Thanksgiving against Cohasset even though the South Shore League’s Tobin Division title was on the line. Hull got blown out, 42-0, then lost to Randolph, 20-14, in the Super Bowl.
Cohasset, meanwhile, played its starters against Hull, won that game with ease, then beat Wahconah, 27-12, in its Super Bowl.
“It was no decision for us,” Cohasset coach Pete Afanasiw said at the time. “We’ve been here before where we are going to a Super Bowl and we played our starters. What is the point of playing on Thanksgiving if you aren’t going to play?”
Tell that to Ashland coach Andrew Mackay. He won the National Federation of High School Associations Coach of the Year award in 2019 after leading the Clockers to a Division 6 Super Bowl title.
But he made a business decision the week before the Super Bowl.
Ashland was 8-0 going into its Thanksgiving game against Hopkinton. But bracing for a Super Bowl matchup against Bishop Fenwick a week later, Ashland played its starters for only the first quarter and jumped out to a 7-0 lead, then gave up 26 straight points on the way to a 26-7 loss.
But Ashland came out of the Thanksgiving game with a healthy squad, and needed it to pull out a 28-22 win over Fenwick in the Super Bowl.
In 2016, Millis coach Dana Olson was clear about his intentions.
Millis set a goal before the season to win a state championship. It had beaten rival Medway, 36-6, during the regular season and Olson saw no point in sending out his starters to do the same thing again on Thanksgiving when the Super Bowl was on the horizon.
This was about more than tradition. In 2009, the Millis football program was on its deathbed, nearly being cut as it faced the prospect of having just 16 players. Millis fielded a team with Hopedale on a one-year trial basis to save the program, and seven years later, it was still a small team with just 34 players. But after gasping for air, it was now at the cusp of a title.
Olson talked about it with his players. They agreed Thanksgiving wasn’t as important as their ultimate goal. The next week, Millis wiped out Maynard, 30-18, in the Division 4A Super Bowl.
The next year, Olson played most of his players against Medway on Thanksgiving. They won, 17-0, then went on to repeat as Super Bowl champions with a 37-0 win over Hoosac Valley.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.