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    Dan Shaughnessy

    Thanksgiving and football are inseparable

         Thanksgiving and football.

         The American holiday. The American game. The drumstick and the drum major. Smashmouth and garlic-mashed. Where frozen tundra meets frozen peas.

          Norman Rockwell, say hello to Pete Rozelle.


          If the lion sleeps tonight, it’s probably because he ate too much tryptophan. But the Lions play today. Because the Lions always play on Thanksgiving.

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          You can be a person with zero interest in sports. You might not have an appetite for food. But if you live around here, you cannot steer clear of football and turkey. Not today.

          “I think Thanksgiving is a great day for football,’’ Bill Belichick said a couple of years back. “It’s a great day for high school football and for the NFL. A special day for everybody to be with their family and eat turkey and watch football.’’

         Other holidays have identities with sports. When you think of the Fourth of July, you think of baseball (and Joey Chestnut inhaling dozens of hot dogs on Coney Island). The NBA has attempted to hijack Christmas Day. The Indianapolis 500 is attached to Memorial Day, and there was a time when New Year’s Day featured all the big college bowl games.

       But football owns Thanksgiving — especially in Massachusetts, where just about every high school plays its final regular-season game this morning.


        The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation, just a few miles from where Plymouth North (3-6) will play Plymouth South (7-3) at 10 a.m.

         Wellesley and Needham will play for the 125th time. They played one another in 1941, a few days before Pearl Harbor was attacked, and in 1963, a week after President Kennedy was assassinated.

       It’s a day for Tewksbury at Wilmington, Winchester at Woburn, Brookline at Newton North, Hull at Cohasset, Melrose at Wakefield, Haverhill at Lowell, Lynn Classical at Lynn English, Boston English vs. Boston Latin at Harvard Stadium.

       Like Evacuation Day, Marathon Day, candlepin bowling, and coffee frappes, the tradition of football for breakfast on Thanksgiving is somewhat specific to our region. It is not standard in most corners of America.

       “When I first moved here, I couldn’t believe it,’’ said ex-Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak, who was raised to play football in western Pennsylvania. “We never played games on Thanksgiving.’’


        In Massachusetts, we always play football on Thanksgiving. And that is why dinner must wait until all of the players, fans, cheerleaders, band members, boosters, ticket takers, and volunteers who move the chains get home from the morning games.

       Thursday’s events will furnish the final football memory for thousands of New England kids. For many high school seniors, it’s the morning after the last team sleepover. It’s one last chance to tape ankles and pull shoulder pads over your head. It’s one last chance to march on the 50-yard line, one last opportunity to hoist a 100-pound classmate into the air. It’s the day of the last bake sale for the vaunted Mother’s Guild.

       Halftime at the Thanksgiving game is where alums gather to gossip and catch up with one another. Watch the first-year college freshmen, greeting one another, wearing new school colors and pledging to get together over the holidays.

      The local high school rivalry game is only the beginning of our daylong football feast. Televised football is the white noise of this comfort-food holiday. While turkeys roast, TVs across the nation flash the silver-and-blue helmets of the Detroit Lions.

      As much as the Macy’s parade, the Lions are the backdrop of Thanksgiving rituals in many American homes. Detroit started playing at home on Thanksgiving in 1934 and hasn’t missed one since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. Steve Belichick, Bill’s dad, was a fullback with the Lions in 1941, and Coach Hoodie was part of the Motown tradition when he was an assistant with the Lions in 1976 and 1977.

      The Dallas Cowboys joined the show in the mid 1960s, bringing Dandy Don Meredith and cheerleaders in tiny white shorts into our living rooms for the post-feast snooze. America’s Team on America’s holiday was a natural fit.

      Now, of course, we have “Thursday Night Football” and a third game on Thanksgiving and it’ll be a pleasure to watch the Patriots and Jets tonight from the Meadowlands.

    Having the home team in the prime time game gives us incentive to pace ourselves. Go easy on the dark meat, the apple crisp, and the table wine. Most years, it’s OK to hit the sofa and snooze in the post-dinner hours, but we have to stay sharp for an 8:20 kickoff. It’ll be close to midnight before the Patriots are done.

    Happy Thanksgiving. It already feels like the best day of the year.

    Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at