Why would high school football players, fans, and coaches fight for the right to brave subzero wind chills and record cold to play on Thursday?
Because in Massachusetts, traditional Thanksgiving morning rivalry games have become ingrained into the identity of many families and communities.
This year, more than a dozen games have been rescheduled from Thursday morning to Wednesday evening. In one instance, public outcry from Braintree and Milton players and fans convinced officials to move the game back to the traditional start time of 10 a.m. Thursday.
There was never a thought of moving the 120th meeting between Beverly and Salem, a historic rivalry that third-year Beverly coach Andrew Morency experienced as the Panthers starting quarterback in 1987.
Morency played alongside his brother, John, and cousin, Patrick Barror, in the 1986 Thanksgiving game, and his father, Roger, was the quarterback in 1953. All are members of the Beverly High Hall of Fame, along with his mother, Emily, who holds the single-game scoring record for boys’ and girls’ basketball with 45 points in a 1959 tilt against Saugus.
“My family has been playing sports at Beverly for as long as I can remember,” Morency said.
“I can remember watching a [Thanksgiving] game in seventh grade. Seeing the heart and soul of those communities coming together, I was so inspired. From that point on my dream was to play for Beverly.”
And the family lineage remains strong today.
With his nephew, Kevin, at quarterback, Morency coached the Panthers to a D2 North title in 2016. Kevin’s older brother, Jack, played on Beverly’s 2012 state championship football team and 2014 state championship hockey team.
Morency’s cousin, Ryan Barror, is the starting quarterback this year. Kevin, now a sophomore at Endicott College, is serving as a volunteer assistant coach, and his younger brother, Danny, is the backup quarterback.
As a wide receiver last year, Barror tied a school record with four touchdowns (three receiving, one kick return) on Thanksgiving, but Salem prevailed, 47-25, behind five touchdowns from Vinnie Gaskins.
Beverly still leads the series, 62-50-7, but Salem is seeking back-to-back wins for the first time in 18 years.
“My dad [Pat Barror] was kind of a legend for Beverly football,” Barror said. “He taught me to hate Salem. It’s not a friendly rivalry. Last year was tough. This year, getting revenge would be special. The turkey definitely tastes better after beating Salem.”
Morency has a unique perspective on the rivalry. He was an assistant coach at Beverly for five years in the 90s before serving as offensive coordinator for two seasons at Salem. Then he spent 10 seasons as head coach at Hamilton-Wenham, where he encountered the latest member of another highly accomplished football family.
H-W senior Billy Whelan is a three-sport standout who became one of the first high school basketball players to record a quadruple-double last season. He also is a two-time Cape Ann League champion in tennis.
On the gridiron, Whelan set program records with 1,655 passing yards and 105 completions his sophomore year, and he holds the career mark for passing touchdowns, with 44.
His family is chalk full of legendary athletes, dating all the way to his great grandfather, Thomas Whelan, who played football at Notre Dame and won the 1919 American Professional Football Association Championship alongside his good friend, Jim Thorpe.
Thomas also played professional baseball with the Boston Braves before returning to his hometown of Lynn, where he served as principal and football coach from 1944 to ’57.
Whelan’s grandfather, Bob, took up that mantle by playing in several legendary Lynn English Thanksgiving games against rival Lynn Classical and future Boston University legend Harry Agganis. The two Lynn residents joined forces at BU, while Bob’s brothers, Tom and William, achieved All-American status in their sports at Yale and Cornell.
“All my life, I’ve grown up with a bunch of role models,” said Billy, who can lead H-W to a third straight Cape Ann League Baker division title with a win Thursday.
“My Dad, uncle, and my great grandfather, even though I didn’t know him, knowing how they acted on the football field . . . I wanted to be just like them.”
Eventually, William Joseph Whelan settled his family in Hamilton, where his sons played in the first Thanksgiving rivalry games between H-W and Ipswich.
Billy’s father, Jim, played against future Notre Dame star Bernie Adell in 1977, the third installment of the 44-year rivalry. Jim scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to give H-W the lead, but Adell scored with 40 seconds remaining for the win, later leading Ipswich to a state title.
Along with his brothers, elite three-sport athletes also named Tom and William, Jim remembers maintaining a tradition within the tradition of Thanksgiving games.
“Since I’ve known anything, it’s been 10 a.m on Thanksgiving, you go to the high school football game,” Jim said. “Then, at 1 p.m, we have our own football game, and you play even if you played in the [high school game]. I remember coming off the field battered and bruised, but still playing in our family game.”
Despite the frigid temperatures expected this year, Jim confirmed that the postgame family game will take place at the Myopia Polo Club fields in Hamilton, as always.
Billy Whelan suffered a broken collarbone in the D6 North final last season and was unable to play on Thanksgiving, watching as Ipswich squeaked out a 22-20 win to bring the all-time series even closer (H-W leads, 23-20).
With his family in attendance, the southpaw will look to live up to the legacy left by the many talented Whelans that went before him.
The MIAA moved to a new playoff format in 2013, threatening the importance of these historic rivalry games, but it’s safe to say the tradition is alive and well in these communities.
“It’s the most incredible tradition out there,” Jim Whelan said. “I’ve lived in Michigan and Illinois, they just don’t have that. Here, the whole town comes together, and it’s the most incredible day of the year.”
The Morency family experienced conflicts over the past decade, with Kevin and Jack playing for Beverly, while Andrew Morency coached for H-W. Now that he’s back at his alma mater, Morency said he feels right where he belongs, and has a true appreciation for the gravity of the historical 120th meeting with Salem this year.
“Now that I’m [at Beverly], I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” he said. “This is all I’ve known. This is what I grew up in.
“It’s very much a cultural, iconic event in New England, and we’re living it.”Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.