For every player and coach — and anyone affiliated with high school football in the state of Massachusetts — there is no tradition quite like games on Thanksgiving morning. Perspective and reflection on those rivalries, more than a few of which are more than a century old, extends far beyond the playing field.
Here’s insight from a few individuals who are part of the fabric of the day.
The Wellesley trainer
On Thanksgiving morning, Patty Hickey will be on the Wellesley sideline for the 39th straight year as the team’s trainer.
A Wellesley High grad (Class of 1977), where she was a three-sport athlete, Hickey is the embodiment of the “Be True to Your School” slogan. You should have seen her the night of the annual Rotary Club dinner, a tradition held on the Monday prior to every Wellesley-Needham game. While attendees from both towns were nattily attired, Hickey showed up wearing her 100th GAME shirt, the landmark game played in 1987 between Wellesley and Needham. But no one was surprised. That’s just Patty.
“I wear it once a year,” said Hickey. “I don’t want to get it dirty. I also wore my three Super Bowl rings,” emblematic of the Raiders’ three MIAA Bowl wins. “I don’t get to wear those rings everywhere. They’re huge. I made a necklace out of them.”
Hickey is head trainer of all the Wellesley teams. She refers to Wellesley student-athletes as “my kids.”
Clearly for Hickey, the Thanksgiving game towers above any other game during the school year. A lot of it is for sentimental reasons. She enjoys meeting up with fathers who played in the game and mothers who were involved in it in different ways. “There’s a lot of memories and tradition,” said Hickey. “I think of the kids who couldn’t play in the games that were cancelled during World War II.”
Hickey has seen senior players “distraught after a Thanksgiving game knowing they’d never play in it again, or the kid who was injured and couldn’t play in the game at all.”
Hickey will set the alarm for 6 a.m. on game day, which will be played at Wellesley’s Hunnewell Field. “I never sleep well the night before Thanksgiving,” she said. But she wouldn’t miss the Wellesley-Needham game for the world.
On the call for Reading
In any Reading football or basketball home game over the past 42 years, fans have soaked in the atmosphere with the familiar tones of public address announcer Ted “Ace” Bryson.
A teacher at Reading High from 1977-2002, Bryson was the varsity girls’ basketball coach for five years and spent one season as the interim boys’ basketball head coach, making him the only coach of both sports in program history. While he lives in North Reading (just eight minutes from Reading High), Bryson said he and his kids “bleed Red and Black,” the color of the Rockets.
When Reading hosts Stoneham in their 85th annual Thanksgiving showdown on Thursday morning, Bryson will again be in the press box calling the action.
Reading owns a sizable 63-17-4 advantage in the rivalry, but the game has become increasingly close in recent years. “It has become one of the more popular things that I’ve ever been associated with,” said Bryson. “Even though Reading has dominated for so long, everyone always comes out to support the kids.”
49 years at Abington
Abington and Whitman-Hanson meet for the 109th time Thursday morning. This will be the 49th time that Jim Kelliher has taken part as a player or a coach for the Green Wave.
The longest-tenured head coach in Eastern Massachusetts at 46 years and counting, Kelliher is preparing Abington for the Panthers, and then a D7 Super Bowl matchup against Leicester nine days later.
Though the Green Wave will be playing their finale at Gillette Stadium, there’s no diminishing the age-old rivalry against Whitman-Hanson.
“We don’t get many chances to beat Whitman-Hanson,” said Kelliher. “They’re a bigger program, but we’re going to play our starters because we want to win and we’ll do our best to bring it home.”
What keeps him going? Kelliher credits his assistant coaches and the connections he has made throughout the years on the sidelines. When Abington faced Greater Lawrence in the D7 state semifinals Saturday in Woburn, Kelliher met a former teammate from his days playing semi-pro football during the 1970s.
“I totally enjoy working with my coaching staff,” said Kelliher. “I love football, the kids, and coaches I’ve connected with.”
He’s a Beverly booster
When he was 10 years old, Dave Contarino first walked from his Beverly home to Hurd Stadium on Thanksgiving morning to witness an awe-inspiring sight. An estimated 10,000 people packed the relatively small confines to watch Beverly take on Salem in 1955, the type of dedicated support that has become synonymous with high school football in Massachusetts.
Since then, Contarino said he’s been to 60 of the last 64 Thanksgiving games, the four-year gap coming when he temporarily moved to New Hampshire.
“There’s many other communities in Massachusetts that feel the same way, but football in Beverly has been the king going back a long time long,” said the 74-year-old Contarino.
“It’s ingrained in the blood and the Salem game is always a big deal.”
As the president of the Beverly Football Boosters, Contarino is actively involved with raising money, organizing team banquets, and creating the historical programs for fans at every Thanksgiving home game. On Thursday, Beverly hosts Salem in the 121st edition of the rivalry, and the Panthers look to build on their 61-52-7 advantage.
For Donna Gildersleeve, what started as a surprise has transformed into a decades-long Thanksgiving tradition.
“At first I was shocked, because in New York [football’s] over before then,” said Gildersleeve, a Long Island native. “What do you mean you work on Thanksgiving Day? I’m supposed to watch the parade and look for Santa Claus.”
Now 40 years later, Gildersleeve will once again be on the sidelines for Thursday’s Winchester vs. Woburn football game, in the 115th meeting. She started as Winchester’s athletic trainer in 1980 and for 38 years she tended to the aches and pains of Sachem athletes. The last two years she’s worked as a game administrator for Winchester athletic director Marc Arria. Whatever the title, she’s always there on game day.
“I was there last year throwing Vaseline on everyone’s face so we didn’t get frostbite,” said Gildersleeve of the 2018 game, won by Winchester, 27-21 in double overtime. “Oh God it was brutal.”
If you doubt Gildersleeve’s school spirit, look no further than her left calf. There you’ll find a tattoo of a Sachem she had done in 2001.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like when I’m in my 80s if I’m still around,” said Gildersleeve. “It might be a little old-looking Indian.”
A line on English vs. Latin
“The kids would use the word ‘awesome.’” That’s how Frank Casey, the pride of Dorchester, described stepping out into White Stadium, playing in front of a crowd of nearly 20,000 people for what remains the longest continuous high school football rivalry in the US: Latin vs. English.
The former, founded in 1635, is the nation’s oldest public school; the latter (1821), is the oldest public high school.
The 83-year-old Casey suited up for the 1950 game, as a freshman lineman, when the rivalry was arguably at the height of its competitiveness. Latin and English had split the previous 10 meetings, four wins apiece, two scoreless ties. English won the next two, but Latin answered with three straight wins.
“It was such an intense rivalry,” said Casey, describing Latin’s 30-12 victory in 1952 in front of a packed Harvard Stadium. “I had several buddies at [Boston English] from Dorchester, and I think they only had one loss. One of the neighbors the next day had watched the game and was telling me all about what the announcer had to say . . . that lasted.”
Beyond bragging rights, the 1952 game carried weight for Casey, who went on to play at Boston College, and then coach at both BC High and Boston Latin. He confessed that he incorporates that 30-12 score into some of his online passwords.
Thursday’s meeting is No. 133, and recent years suggest a return to competitiveness between the two storied schools. Latin (1-9 this season) has taken the last five matchups, but the last two have been determined by a touchdown or less, and English (5-5) appears poised to compete in yet another entertaining battle.
His Foxborough finale
The Foxboro-Mansfield rivalry is one of the best and most storied in the state. Both sides have long-tenured coaches — Jack Martinelli (Year 38) for Foxborough and Mike Redding (No. 32) for Mansfield.
Foxborough assistant Mike Bordieri has been around the rivalry even longer than both head coaches. Starting in Foxborough Pop Warner at age 8, Bordieri later became a two-year starter for the Warriors in Martinelli’s first two seasons before immediately making the transition to a coaching role in 1984.
“Michael was the epitome of toughness, loyalty, and dedication,” said Martinelli. “He played fullback and inside linebacker, as tough as they come.”
After Thursday’s game, the 86th in the series, Bordieri will be retiring after serving as offensive coordinator since 2006.
He won’t be straying far from the rivalry, however, just switching to the other side. Bordieri is a Mansfield resident, and his eldest son, Nolan, will be a freshman in the Mansfield football program next season.
“I don’t know exactly how I’ll feel but I enjoy watching my kid,” said Bordieri. “I hope the rivalry keeps going. I love watching football and I’ll be involved as a parent.”
While the rivalry used to dictate the Hockomock League championship in the late 1980s, the game now serves simply as bragging rights for the winner each year with the new playoff system. But for Bordieri, it doesn’t mean the rivalry has lost its luster.
“That game has always meant something,” he said. “That’s the game you talk about all season, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to get going again once you’ve been knocked out of the playoffs, but not for this one.”
It’s ORR or bust
When Craig Sherman was a junior on the undefeated Old Rochester Regional football team in 1967, there was no Thanksgiving game. The following year, ORR had an impromptu matchup against Dennis-Yarmouth on Thanksgiving, but Sherman said it “lacked the key ingredients of a real rivalry.”
Now, the former head coach and current assistant at ORR is involved in a true rivalry, with his Bulldogs set to meet Apponequet on Thanksgiving — for the third time this season. In late September, Apponequet defeated ORR, 14-0, to snap a six-game losing streak to its rival. In the Division 6 South quarterfinals, Old Rochester rallied for a 35-17 victory to send Apponequet home. Needless to say, the third matchup — in a Thanksgiving series Apponequet leads, 21-17 — will be contentious.
“The Apponequet-ORR rivalry, even though it’s relatively new, is really, really intense. It’s kind of like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” said Sherman, who coached at Wareham for 12 years, served as ORR head coach from 1986 to 2004, and rejoined the Bulldogs staff in 2009.
“I don’t think they like us a whole lot and we don’t like them a whole lot. This is basically both our Super Bowls. There’s a lot of tough football left in both of them and this one is going to be . . . there’s no tomorrows. There’s no holding back, just two schools that really want to beat each other.”
Vision through a Lynn lens
There are Thankgiving Day games, and then there is Lynn Classical/Lynn English.
“I don’t think there is any game bigger,” boasted former English head coach Gary Molea, in his fourth year as an assistant principal at the school after a 20-year run as athletic director.
“We’ve sent kids to BC, and Michigan [to play], and they come back here, and say, ‘There is no bigger day than tomorrow, Thankgiving Day in Lynn.’”
In 1990, his first season as head coach after a decade as an assistant, English needed a win — plus a Don Bosco win — to secure a spot in the Division 3 Super Bowl.
“We won, 18-15, but Classical was driving late, and we sent a sophomore in at defensive end — he was 120 pounds soaking wet — Leroy Brown, he gets the sack and we win the game,” recalled Molea, a St. Mary’s grad who has been involved in English/Classical for the last four decades.
“Our quarterback, Chris Warren, got hurt on the second play of the game, but he limps back out there in the fourth quarter to throw the winning touchdown pass.”
Leroy Brown now works construction in the city and his daughter played volleyball at English. Warren is an assistant principal at . . . Classical. “Not sure how he does it,” said Molea with a chuckle.
“We’ve had one brother on Classical, one on English, cousins going to head to head, and when they dropped the boundaries for school choice, neighbors playing against each other,” said Molea.
Thursday’s clash will be No. 106, with Classical holding a 55-41-9 edge. But English has won the past three, including a 12-0 victory in 12-degree weather last November.
“My ride [as a coach] from my home to Manning was gut-wrenching, the relationships that you build with the kids,” said Molea. “Just think about it, a city the size of Lynn, you have five high schools, and all five made the playoffs this year . . . but everyone remembers Thanksgiving Day, it’s the greatest thing in the world to walk into Manning on Thanksgiving Day.”
On track with Ipswich
In 2004, Jack Welch thought he was going to miss the Thanksgiving showdown between Ipswich and Hamilton-Wenham for the first time since its inception. The longtime Ipswich coach retired in 2000 and was scuba diving on a family vacation in the Virgin Islands on Thanksgiving. A couple of dock workers, who happened to be from Ipswich, told him that there was a miscommunication and the officials never showed on Thanksgiving, so the rivalry game was moved to Saturday. So, Welch was able to get back in time to roam the sidelines. “I miss that part of coaching,” said Welch, who led Ipswich to a Super Bowl in 1991 after a narrow win over H-W on Thanksgiving. “The late nights scouting on film and being on the sidelines during the games.”
After graduating from the University of Maine in 1960, Welch moved back to his native Newburyport and coached football and baseball for four years. In 1964, he became the football coach at Ipswich and said it took him three years to convince his athletic director to schedule a rivalry game on Thanksgiving. In 1967, Ipswich’s annual bout with Hamilton-Wenham was moved from Veterans Day weekend to Thanksgiving, and they’ll play their 45th edition of the rivalry this year, with Ipswich looking to close a 23-21 Generals lead. “I told my athletic director, everyone plays on Thanksgiving, it’s a tradition in New England!” Welch recalled. “I always thought Thanksgiving went hand-in-hand with football.”
Welch is still coaching the boys’ track program that he founded at Ipswich. At 87, he still plays tennis, sometimes against his former players. And he’ll finally miss a Thanksgiving game this year. Welch is flying to Houston to see the youngest of his seven children, Travis, and attend the Patriots road game at the Texans after the holiday. But of course, he’ll fly back right after that Sunday night affair to run indoor track practice at Ipswich on Monday.