Don’t try to tell a high school football player that Thanksgiving Day is just another game.
It’s been a popular narrative since the start of the state’s high school football playoff system this year. With Super Bowl matchups already determined, it’s said that Thanksgiving is blending into the background of feasts and early holiday shopping.
For the first time in a long time, no Northeastern Conference or Cape Ann League title will be up for grabs this morning. The Catholic Conference title could be decided if St. John’s Prep upsets Xaverian, but even that is for bragging rights alone and has no bearing on the playoffs.
So what’s left for them to play for?
In the eyes of the seniors, everything.
Football is the shortest of the high school seasons. A baseball, basketball or hockey season has almost twice as many games; football players only get so many chances to tighten up the shoulder pads and helmets.
Over the past few days, seniors all over the state have been wondering how it all went by so fast. To them, it seems like yesterday that they were wide-eyed sophomores, watching upperclassmen put special stickers on their helmets for the Thanksgiving showdown. Then, it felt like it would be 100 years until it was their turn; now, it feels like that was only a moment ago.
Counting the two vocational school bowl games next week, only 16 teams statewide aren’t playing their last game of the year today. For many of the seniors on every other team in the Commonwealth, this morning will be the last time they ever get to play football.
They will savor it. Time will slow down for them, as they remember every detail of the pregame speeches and preparation. The actual game might fly by, especially if they play well. But fragments — a block here, a tackle there — will stick with them forever.
As great as playing for a championship can be, walking into the stadium this morning knowing it’s going to be the last go-around means so much to the older players on area football teams.
The Marblehead-Swamspcott rivalry was certainly enhanced by playing for the NEC title in recent seasons, but you can’t say that Beverly-Salem has been hindered by not doing so. Over the years, there’s been as much passion in that game from Melikke Van Alstyne, Brad Skeffington and Brendan Flaherty as there would’ve been if the Lombardi Trophy itself were on the line.
The same can be said of every rivalry in the area. St. John’s Prep and Xaverian are just as intense when the title’s not up for grabs; Masconomet and North Andover lost no luster when they Knights changed leagues.
Think of the joy of Pingree, a prep school program playing on Turkey Day for the first time this morning against unbeaten and Super Bowl bound Bishop Fenwick. The kids at Fenwick went from being scheduled to play Pope John, to not playing at all, to playing against Minnechaug, to again not playing at all. Finally finding out they had a Thanksgiving Day game after all might as well have been a gift from Santa Claus for the kids on Margin Street.
Playoff berths and trophies are tangible. High school football, at its best and at its core, is intangible.
Sometimes we lose track of that. Recruiting battles, rankings, debates over the merits of playoff systems and all-star selections, and hot button terminology can dominate football discussion.
Those things seem important.
What’s important is the bond between players who have grown up together. The importance of Thanksgiving to kids that have gone through the highs and lows of any season and are sharing the field for the last time can’t be explained in words.
It has to be seen in the eyes of the seniors, in the looks they give each other as they hug on the field, hopefully after lining up in the victory formation.
There’s no tomorrow in football for most of those kids, and there is no substitute for that.
It’s the kind of thing that stays with you, if you’re fortunate enough to be a part of something special. The 700-or-so kids playing football for schools in our coverage area certainly are.
The nostalgia of high school football doesn’t live in September and it doesn’t live in the Super Bowl. That feeling lives in your heart, and once you’ve felt it, it doesn’t leave. It doesn’t change because the state has a new playoff system.
That’s true this Thanksgiving, last Thanksgiving and every Thanksgiving.
Just another game? Not on your life.
What this morning is, for that kid playing with his family for the last time, is one of the most memorable of his.
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.