11.26.08

Football, Hold the Stuffing

Thanksgiving and football are forever intertwined, but you have to get the past the Cowboys and the Lions to figure out why the sport is truly our national pastime.

There is simply nothing on the sports calendar as thoroughgoing as the domination of Thanksgiving Day by American football. After the feast comes an extended afternoon of tryptophanic torpor in front of the television, football's true home. For years, the day was dominated by college games. I know one person whose Thanksgiving memories are inextricably bound, for good and ill, by the results of the annual Oklahoma-Nebraska game, a classic now lost to us because, while Oklahoma has continued to be a juggernaut, the Nebraska program has turned into the Petrified Forest. Once, in 1971, the two played an epic game, won by the Cornhuskers, that produced the greatest football game story ever written, by Dan Jenkins in Sports Illustrated. Today, the two teams play in October and nobody cares.

Tennessee plays Detroit and, as far as Thanksgiving traditions go, the Lions are now closer to salmonella than they are to stuffing.

For years, the NFL was limited on Thanksgiving to the annual game played in Detroit. The most famous of these contests took place in 1962, when Vince Lombardi's eventual world-champions came in to play the Lions and were largely dismembered, 26-14, a game in which Bart Starr was sacked 11 times, once for a safety. It was this contest, it should be noted, in which Detroit defensive tackle Alex Karras became a national television star and which led, inevitably, to his portrayal of Mongo in Blazing Saddles. People who minimize football's contribution to Western art should be aware of that.

Gradually, though, the Borg—aka, the NFL—triumphed over the college game. This year, there are three NFL games on Thanksgiving, and the league holds the day straight through from noon Eastern Standard Time likely until nearly midnight. And frankly, the games are lousy. Tennessee plays Detroit and, as far as Thanksgiving traditions go, the Lions are now closer to salmonella than they are to stuffing. Seattle brings its orthopedically-challenged passing game to Dallas so Terrell Owens can ruin everyone's appetite for dessert, and the day closes with Arizona's visiting Philadelphia, a match-up perfectly suited to putting away leftovers, like Donovan McNabb's career.

The alternative is a thin menu of college games, and that is not to disrespect Tuskegee and Alabama State in the slightest. Texas A&M has been playing Texas on or around Thanksgiving since Darrell Royal and God were playing Pop Warner together, and they will again this year. But the college game has surrendered the day almost entirely; there are 12 games to be played, but they're all being played on Friday, to the consternation of soap opera fans. Thus, there has been a profound loss of authenticity in the Thanksgiving football experience. Except, of course, in the morning. In the morning, it's still very real.

Hence, at 10:30 a.m on Thanksgiving Day, I will be there at Fitton Field at Holy Cross to watch St. John's High School of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, tee it up against St. Peter-Marian High School of Worcester, Massachusetts, for the 84th consecutive football season. Back in the dim times, this was an annual rock fight between two schools full of the children of the Irish immigrants who'd come flooding into Worcester throughout the mid-19th and early-20th centuries. The schools were located within two miles of each other. My father and all of his siblings graduated from St. Peter's, which was the school in the parish to which my grandparents had come after leaving the north of Kerry, my grandfather because he was running away from the seminary—he became a cop, so not all of his training went for naught—and my grandmother because she got tired of tending sheep on the family farm.

Since then, St. John's has moved to the suburbs—hence the "Shrewsbury"—and become a high-rent prep school. In the meantime, St. Peter's merged with an all-girls school—hence the "Marian"—and moved a little less distance away from the old neighborhood than St. John's did. I mention all of this only because I happen to be an alumnus of both places. I went to elementary school at St. Peter's and then to high school at St. John's. I am not in the least conflicted, however. Your high-school football team always trumps the football team of the high school with which your elementary school was affiliated. My allegiances shifted precisely on the first Monday after Labor Day in 1971, when I walked into St. John's for the first time. I think it was some time during Latin class. While the agricolae were bringing the frumentum across the flumen to the milites, I was changing sides. By the end of that November, I had written off my grammar-school days entirely. I had put away the childish things, as once was written by St. Paul, who was something of a disciple-come-lately, I figured, to this annual brawl between nose tackles representing two of the actual Apostles.

This sort of thing happens all over the country, every year. There is no single day in which the same sport means so much in so many different places at the same time. And at its most fundamental level, the high-school rivalry game, football is an excuse for older people to swap lies, and for last year's graduates to come back from college for the first time, pretending to be oh-so-grownup, with the tags still hanging from the sleeves of their college sweatshirts.

What's best is that one clear morning, sunbeams like diamond shards and the last leaves and the first snowflakes falling on some rickety bleachers. The bands are loud and enthusiastic and not altogether on key. For one morning, football is community, and Thanksgiving Day is the clearest evidence we have of how utterly football has replaced baseball as a national pastime. Before the day turns to excess and gluttony and Jim Nantz, before everything slows to a crawl, there's still a holiday to be found out there.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer at The Boston Globe Magazine and a contributing writer to Esquire. His book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became A Virtue In The Land Of The Free, will be published in June by Broadway Books.