For the first time in more than a century, there will be no high school football played on Thanksgiving in Connecticut this season.
The holiday has been a staple for high school football for a long time, with some rivalries dating back more than 100 years. While some might not have the longevity of others, traditions build quickly and the unique feel of Thanksgiving football is shared by many players, students, alumni and the townspeople themselves.
With the cancellation of 11-on-11 football this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to ask our staff to dig deep and write a little bit about their most memorable Thanksgiving game experiences.
If you think we left of a memorable game, or want to share a memorable game or Thanksgiving tradition with us please fill out this form or leave us a comment and tell us about it. Any comments or stories submitted in the form will potentially be used on GameTimeCT.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Bunnell knocks off No. 1 Stratford (1988)
A packed house of approximately 6,000 was on hand at Bunnell High School to witness arguably the greatest upset in the history of this town rivalry.
I was covering the game for the Stratford Star weekly newspaper. Stratford had dominated almost every opponent and had already qualified for the Class SS playoffs. Stratford was led by the Four Horsemen: Curtis Eller, Peter McKoy, Duane Shirden and Robert Yearwood.
Eller, a linebacker who was the Coastal Football Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and went on to play at Villanova University, injured his ankle, changing the complexion of the game.
The two teams exchanged long touchdown passes in the second quarter: Joe Verderame to Robert Yearwood for Stratford; Bob Lee, the game’s MVP, to Jason Krafchik for Bunnell.
The game went to halftime tied at 13. Bob Stowers’ field goal in the fourth quarter was the only scoring of the entire second half.
Bunnell won 16-13.
Stratford dropped out of the top spot in the New Haven Register Top 10 poll to No. 4.
But during the championship games (there were only finals back then), Stratford hammered Sacred Heart-Waterbury and the teams ranked ahead of the Red Devils lost.
Stratford returned to the No. 1 position in the final poll – but Bunnell had one of the biggest wins in program history in, to this day, one of the best high school football games I have witnessed.
— Joe Morelli
With pro sports, college sports, the occasional Manchester Road Race cramming my November calendar, I’ve only covered a handful of Thanksgiving games since I arrived in Connecticut in 1984. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to high school Thanksgiving games.
Living out in the Quiet Corner, Plainfield and Griswold has become a quiet passion of mine over the years and a not-so-quiet source of frustration. Griswold has beaten my Panthers 16 of 17 times. These are similar-sized schools from adjacent towns. There is no built-in advantage. Plainfield often has the better team. Doesn’t matter. Griswold always wins.
The Wolverines have won in all sorts of cruel and unusual ways. Invariably, it comes down to the closing minutes. People around the state await the score, because often the game has a bearing on state playoff ramifications in the smaller classes. In the past few years, Plainfield has gotten in the state playoffs … and still lost to Griswold.
“At least you beat them in basketball when you played,” I bark at my son Liam as we walk out of games, as if that is any sort of redemption.
Still, one of the losses stands out as the worst. Or the best, if you are Griswold.
Mrs. Brackett was my son’s seventh grade teacher at St. James School in Danielson. Terrific woman. Her son Sean was the quarterback for Griswold and a heck of player for Columbia before going on to play in the Arena Football League and National Arena League (MVP in 2018, in fact.) What he did with the last pass of his high school career, though, it is the stuff of local legend.
This was Thanksgiving 2008 at Plainfield. Griswold went up 28-22 with 2:13 left to play when Brackett threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Rob Foisey and for a two-point conversion. Dramatically, Plainfield answered to take a 29-28 lead with 39 seconds left. Another heart pounder.
A 15-year pass by Brackett, a 12-yard scramble, incomplete pass. Ball is on the Plainfield 43. As time elapsed, Brackett dropped back. He estimated he threw the ball 60 yards in the air. For a high schooler, a Hail Mary’s Hail Mary. A Plainfield defender knocked down the pass. The ball somehow deflected into the hands of Griswold’s Drew Gardner. OMG. Final: Griswold 35, Plainfield (8-3) 29.
I couldn’t wait to get my Norwich Bulletin out of the tube the next morning.
“Just unbelievable,” Brackett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns, told Bob Bogert. “I didn’t even know that Gardner had caught the ball. I saw our guys on the sideline start running to the end zone and our fans were just going wild.”
“I’m just speechless right now,” Plainfield coach Pat Smith said. “It was one of the best high school games that I’ve been a part of.”
I don’t bring that game up to Pat. Still, I will say this once again: It’s much easier being a sports writer than a fan.
— Jeff Jacobs
New Canaan beats Darien in front of 10K (2008)
What’s more exciting than a championship game on Thanksgiving morning between two undefeated rivals? Perhaps the frenzy of the week leading up to the game as people in New Canaan and Darien scrambled to buy the hottest ticket around.
The 79th meeting between the two rivals was memorable for numerous reasons: It doubled as the FCIAC championship game; Darien, which had been floundering for the better part of the past decade, was finally a contender again in its second season under coach Rob Trifone; and with 8,000 tickets having been sold in advance, the game shifted to Stamford’s Boyle Stadium to accommodate the large crowd.
Eventually, the official total of 9,500 fans – it was likely more – crammed into the stadium and watched New Canaan, in it’s all-red Attack of the Killer Tomatoes uniforms, score a 28-20 win over the Wave.
The Rams jumped out to a 21-0 lead behind MVP receiver Kurt Ondash, who set up the first TD with a pick, and then caught touchdown passes of 67 and 30 yards from quarterback Nate Quinn.
Darien responded, with Nikki Dysenchuk scoring on a pair of one-yard runs to cut the deficit to 21-14. The Wave threatened to tie a couple of times, but a TD run by Chris Sciarretta gave New Canaan added cushion and interceptions by Frank Granito and Sciarretta helped nailed down the 28-20 win.
The Rams went on to beat Darien one more time in the Class MM final, completing a 13-0 season, but the Wave’s return to prominence and that 2008 Turkey Bowl game helped reignite the rivalry, which has seen some of its best games in the 12 years since.
Looking at the huge crowd at Boyle, New Canaan DE Nick DIRubio said “It’s absolutely stunning running out on the field and seeing all these people surrounding you. Even if you’re getting booed or cheered for, it’s still awesome.”
— Dave Stewart
Ansonia-Naugy masterpiece before 12K (1994)
The games and the stories often mix together in your mind like the sides on an overflowing Thanksgiving plate. But the great ones, the truly memorable ones stay with you like the aromas you recall filling your childhood home on the holidays.
Norman Rockwell couldn’t have portrayed high school football any better than the scene at Jarvis Stadium.
Of all the stories I’ve written, that opening sentence stays with me most.
I remember Jason Dziubina frantically chasing Naugatuck quarterback Joe Edmonds on the far sideline that crisp fall afternoon in 1994.
It was in overtime. Fourth down. Five yards and an extra point separating the Greyhounds from forcing a second OT.
Edmonds, so darn athletic, such a fierce competitor, was a shifty lefty rolling to his left, lofting a pass up just as Dziubina drilled him. The ball hovered between the blue sky and the blue wave of Charger fans who wrapped around the fence surrounding the end zone, only to be deflected away by Tom Pepe.
No. 2 Ansonia 28, No. 4 Naugatuck 21.
A delirious celebration ensued as fans spilled onto the field, players from both teams finding their opponents to hug in admiration.
There were 12,000 fans that day, according to police. That didn’t count the hundreds more who watched from the porches and roofs of the homes that surround the Nolan Athletic Complex. Not one or two houses. A dozen multi-story homes.
This was the 95th game in the series, at a time where year after year their matchups mattered across the state. Both teams were 9-0. Naugatuck, the defending Class LL champions, had knocked Ansonia out of the playoffs the year before.
Craig Peters, Naugatuck’s longtime coach, was an old-school, no-nonsense type. Rarely rattled. He was shaken after this loss, hurting for his kids because he knew the effort they put in.
Jack Hunt, the behemoth Ansonia football coach, both in physical stature and his contributions to Charger football, called it his greatest victory that day.
What stands out reading back on this game now is the players also recognized its greatness.
Ron Tate, Ansonia’s electrifying running back told reporters when the two teams met for the coin toss before overtime, Naugatuck linebacker Mike Perrella said “No matter what happened, this would be a game we would remember for the rest of our lives.”
Tate, who rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries in the game, scored the game-winner from six yards out, starting left, then quickly stopping, changing directions and beating a slew of Naugatuck defenders to the right side of the end zone.
The fieldhouse where players change after Ansonia games is beyond the baseball field at Nolan. It’s a simple stroll most days, but maneuvering the masses was a particular challenge this day.
Hunt would kneel with his players in the fieldhouse after games and recite the Lord’s prayer, then send them off to their families.
As Tate emerged from the fieldhouse that day, he hoisted the trophy for all to see, bringing one last eruption from the Ansonia faithful, a photo brilliantly captured the Connecticut Post’s Brian Pounds.
— Sean Barker
Hillhouse finishes undefeated with Elm City Bowl win (2005)
The history was hard to miss with the 1985 state championship team honored at halftime and members of the 2002 title-winning team on the Bowen Field home sideline when the 2005 Hillhouse football team went about writing their own glorious script.
Senior linebacker Alex Folson had a key interception to go with 18 tackles as the Academics held off rival Wilbur Cross for the 21-12 win to cap a 10-0 regular season and No. 1 seed in the Class M playoffs.
Wilbur Cross was trailing 14-5 in the third quarter when quarterback Daniel Brown, playing his first game in almost a month after breaking a bone in his throwing hand in a win Derby, drove the Governors inside the Hillhouse 10 in the third quarter before Folson’s interception in the end zone.
Hillhouse would drive down the field and take a 21-6 lead on Terrell Wilks’ 33-yard touchdown reception.
— Jim Fuller
Before coming back to GameTimeCT, I worked for the Record Journal in Meriden and covered the Stoddard Bowl between Platt and Meriden each Thanksgiving.
But it was the first fall back at GameTimeCT when I covered the most memorable game in my career.
Coming into the game Platt needed to win to get into the Class L playoffs. Just a couple of weeks before it seemed like the Panthers’ season was over when they lost their third game to Bristol Central, but Bristol Central ended up forfeiting the game the next week due to an ineligible player. Maloney needed a win to host a home game in the L playoffs.
Due to potentially dangerously freezing temperatures on Thanksgiving morning, the game was moved to the night before, so I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to pick up Under Armour cold gear because it was still going to be freezing that night. I was rushing so I just grabbed the size that fit me. I should have checked the tags because when I went to get changed at Falcon Field I realized the top part of the cold gear was a size small. Regardless, I fit myself into it and prepared for a long and cold night.
Maloney jumped out to an early lead on touchdowns by James Tarver and Victor Marquez. The Spartans took a 12-8 lead into halftime.
The Panthers, who decided to come out in a new offensive set — the double wing — on the second drive of the game, finally got the offense going in the second half.
The Spartans couldn’t contain Platt’s offensive switch and the Panthers scored 22 straight points (all on the ground) to take control of the game for good.
Roberto Salas finished with 144 yards and two TDs for the Panthers and Jake Baker also added two rushing TDs.
Platt won 36-20 to clinch that playoff spot, tie the overall Stoddard Bowl record at the time and won its conference division outright.
“We tied the Stoddard Bowl record, we’re now back to even,” Platt coach Jason Bruenn said after the game. “We won the conference outright – we don’t have to share it with anybody – and we get to go to the playoffs. Is there anything more sweeter than that?
“We beat Maloney too, I guess it’s real sweet.”
After another Stoddard Bowl classic, the football fans in Meriden wouldn’t have to wait for the 2019 matchup to see the team’s on the field again.
Nine days later they would once again meet at Falcon Field, this time in the Class L semifinals.
Maloney would avenge its Thanksgiving loss with a 16-6 win this time around.
— Pete Paguaga
Playing the waiting game (2009)
Dateline: Hamden. Virtually: Trumbull.
I’ve said this hundreds of times and I’ll say it again: Thanksgiving Day football is the best day on the Connecticut sports calendar. The games, of course, can be great when we least expect them. There’s always something, somewhere, happening that — even if you’re not at a game that’s capturing the attention of the state — you somehow feel involved.
I’ve seen some thrillers in my two decades covering high school football — Darien’s 41-38 OT victory over New Canaan in 2016; Southington’s goal line stand to beat Cheshire in OT 21-20 last year; Newtown stopping Masuk, 21-14, in 2012 are just a few. It wasn’t a game I’ll remember most, but an event.
In 2009, junior Tyler Matakevich scored five touchdowns as St. Joseph topped Trumbull 49-31. Actually, I wasn’t there. I was 20 miles away, perched high above Hamden High School’s offset pressbox, next to George DeMaio of WELI and his broadcast crew. Notre Dame-West Haven beat Hamden 31-15 in a relatively ho-hum game. And now, with playoff spots up for grabs, we were gathering scores, texting or calling anyone we could. This was well before Twitter took off as a reporting tool.
St. Joseph was one of the longshots to reach its first state playoffs since 1990. And, in a tight Class SS race where only four teams got in, the Hogs’ state playoff hopes rapidly were dwindling based on the results from around the state. It took about 40 minutes after their game ended for coach Joe Della Vecchia (pacing around his office like an expectant father) and the team to find out they’d reached the state playoffs.
Here’s how it went down: While the early returns weren’t good, assistant coach Jim Chaves realized they could still squeak in if Crosby and Torrington won. He texted me at the Green Bowl looking for scores. St. Joseph’s entire team, I’m told, was glued to the Connecticut Post live blog — a new thing which was posting updates as results came in.
The CIAC posted Crosby’s victory over Kennedy at 1:28. That left one more: Torrington vs. Watertown. If Torrington won, St. Joseph was in. If Torrington lost, they were out and Wolcott was in.
We got the final score, of all places, from Ansonia’s Tom Brockett, who heard from Torrington coach Dan Dunaj. Torrington 30, Watertown 7. We posted that score on the live blog at 1:31.
St. Joseph was the last team in. Cue absolute bedlam in the St. Joseph offices. Of course, it took another 3 or 4 minutes for the CIAC to officially post the result to make it official. “I kept watching the computer to see if it was wrong, that something would change,” Della Vecchia said. “My son kept telling me. Dad, it’s not going to change. We’re in.”
St. Joseph won its ninth state title just 10 days later, which begain a run of eight titles over the next 10 years.
— Sean Patrick Bowley
Byron Jones shines long before the NFL (2009)
The list of Thanksgiving high school football games I’ve covered is short.
But in 2009, while I was interning for the Hartford Courant, I was assigned to cover St. Paul vs. Rocky Hill. I knew very little about either school, but I approached it as my “big break” as I spent most of my nights working the sports desk, taking calls, inputting box scores and writing short roundups of games.
This Thanksgiving game wasn’t all that memorable and mostly one-sided, a 29-7 St. Paul win. St. Paul did clinch a playoff berth with the win for the first time in a few decades, of course.
What was more remarkable was the fact that the Bachand twins – QB Tanner and RB Chris completely took over the game and it was their birthday, so I knew I had a pretty good story. But there was a receiver who made a really impressive touchdown late in the game and had a pretty impressive catch a few drives earlier.
I was new to keeping stats at a high school game, so I wasn’t doing it on the fly. But when I tallied it up after the game I realized that receiver had eight catches and 142 yards. His name? Byron Jones. Yeah, the same Byron Jones who would play for UConn, get drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys and become the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
— Dan Brechlin
Going through some old stories on Thanksgiving blowouts and the ol’ Battles for Pride, a couple of them were most memorable for what was going on elsewhere (“Wait, wasn’t that the day the Islanders waived Blake Comeau?”).
And let’s not even bring up the Wednesday afternoon two years ago where I got into a car wreck down the block from my destination, caught a lift from the tow truck, lugged my computer and the next day’s dessert up and down the sideline and had half my notes blow away in a halftime snow squall as the sun went down.
The year before, though, was special. It happened to be the year that Hearst Connecticut Media bought the New Haven Register, bringing us Fairfield County types under the GameTimeCT umbrella. My assignment for Thanksgiving week was a couple of trips down to Milford.
It was going to be Foran coach Jeff Bevino’s last game after a long career. He and the Lions were headed across Milford to visit Law, where coach and alumnus Erik Larka said he wanted the Lawman program, which had never yet made the CIAC playoffs, to emulate what Bevino had assembled at Foran. (On the way home from practice to get notes for a preview, I just missed hitting a deer on Grassy Hill Road in Orange. Take the wins and move on.)
On Thursday morning, the lead changed six times. Law trailed by eight midway through the fourth quarter but came back for a 34-28 win. Junior Mike Plaskon, who wound up at Central Connecticut this year, had a 69-yard punt return to open the scoring, then ran for two touchdowns. The second broke a tie with 57 seconds left; his two-point run had tied it a few minutes earlier.
None of that would’ve mattered for the playoffs, though, if Wolcott beat Holy Cross at home. But the Crusaders came through for Law, beating Wolcott 42-28. The easiest scenario, then, for Law was for Barlow to beat Weston; Barlow did, handily, 50-14. By 10 CIAC points, for the first time in school history, even at 6-4, Law was going to the Class M playoffs.
(“Hey, wasn’t that the day my tweets from the game didn’t show up until the next morning because something went screwy with my phone?” Yes. Maybe I should skip Thanksgiving this year.)
— Mike Fornabaio
Ansonia upsets No. 2 Naugatuck (1990)
The final game of Kevin Sharkey’s remarkable Ansonia High School career saw the Chargers upset No. 2 ranked Naugatuck, 20-14, in front of about 8,000 fans.
He recovered a fumble, had an interception and ran for more than 100 yards. What I remember about the game was defensive end Sean Thomas. He had an impressive game, three or four sacks. But I was photographing the game as well as writing and it took me about a quarter to realize that whenever Thomas was lined up closest to the sideline I was on that no plays were run to that side of the field.
Nobody would admit after the game that was the plan, but it seemed rather obvious to me that Naugatuck was avoiding Thomas at all costs, yet he still was in the backfield on countless plays.
— Jim Fuller
Over the years I have covered a lot of high school football games, from 1979-83 for the Boston Globe to the last 36 seasons for the New Haven Register and GameTimeCT.
But the 20th Apple Valley Classic Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 26, 2015 between Cheshire and Southington, No. 1 in the Register Top 10 poll at the time, had one of the wildest finishes I’ve ever covered. Southington ended up beating host Cheshire 36-29.
Despite being plagued by penalties and mistakes, the unbeaten Blue Knights went out to a 14-0 lead and looked as if they were headed to a one-sided victory. But as usual in these Apple Valley Classic rivalry games, despite entering the game with a 4-5 record Cheshire provided a stiff challenge.
Late in the second quarter the Rams started finding their offensive rhythm. With 10 seconds left in the first half, a 1-yard run by quarterback Will Graikoski cut the Knights lead to 14-7.
Southington opened the third quarter with a score when Austin Morin caught a 1-yard touchdown pass from Jasen Rose for a 21-7 lead.
In the fourth quarter, with 9:54 to go, set up by a 40-yard pass play, Chirs Hillburn scored on an 8-yard touchdown run for the Rams to cut the Southington lead to 21-14. It was Southington’s turn to score when Jake Testa caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Rose for a 28-14 lead with 5:17 to go. Cheshire answered when Andrew Criscuolo caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Graikoski with 3:22 left in the game.
Cheshire made it interesting, recovering an onside kick.
Seven plays later, Michael Jeffery caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Graikoski with 1:48 to go in regulation. Criscuolo caught a 2-point conversion pass from Graikoski to give the Rams their first lead at 29-28.
But Rose, headed to UConn at the time, wasn’t done.
The Blue Knights drove 67 yards, including a 50-yard Rose pass to Alessio Diana that set up a game-winning 4-yard touchdown run by Rose with 1:19 to go. Morin caught a 2-point pass from Rose, named the game’s MVP, for the 36-29 final.
Southington improved to 10-0 and at the time was on a 30-game win streak, which included the previous two Class LL championship games. The Blue Knights improved to 11-9 in the Apple Valley Classic series.
Rose ended up completing 18-of-28 passes for 280 yards. Diana had three catches for 81 yards and 17 carries for 85 yards.
Graikoski and R.J. Oris led the Rams. Oris had 25 carries for 95 yards and Graikoski completed 16-of-24 passes for 132 yards.
— Dan Nowak
NDWH upsets unbeaten Hamden in Green Bowl (1996)
I was working with Elm City Newspapers at the time, which had weeklies in both Hamden and West Haven.
Hamden had one of its best teams in recent memory, coming in undefeated behind running back Horace Dodd, quarterback Tony Hawthorne and receiver Barry James. Hamden came into the game at 9-0-1, ranked second in the Register Top 10 poll and had already qualified for the Class LL playoffs.
The Green Dragons led 14-0, but Notre Dame came from behind to stun Hamden 21-14 in the 46th Green Bowl before approximately 4,500.
John Zullo changed the game when his touchdown run off a busted play put Notre Dame (9-2) on the scoreboard.
Charles Tate rushed for a game-high 157 yards for Notre Dame, 126 of them in the second half.
Tate scored the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
The Green Knights held Dodd to just 32 yards rushing on 16 carries. Hamden went on to beat Danbury on the road in the Class LL state semifinals, but lost to Cheshire in the state final at West Haven High.
— Joe Morelli
It was cold. Like really cold. So cold that some people were calling for Thanksgiving football games in Connecticut to be postponed.
There was no way New Canaan and Daren were going to postpone even as the temperature hung in the single digits as the teams arrived at Boyle Stadium, their breath forming thick clouds as they departed the buses.
Before the game, the teams rolled out space heaters to their sidelines and bundled-up fans placed blankets on Boyle’s concrete slab bleachers.
A few linemen came out of the locker room without sleeves to let the opponents know the cold didn’t bother them.
Once the sun fully hit the field just before kickoff, it was not that bad if you were dressed for it.
Jacket, hat, gloves, sweatshirt, long underwear, balaclava with just my eyes exposed.
While the crowds would not fill Boyle Stadium to capacity as they had in the past, there were at least 5,000 people in red and black or blue and white out in the deep freeze.
With New Canaan in all black and Darien in all white uniforms, the two added another classic chapter to the storied rivalry.
Drew Pyne, now at Notre Dame, hit Wyatt Wilson with just under seven minutes left for the go-ahead score.
Darien had a chance to tie but a field goal attempt with :24 left sailed wide right, setting off a wild celebration on the New Canaan sideline.
— Scott Ericson (@EricsonSports) November 22, 2018
Darien was the three-time defending CIAC Class LL champion and the No. 1 team in the state coming into the game while New Canaan needed the win to qualify for the state playoffs for a 14th-straight season.
Darien was in the middle of an unbelievable run which saw them go 46-2 over four seasons with its only losses coming in the 2017 and 2018 Turkey Bowls to New Canaan.
— Scott Ericson
Dziubina sacks Naugatuck in Ansonia win (1995)
The star of the 97th meeting of the rivals was a player who wasn’t even guaranteed to be on the field.
A shoulder injury kept Jason Dziubina out of the first half. At halftime he approached legendary Ansonia coach Jack Hunt and begged for a chance to play in the second half.
And play he did. Dziubina had a pair of sacks, including one on third down with 3:20 remaining. An incomplete pass on fourth down wrapped up Ansonia’s hard-earned 7-0 win.
“I told my defensive teammates that as soon as I got into the game, I was going to rip somebody’s head off,” Dziubina said after the game.
Dziubina also had the extra point after Luke Richmond connected with Steve Coughlin on a 33-yard touchdown pass with 7:13 left in the third quarter for the only scoring in a game when the defenses dominated.
— Jim Fuller
The first Thanksgiving game I covered as sports editor of the Norwalk Citizen also happened to be Pete Tucci’s last as Norwalk’s head coach.
Now, this wasn’t an offensive exhibition. The teams combined to score only 15 points, none after halftime. And neither, mind you, was headed to the state playoffs, so there was little on the line outside of bragging rights.
But that’s part of what made it so memorable. That, and the genuine excitement on the face of Tucci, who was doused with a Gatorade bucket when the clock hit zero.
— Doug Bonjour
I have been attending Thanksgiving Day football games since my dad, Ray lugged me out the back door at the age of 5, tossed me in the back of the car and headed for Longbrook Park in Stratford to watch Milford play the then-called North Paraders from Stratford High in 1959.
My mom, Marie never squawked. Afterall my dad hadn’t missed a single Milford game since he got off the train bringing him back from World War II service in the Navy and headed straight to the Milford High field for the Turkey Day game in 1945. He ran that streak to 18 years before being felled by a heart attack as a member of the Milford Police Department in 1964.
I think often of the 34 seasons to follow that saw my dad on the sideline for every game. He passed away in 1999 having attended Thanksgiving Day games for 52 of 53 seasons. By the way, he was at every Milford (until it closed in 1983) or Law regular season game except for the three he missed in 1964 recovering from his heart attack.
My dad began giving out the Milford High Remembrance Lineman of the Year Trophy on Thanksgiving beginning in 1984 because he wanted to pay tribute to the guy in the trenches who does his job without fanfare.
I began covering sports fulltime in 1979. Every time the National Anthem is played before a game I am covering, I look at the flag, place my hand on my heart, and thank my dad for his service to our country that earned him a Purple Heart when his ship was hit by a kamikaze by Leyte Gulf.
There will be no Thanksgiving Day game this year, but there will be a place at my family table for my dad and his unfiltered love for high school football.
— Bill Bloxsom
Bob Barton’s list
Back in 2000, longtime New Haven Register reporter and copy editor Bob Barton created a list of his top football games of the past century. Three of the top 11 games (11 guys on the field, Barton wrote, so he did a top 11 list), were Thanksgiving games.
Being one of the most important voices in high school football, we decided to include these three games from the late, great Bob Barton.
Nov. 27, 1958, at East Haven: Branford 13, East Haven 6. Both teams brought perfect records into their Thanksgiving game before. East Haven had a first down on the Branford 6-yard line in the closing minutes but couldn’t score.
Nov, 26, 1987, at Watertown: Torrington 49, Watertown 43: This was the valedictory of Watertown quarterback Rico Brogna, now a Boston Red Sox first baseman, and Clemson football coach Dan Ford flew up to scout him. Brogna threw for 374 yards, but Torrington’s Dave Holliday ran for 292 yards and five touchdowns. Torrington prevailed, but only after the lead changed six times.
Nov. 24, 1994, at Ansonia: Ansonia 28, Naugatuck 21 (overtime). Both teams were 9-0, and after four quarters they were tied 21-21. In overtime, a Ronald Tate touchdown run won it for Ansonia and a tackle by Jason Dziubina saved it. Ansonia went on to crush Bloomfield in the writers’ and coaches’ polls.
The Good Ole Turkey Days
In 2012, the New Haven Register ran a sports series entitled 200 at 200 to commemorate the paper’s 200th anniversary. Chip Malafronte wrote many stories for the series, including the following look at the glory days of Thanksgiving football in the state, most notably the Hillhouse-West Haven series played at the Yale Bowl. Chip died this past August after a courageous battle with cancer. We are thankful for his dedication to finding so many stories over the years that helped preserve the history of sports in Connecticut.
Contributed / Yale Athletics
West Haven and Hillhouse at the Yale Bowl.
Many of you will soon be on your way out to catch a Thanksgiving Day high school football game. There’s a good chance you might even leave a bit early to beat the traffic. Many of the rivalries draw the biggest crowds of the year.
Well, excuse us for sounding a little like your dear old grandpa here, but…crowds today won’t hold a candle to the way it used to be.
Take 1948, when a grand total of 136,000 fans ventured out to witness the 14 Turkey Day games taking place that morning, an average of about 9,700 per game. High school football nowadays just doesn’t hold the same kind of juice.
To be fair, the West Haven/Hillhouse game, as it did every year, boosted the numbers quite a bit. The Academics, coached by Sam Bender, were playing for an outright District League title, which it would claim with a 20-6 victory over Whitey Piurek’s West Haven squad. A crowd of 40,504 packed into the Yale Bowl to catch the excitement. It remains the largest crowd to witness a high school event in state history.
Among the other big draws on this day in ’48 were the overflow crowd of 13,000 — several hundred spectators were turned away — that saw Bridgeport Central beat Harding. There were 11,000 in Waterbury for Crosby and Wilby’s scoreless tie and 10,000 in New Britain to see the home team beat Bulkeley.
Both Stamford, which played host to Fairfield Prep, and Ludlowe, which lost to Bassick, had crowds of 8,000 while Killingly’s win over Putnam drew in the range of 7,500. Closer to home, Ansonia’s win over Naugatuck, Stratford’s win over Milford and Derby’s scoreless tie with Shelton all sold in the range of 6,000 tickets.
Still, the rivalry between West Haven and Hillhouse was nearly as significant in the state of Connecticut as the Yale-Harvard game. The schools had been playing for over a decade to massive crowds after a memorable 1924 game that put the rivalry on the local radar. That was the year Albie Booth of Hillhouse kicked the winning field goal to beat Ken Strong of West Haven 3-0. Booth (Yale) and Strong (NYU) went on to be college superstars.
For years, the series was played at Donovan Field in West Haven, packing the rickety wooden bleachers out on Savin Rock. Thrilling games like the 1938 contest, where Hal Irons hit Mo Monahan to enable the Westies to garner a 6-6 tie, had some wondering if the rocking crowd might crumble the entire stadium.
So in 1939 the game was moved to the Yale Bowl, where overflow crowds could be better accommodated. Attendance typically topped 20,000, though the three games from 1946-48 all topped 32,500. The huge gate dictated the annual revenue for both athletic programs.
Politics eventually got in the way. The final game, played at the Bowl, was a 13-13 tie in 1957.
“Former Mayor Richard C. Lee was in control at the time and the City of New Haven had poured thousands of dollars into Bowen Field, which was used sparingly,” wrote longtime Register reporter Vinny Carbone in 1987. “The field was a haven for pigeons. Both Hillhouse and Commercial/Wilbur Cross often played home games there, but attendance was sparse. The Lee administration decided Bowen Field was going to be used on Thanksgiving morning and that the Tower Parkway schools would play. That left West Haven out in the cold.”
Administrators, fans and players from both Hillhouse and West Haven were upset. The schools would lose thousands of dollars in ticket sales; the players would be deprived of playing on the hallowed ground of the Yale Bowl.
According to Carbone, one West Haven official at the time called it “one of the worst political blunders that infiltrated schoolboy sports.”
The Elm City Bowl between Hillhouse and Cross remains strong today, though the crowds are a bit smaller. West Haven danced with an assortment of Thanksgiving Day partners before settling into its current series with Fairfield Prep in 1996.
As for those old West Haven and Hillhouse battles before tens of thousands in the Yale Bowl, well, there’ll very likely never be anything like it again.