One of the most wonderful aspects of Thanksgiving high school football is that no matter what, it’s always the biggest game of the year.
Combining the rich athletic history of the neighborhood schools with everybody’s favorite tradition of eating turkey and watching football on this day produces a dramatic atmosphere, something that members of the Northeast and Central High School football teams can certainly attest to.
“I have butterflies thinking about it right now, to be honest with you,” first-year Northeast head coach Jim Adams said. “This game is unlike any other during the year. The electricity in the air is special.”
Central head coach Rich Drayton concurred.
“It is the biggest game of the year, regardless of what your record is (going in),” he said. “It’s the biggest crowd of the season. The alumni come back and the parents can see their kids play for once because nobody’s at work … There won’t be any problems motivating the players.”
Not that these longtime Public League rivals would need motivation. Of the four Northeast Philly Thanksgiving match-ups, the Northeast-Central contest is the oldest; not only have these two teams played in 116 Thanksgiving games, but they have participated in about as competitive a rivalry as there is. In the overall series, Northeast leads by a slim margin — 55-51-10.
It’s a game both sides desperately want to win for a variety of reasons. Not only will the crowd be rowdy, but it also will act as the final football game in the careers of most of the seniors.
“I told the guys at our opening practice that I wanted them to enjoy every moment of this, because before you know it, Thanksgiving will be here,” Adams said. “Seize every second of it and soak it all in. For the seniors, it’s the biggest game of their lives, the one they’ll always remember. I can still remember the play-by-play of my own high school (Pennridge) Thanksgiving game against Quakertown.”
Added Drayton: “You want to send them out on a high note. It’s the final time you coach them, and you get to see how far they’ve come not only as football players, but as young men. I played in the game, and it’s true, you do remember it ten years down the line.”
Of course, only one team can come out victorious. During the two teams’ meeting on Oct. 5, Central prevailed, scoring touchdowns on the first two series before ultimately winning, 16-6. Both teams had similar overall seasons, and both Central (6-4 overall, 3-2 in league) and Northeast (5-5, 2-3) will look to head into the offseason on a positive note.
The 2012 Coaches’ All-Public team features names from both sides. On offense, the Vikings boast first-teamers in Sadeek Robinson and Bernard Houston, both linemen, which makes life easier for quarterback Daquan Bohannon (1,503 yards, 16 TDs), running back Rushawn Grange (530 yards, three TDs) and receivers Devon Dillard (23 catches, 661, 10 TDs) and Shimeek Carter (28, 466, eight TDs). Carter and linebacker David Pulliam were first-teamers on defense.
“Their QB can throw the ball, and they have guys who can run after the catch,” Drayton said. “We have to put them on the ground with our tackling.”
For Central, running back Jesse Gillis (595 yards, six TDs) and receiver Walt Pegues (254 yards, four TDs) qualified as All-Public players on offense, while nose guard Joseph Shepherd and all-purpose athlete Hakeem Ellis (also 488 rushing yards and four TDs) are defensive stalwarts.
“They scored on us early and their running backs (Gillis & Ellis) set the tone,” Adams said of the teams’ first meeting. “All eleven guys out there have a job to do to make the outcome different. Central is well-coached and fundamentally sound.”
All in all, Drayton and Adams want their players to enjoy the experience.
“The atmosphere is just great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Drayton said.
Adams agreed, especially going into his first Thanksgiving game as Northeast’s head coach. (He was previously an assistant on Chris Riley’s staff.)
“They don’t realize how precious the time is, so I try to emphasize how special it is,” he said. “I know how special it is, so I’m real excited. I love doing it, and the kids are great. I feel very fortunate and blessed for the opportunity put in front of me.” ••
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org