Phil Gormley found out pretty early on not to underestimate the annual Thanksgiving contest between Central and Northeast.
Gormley, in his first season as Northeast’s head coach, is no stranger to this game. A Vikings assistant from 1998-2008, he remembers when this game used to be played in the week before the Public League championship. When discussing the importance — or lack thereof, Gormley initially thought — of Thanksgiving with then-head coach Harvey “Brew” Schumer, Gormley learned a valuable lesson on the intensity of this ancient rivalry.
Championship? Who cares. Just beat Central on Turkey Day.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who cares if we beat Central on Thanksgiving, we’ve got to prepare for Mastbaum in the championship,’ ” Gormley said. “You would have thought I committed sacrilege. Brew looked me dead in the face and told me he could care less about Mastbaum as long as we beat Central on Thanksgiving. That initiated me into this rivalry.”
No matter where he goes, Gormley said, if he’s wearing a Northeast football shirt, somebody will stop him, whether it’s in the Philadelphia area, or down in Key West on vacation. In fact, when Gormley spoke to the Times, he was on a recruiting visit with a current Northeast player at Penn State, where former Viking Deion Barnes currently plays.
“The last thing Deion said to me when I saw him was, ‘Beat Central,’ ” Gormley said. “All year long, no matter where you’re at, this game follows you around.”
With good reason. The Northeast-Central battle is the longest continuous high school football Thanksgiving rivalry in the country; not only that, but the sheer competitiveness of the game adds an extra layer of intrigue to it: after Northeast’s 14-12 nail-biting victory in 2012, the Vikings hold a narrow all-time edge on the Lancers, 56-51-10.
As someone who has both played and coached in this game, Central head coach Rich Drayton agreed with Gormley’s take.
“We start thinking about this game the first day of camp,” Drayton said. “It means a lot to a lot of different people. People come back and we all reminisce and talk about what it means. People stop me when I’m at the market, and they don’t ask me what our record is. They ask if we’ll win on Thanksgiving. If you win this game, all else is forgiven.”
For Drayton, a win would make for a divine Thanksgiving. Central hasn’t won this game since 2004, although the Lancers sure came close last season. The Lancers led 12-8 late in the fourth before the senior QB-WR duo of Daquan Bohannan and Devon Dillard hooked up on an 18-yard TD in the game’s waning moments, giving Northeast its eighth straight win in this sacred contest.
The 2013 Vikings (5-6) will look quite different on Thursday morning. Gormley inherited a roster gutted by graduation, though the first-year coach did guide his youthful team to a playoff victory over Lincoln and a near-upset of George Washington in the semifinals. The talent is there, especially on defense, where end Gladimir Paul, tackle Will Smart and linebacker Steve Rowe were All-Public selections. In eight Public League games, the Northeast defense allowed less than 14 points a game, including a 17-12 win over the Lancers on Oct. 4.
“All the credit goes to defensive coordinator Rob Ford and assistant DC Seth Shapiro,” Gormley said. “They’ve done a phenomenal job and take a lot of pride in stopping the run.”
Central’s top offensive weapon, running back Walt Pegues, gained 1,112 yards and scored 13 touchdowns on the ground; however, he rushed just five times for 26 yards against the Vikings.
“He wasn’t 100 percent in that game but he still had a receiving touchdown against them,” Drayton said of Pegues. “Early and often, we’ll give him the ball. He can run it, he can catch it and he plays defense for us. What makes him special is his vision, as well as the ability to go from 0-100 in less than two steps.”
In addition to Pegues, OL Sam Reid and special teamer Brian Moseley were All-Public selections. And although the Lancers (6-5) finished fifth out of sixth in the Gold Division at just 1-4 (Northeast was third at 3-2) and failed to make the playoffs, they have won four straight.
Both teams expect to run the ball a good amount. Knowing this rivalry, odds are the winner will likely be determined based on who tackles and blocks the best to go along with making the fewest mistakes.
“This is the oldest Thanksgiving football game in the country, and it’s one of the main reasons I came back to Northeast,” Gormley said. “There’s no game like it. I know I could go 0-10, but if I win on Thanksgiving I’d be bulletproof. It’s for bragging rights, and the vast majority of these kids will never play football again. In 20 years when they come back for their reunion, they won’t be talking about English class. It doesn’t get any bigger.”
“It’s going to be close, and the team that makes the least mistakes and controls the line will win,” he said. “We ask the kids, ‘How do you want to remember this? Do you want to talk about it or avoid it?’ Because people will remember this whether you want them to or not. Every reunion, guess what they’ll talk about? Whether we won or lost.
“That’s something you can’t get rid of. It’s a good thing, but how about we make it a real good thing by winning?” ••
Northeast’s Charles Martin Stadium
Thursday, Nov. 28, at 10 a.m.
Northeast won, 14-12
NORTHEAST LEADS SERIES: 56-51-10