COVID-19 forces NL-NFA rivalry to pause at Game 158
The words of Mark Twain: "The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it."
And so while debates crackle over the wisdom — or lack thereof — about one day ending Thanksgiving football in Connecticut, along comes a global pandemic to not merely wipe it out for 2020, but add an asterisk to the oldest high school football rivalry in the country.
There is no New London vs. Norwich Free Academy this year. The game, in its 159th rendition, would have been played at Cannamela Field in Whalerville. No doubt the day would have started hours before the 10 a.m. kickoff at the Birdseye Café, a city institution known to pump the euphoric nectar into hundreds of fans who choose to begin the day with an exclamation point.
In the absence of a real game, though, memories must fill in the blanks. The New London-NFA game — and Thanksgiving football in general — are part of the personality in both cities. Here are some memories from three different eras:
"My dad and I were both football officials and took a great deal of pride in that," said Jim O'Neill, a New London native who worked at the high school as a teacher, coach and later the athletic director. "Working a Thanksgiving Day game was a final reward for a successful season.
"For many years, my father hosted a Thanksgiving breakfast at 6 a.m. for all the officials working that day. Guys sat around eating breakfast in nervous anticipation of the game they were about to officiate, likely before the biggest crowd they would see all year. We'd drive in groups to our games. On a few occasions my Dad and I were on the same game and that meant it was a truly special day. It was a bond most fathers and sons don't get to share and we were always very appreciative of that fact. In many ways Thanksgiving has never been the same since."
O'Neill said that in the old days, Thanksgiving wasn't merely meant for morning football.
"When I was a youngster, Thanksgiving was one of the best days of the year with a proscribed ritual," he said. "Up early because the lines at the Fitch-New London game at Vet's Field would be never ending. Game time at 10 and I would root hard for the Whalers. Get home after the game to watch a pro football game (there wasn't universal coverage yet), eat Thanksgiving Dinner and head for Ocean Beach for the opening of the New London City League basketball season. Packed house at the Beach so get there early. If you are not over 65, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about."
And then for the real old timers ...
"I am just old enough to remember when there was no high school Thanksgiving Day game," O'Neill said. "The two Italian communities in New London played. It was Shaw Street vs. Fort Trumbull at Mercer Field. Enormous crowd. I remember my father, Joe Butchka and Joe Paskewich volunteering to officiate which was tantamount to taking your life in your own hands.
"The equipment was borrowed from Chapman Tech and Bulkeley, I think, but I must admit I'm a bit murky on the details. Hell, it could all be part of my imagination at my age but I think it's a lovely artifact from a different time."
Current NFA coach Jason Bakoulis led the Wildcats to victory last season, a game that earned NFA a playoff spot. But his favorite memory?
"My junior season we played at New London on Thanksgiving," Bakoulis said. "There was a huge snowstorm the day before. They plowed the field but it was an extremely cold day so everything froze. We could not get traction with our cleats so we wore our turf shoes in the first half. You felt like you were playing a football game on a hockey rink. But the victory allowed us to cap off a perfect 11-0 season and sent us into the LL playoffs. There is no greater feeling than suiting up in the red and white and representing Norwich Free Academy in that rivalry game."
And then there's former New London coach Juan Roman, whose football memories span his days as a Whaler, at Central Connecticut, coaching New London and then watching his sons play at Yale.
But one Thanksgiving remains vivid.
"My fondest Thanksgiving memory is from the 2017 game vs. NFA. The outcome and drama are obvious but the underlying circumstances are what make it special," Roman said. "I made my decision to resign earlier that week but the team had no idea. My sons were at Yale. (Wife) Kerry and (daughter) Spencer were among the thousands that stormed the field at Harvard in 2016. Emotionally I couldn't take it anymore. So I was dealing with the finality of my NLHS football life.
"We were down 16-0 at halftime. I told the team, 'we're only down two scores because we're going for two when we score!' Then we fumble the second half kickoff and find ourselves down 22-0 in the 3rd quarter.
"To watch this team stick together, which they didn't do earlier in the season, and how individual players made such great contributions still are vivid in my mind. (Quarterback) Owen George was inspirational. He drove the offense 90 yards with 1:09 left. Jaylen Callender make a huge catch after watching him drop a hundred passes during practices earlier that season.
"Elijah Parker's winning catch was the second best thing he did that day. His postgame comments assuming responsibility for the things he could have done better that season was the maturation that every coach yearns for from their players. Gio Lopez balled out. One of the greatest two-way performances I've seen at New London. And then the defender in me would be remiss if I failed to mention Osyrus Vazquez, who made a huge open field tackle to force a NFA punt that led to the game-winning drive.
"The win was great but the kids seeing that never giving up and working hard isn't easy but worthwhile. It isn't easy going to work every day or raising a family but games like that are evidence that when you're committed to a cause how things start don't determine how they will end."
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