Haverhill High football coach Tim O’Connor has a lot to be thankful for, beginning with his family, whom he has seen a lot of the last three months.
But Thanksgiving 2020 is going to be different. In fact, it’s already different.
Unlike some other high school sports this fall — soccer, volleyball and cross country — football was postponed due to the constant close contact players have and the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. For safety reasons, the season was postponed to a seven- or eight-game schedule condensed into February to March.
That means no Thanksgiving games — no Super Bowl of high school football.
“I’m a teacher at Haverhill High, so I get to see firsthand how the Thanksgiving football game and the week leading up to the game brings the school together,” said O’Connor, who is in the midst of his ninth year as head coach.
“The boys are wearing their jerseys at school,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride surrounding the football game. I’m home right now and I should be at school. To be honest with you, just thinking about it depresses me.”
The game is one thing. The buildup is another. In fact, the buildup would already be in full force today, four days before the games.
Anthony Romano, a senior, is captain of the Methuen High Rangers football team. Last year he was part of a thrilling 50-40 win over longtime rival Dracut High on Thanksgiving Day, sending his team off with an experience they’ll never forget.
Romano, who remembers being at his first Methuen-Dracut game when he was in elementary school with his dad and uncle, won’t get that chance in 2020.
“The last week of practice is special,” Romano said. “Everybody realizes, this is it, football is just about over. It’s amazing how focused everyone gets. In Methuen, you are only thinking about beating Dracut.”
Methuen coach Tom Ryan said he is struggling with the calm this week. He is in his eighth year with the team and Thanksgiving Day football in Methuen has always been treated as a main event at the school and in the city. It has been since long before he took over.
“For me there are a lot of great traditions leading up to game, the full senior experience. We highlight everything — our last padded practice, the seniors get to call out players for our Oklahoma drill, the ‘senior fire’ is our last practice when each senior talks about what football means to them," Ryan said.
"Pat Graham started that before I got there and we kept it going,” Ryan said, of the former Methuen coach. “It’s emotional for all of us.”
Methuen also usually hosts its football team banquet the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. Local legend Dan Dodson, who has been to every Methuen-Dracut game on Thanksgiving, presents the trophy to the winner after the game and talks to the team and families about the history and rivalry. Ryan says it brings chills to everyone there.
Then there is the game.
“The adrenaline on Thanksgiving is different than other games,” said Central Catholic senior and team captain Anthony Sears, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound lineman.
“We play a lot of big games, but Thanksgiving is important because you realize you're playing with your brothers, probably for the last time,” Sears said. “The intensity is higher. The hitting is louder. I love tradition and history, and that’s what Thanksgiving Day football is about. The fact that I’m going to miss that is extremely disappointing. I don’t like thinking about it.”
Andover High coach E.J. Perry has been to Thanksgiving Day games as a player, family member and coach for more than four decades.
The only Thanksgiving Day or week he didn’t see football was his brother Tim’s senior season in November 1985 when a snowstorm postponed many games. Andover and Central never made the game up.
“I was in college at the time and came home. That was a big disappointment back then, especially with my brother being a senior,” Perry recalled.
“The game is the culmination of it all,” he added. “You win football games the previous winter and spring, when your guys are lifting. Then they do the extra work in June and July, preparing for the practices. It’s a process. Thanksgiving is a reward, the last reward.”
O’Connor has a ritual every Thanksgiving. He drives to the field more than four hours before the game, with his large Battle Grounds coffee, cream only, which he brews at home.
It’s a little thing, but in reality it isn’t.
“Football, I believe, is meant to be played on Thanksgiving Day. It adds so much to people’s lives – players, families, alums residents and coaches," O’Connor said.
“As crazy as this sounds, for me, my calendar year begins and ends with Thanksgiving Day,” he continued. “It’s the end of a journey for some kids, and it’s the start for others, already looking forward to getting ready for the next year. I’m not going to lie. This is going to be a tough Thanksgiving without football.”
Bill Burt is executive sports editor for The Eagle-Tribune. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.