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McGAIR: Why Thanksgiving high school football games still matter

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Cumberland and Woonsocket will meet for the 57 th time on Thanksgiving when the two local high schools kick the ball off at 10 a.m. Thursday at Tucker Field.

The shine is off when it comes to high school football games contested Thanksgiving Day (and Eve). Why should I bother showing up only to freeze for two-and-a-half hours? The games don’t count in the standings, hence they hold very little weight and even less appeal. 

For all the Debbie Downers who own a negative outlook about no steak and even less sizzle when it comes to interscholastic pigskin activity in conjunction with Turkey Day, let’s see if we can turn that frown upside down and change your outlook.

Better yet, let’s hear from the area head coaches who are thrilled to have a holiday game to prepare for after last year’s interruption brought on by the pandemic.

“There’s meaning to it. It’s the battle of the Blackstone. There’s a definite buzz this week,” said Lincoln head coach Sean Cavanaugh as his Lions prepare to head to Macomber Stadium to face Central Falls/BVP Wednesday night. “It’s a Rhode Island tradition that everyone looks forward to … community, family and team.”

Thanksgiving games signal that the final destination of a long season is in sight. For the players who stuck it out through thick and thin, from practicing and playing games under sultry skies and cold temperatures, your reward is a one-game playoff against someone who’s just an eager to enter the offseason on a winning note.

“The tradition of this game is something these kids will be talking about for years to come,” said Cavanaugh. “Whether it’s big wins or tough losses, there’s something special about the excitement surrounding the Thanksgiving game.”  

It’s a game where the buildup includes practicing on chilly November days as cars drive by and honk their horns – a friendly reminder that some in the community are tuned in with what’s on the horizon.

“It’s more than your average game,” said Cavanaugh. “It’s also a great way to end your season regardless of your record.”

Pivoting away from the hardnosed football activity, Thanksgiving games are as much about the company you keep … alumni and former players leading the charge from the bleachers as the one game they circle on their calendars unfolds before them.

“There’s nothing like the playoffs and that type of excitement, but when you see players from the past show up to practice and stand on the sidelines or sit in the stands, it reminds us why we coach and play the sport,” said Cavanaugh.

The stands figure to be packed at Tucker Field on Thursday morning when rivals Cumberland and Woonsocket renew holiday acquaintances for the 57th time.  

“For us, it’s the biggest game of the year and I know it’s the biggest one for them,” said Woonsocket head coach Charlie Bibeault. “I like to think that both of us are among the top programs in the state. For us to battle as long as we have is great. If anything, I think the rivalry is growing rather than going backwards.”

Added Cumberland head coach Josh Lima, “There are some schools who don’t look forward to Thanksgiving as much because it’s not as strong of a rivalry. We’re fortunate enough to have a game that’s important to a lot of people. It’s fun to be a part of and it’s fun to have it back. We don’t put much stock in the game throughout the course of the year, but when you’re knocked out of the playoffs, you shift your attention to Thanksgiving. That’s been our focus over the last week-and-a-half.”

Another rivalry-type game is set for Wednesday night at Max Read Field when Pawtucket neighbors Tolman and Shea duke it out. For both programs, respect is definitely in the air.

“It’s a good thing for the city and a good thing for both schools,” said Shea head coach Dino Campopiano. “Some of the games have dwindled off, but I’m happy that it hasn’t for us and Tolman. I still believe in Thanksgiving games and that there should be a rivalry that includes tradition.”

Noted Tolman head coach Jason DeLawrence, “Football is big in Pawtucket. You’re talking about kids who have been playing against each other since they were five years old. That’s why this game matters.”

Need more convincing that Thanksgiving contests still hold great appeal? Let’s bring in Davies Tech head coach Henry Cabral. His Patriots are getting set for the program’s first holiday clash that’ll take place Wednesday against the Juanita Sanchez/PCD/Wheeler Co-op team at Conley Stadium.   

“To me, having a Thanksgiving game makes us feel like a real program. There’s something about playing this game that makes it special,” said Cabral.

Case closed.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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