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Mike Carlson’s Dad Mike’s Dad (#44) playing for West Haven against legendary future Yale star Levi Jackson. Courtesy Mike Carlson.

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The Mike Carlson Column

Thanksgiving Football kicks off the holiday season

High school and college football through to pro games make the holidays special in the Carlson household
By Mike Carlson
Published on December 06, 2019

I understand you will be reading this long after the event, but in the mood of the holiday season I'd just like to mention, from a sporting and overall point of view, that Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday, just as fall may be my favourite season. In the US it is the biggest travel weekend of the year, and offers the traditional turkey. It's a version of Christmas without the attendant trauma of gift-giving.

Here in Britain, of course, Christmas is the biggest travel time. Travelling on the holiday and facing the family seems to be a special sort of torture for many (Scrooge is after all, British) but being British their solution was to take the traumatic holiday and extend it by another day. Oh, and then cancel all public transport and annually locate highway works (on which no one is actually working because it is, after all, a holiday) along most of the major roads. It makes me wish the British had their own Thanksgiving as well (and no, don't tell me that's what they call the Fourth of July!)

But the more down-to-earth part of Thanksgiving for us Americans is football. Oddly enough, I never played in a Thanksgiving game. Most colleges don't have them, because their students (including the football team) head home, although nowadays money talks, and this year it's also late Thanksgiving, which means that although the Egg Bowl, between Mississippi and Mississippi State was played on the Thursday, the rest of the weekend also featured such match-ups as The Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, between Georgia and Georgia Tech; Vanderbilt vs Tennessee; Clemson vs South Carolina (Palmetto Bowl); Ohio State vs Michigan; the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and two of the West Coast's biggies: Oregon vs Oregon State (The Civil War) and Washington vs Washington State (The Apple Bowl). If you managed to see the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving Day, you may have noticed Mississippi pulling within a point with a late TD, but losing when their kicker missed the extra point, made 15 yards longer because the TD scorer decided to celebrate by imitating a dog peeing on the Mississippi State lettering in the end zone. As Peter King would say “Only In America!”

Mike Carlson’s Dad Dad tackles Hitler! Carlson snr. heads off to fight the Nazis, age 17. Courtesy Mike Carlson.

Thanksgiving morning was usually the time for the great high school rivalries. My dad played for West Haven (Connecticut) against New Haven's Hillhouse High in 1943, a game that drew over 20,000 to the Yale Bowl; Hillhouse had the legendary future Yale star Levi Jackson, one of the best players ever to bypass the NFL. A few months later, my father, still 17, would be serving in the Navy.

But I played at a prep school, whose team was mostly local post-grads doing a 'prep' year before college (our most famous was Yale's Albie Booth; now it's Shady McCoy) but whose student body was about half boarders, and like college students they went home for the holiday so we didn't play. West Haven wasn't playing Hillhouse any longer when I was a kid; New Haven's Commercial High had been rebranded Wilbur Cross and they now played Hillhouse, so West Haven had no natural rivalry, and my dad wasn't interested. He also didn't care about the traditional Milford-Stratford game: teams from towns on opposite sides of the Housatonic River. That one disappeared as both towns added a second school, when Milford added a third, Milford High itself disappeared. There is a more famous cross-river rivalry, however, the State Line Game between Easton (Pennsylvania) High against Phillipsburg (New Jersey), towns on opposite sides of the Delaware River, and each a power within their own state.

Instead, we would play touch football in the yard, or down by the right of way to the beach, at least until the year we were up at my uncle's in Chelmsford, Mass and our game attracted a group of neighbours, becoming more and more spirited until my brother's complaint about my coverage when I broke up a pass intended for him, degenerated into a fist-fight: Myles Garrett eat your heart out.

Connecticut, where I grew up, boasts the oldest high school rivalry: New London High against Norwich Free Academy, now called, somewhat tackily, Ye Olde Ball Game. It started in 1875, but hasn't been played continuously. The oldest that has been played continuously is between Boston Latin and English High (which for some reason isn't called Boston English) which has been played every year since 1887. Most of the rest of the oldest rivalries are between the posh New England prep schools, and probably featured people who went on to run America: Andover/Exeter; Milton/Noble & Greenough; Groton/St Mark's. You also get anomalies: in Connecticut Derby/Shelton and Ansonia/Naugatuck are both big games in the Housatonic Valley that draw Thanksgiving crowds, but the Ansonia/Derby game during the season is actually bigger.

People think the Bears-Lions was the start of Thanksgiving pro football, but actually there were four games in 1920, a couple featuring NFL teams against non-league teams, including the Elyria (Ohio) Athletics, who played a scoreless draw with the NFL's Columbus Panhandles. The Bears (then called the Decatur Staleys) played the Chicago Tigers. Fixed rivalries came and went: the Packers and Lions was the big one when I was a kid, at least until 1963 when Vince Lombardi refused to continue playing on Thanksgiving after a 13-13 draw in Detroit (in which Nick Pietrosante, who played his high school ball at Ansonia High scored the Lions' only TD). “Four days is not enough time to get ready for a game” Lombardi told commissioner Pete Rozelle. Try telling that to Roger Goodell!

Three games is overkill, but this is America and we give thanks that more is always better and money (especially more money) always talks. But we really should allow some time for people to enjoy their dinner without the TV drawing them away – it used to do that even when there was only one, or two (the AFL's made it two, then in 1966 the NFL moved against the AFL by adding the second, with the Cowboys as regular hosts, and so it goes) to distract you. The prime time game is fine, I guess. It's a shame the oddities of the NFL schedule make it hard to make Dallas-Houston, for example, or the Giants-Jets a permanent Thanksgiving Day game; you'd think their computers could deal with that. I'd love to see Chicago-Detroit be regular, and maybe Green Bay-Minnesota too (you could play the late one in whichever dome team was at home). I did used to love hosting a Thanksgiving Triple Header at the Number One Sports Bar into the wee hours of the morning, just to be left with the real hardcore who were flipping a metaphorical bird, though not a turkey, at their days jobs.

But I also love thinking that Thanksgiving is indeed a time to give thanks, and that its spirit ought to carry us up to the peace that should be Christmas, and into a Happy New Year. To you all.


Mississippi State celebrate victory Mississippi State celebrate their Egg Bowl victory over rivals Mississippi U.

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