Thanksgiving rivalry runs river deep

Pitt's All-Big East safety Jarred Holley is ready for the Backyard Brawl, but still fondly remembers his days in the historic Easton versus Phillipsburg Thanksgiving Day rivalry. Steve Boyle/ESPNHS

Two small blue-collar towns separated by the Delaware River have been battling on the gridiron since 1905. And since 1916, that rivalry has taken place every Thanksgiving Day.

Easton Area (Pa.) and Phillipsburg (N.J.) high schools sit just over nine miles down US-22 from one another. Nine miles connected by 105 games rich in tradition and tension. The winner gets to hold the “Fork of the Delaware” Trophy in front of roughly 15,000 fans that attend the famous game at Lafayette College each Thanksgiving. Phillipsburg won last year's game 3-0.

The rivalry between the Red Rovers of Easton and the Stateliners of Phillipsburg is so steeped with history that it was profiled as the first feature in Gatorade’s “Replay” series. In a redux of a 1993 Turkey Day tie between the teams, Peyton and Eli Manning coached in a game that saw the Stateliners edge the Red Rovers some 16 years later in a 2009 rematch.

To further confirm just how serious and celebrated this rivalry is, it was first televised on ESPN in 1988, over a year before All-Big East Pitt safety Jarred Holley was born. Holley, a former Red Rover, knows all about the rivalry, having grown up in Easton his entire life. The Pitt junior is enjoying another strong season for the Panthers, but when asked about his days engaged in this rivalry separated famously by a bridge and state lines, he waxed nostalgic.

"It’s an amazing experience to have been a part of," said Holley. "To get that many people to a high school football game and just how the energy of the towns and the entire area shifts. It brings the two towns together and has been a big part of the identity of the area."

Holley remembers when he was first introduced to the storied rivalry.

"A lot of my family worked over in Phillipsburg," said Holley. "And my grandfather used to live over there. So it was always fun to keep up the rivalry in the house with lots of joking and picking on both sides of it.

"I remember clearly when my older cousins would talk about the game. They would talk about it like it was the Super Bowl. Then one year my mom and dad took me to the game and I just remember being so excited to be a part of it. I really looked up to the guys on the field; it didn’t seem like a high school game. Then after coming home afterwards and eating turkey with my family we would all go out and play football and reenact the game we saw that day."

Soon enough, it would be others mimicking his play on the field, as he became a standout for Easton and participated in the famous holiday battle.

"As I got older and got a chance to play in the game I realized just how awesome it really was," said Holley. "I’m not sure people who haven’t grown up around there or have something similar really understand just how much energy and history goes into it. Guys who played 10, 20 and 30 years ago would come to us and tell us what it was like playing in the game and about how it lives forever. No matter how many years pass and how far you move away, the bond of playing in that game together seems to live on."

This Friday, Holley suits up in another famous rivalry, the Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia, and his days with Easton seem to have prepared him well.

"Games like these are what you play football for,” said Holley. "All of the sweat, work and effort is worth it when you are out there in a game that means so much and has so much history. Just like when I played Phillipsburg, you know that West Virginia is going to come out and give it their all on every snap, on every play. And we will do the same. You have to come out swinging and leave it on the field. These are the games that you’ll never forget."