The Webster Groves Statesmen and Kirkwood Pioneers are clinging to a high school tradition, a throwback to a bygone era.
Their rivalry turns 100 years old Thanksgiving Day. That doesn't mean 100 games (there were interruptions in the series), but that won't matter. The game means the world for the neighboring St. Louis suburban communities.
"It's a pride issue," Kirkwood senior lineman Brad Schaefer said. "You play for the respect of your school and city."
Former players, alumni and townspeople will reconvene for everything that smacks of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. The slice of Americana is gaining momentum less than a day before a 1 p.m. ET kickoff at Ernie Lyons Field in Kirkwood.
Kirkwood leads the Thanksgiving series, 48-37-5, but has lost the last two. According to Shawn Greene, who authored the recently released "Turkey Day Game Centennial," a book chronicling the history of rivalry, Kirkwood's overall record is 59-42-5 (there are games in the series played on days other than Thanksgiving).
"It's been crazy, but I guess that's a good thing," Kirkwood athletics director Jim Velten said. "Once we lost in the [Class 5] playoffs, everyone knew it wouldn't be a lower level game. It's been a fever pitch since."
When Kirkwood (9-1) dropped a 14-7 decision to Waynesburg in the state quarterfinals, it meant both Kirkwood's and Webster Groves' varsity teams would play Thanksgiving. Previously games were played with sub-varsity players, including last year and three of the last five meetings.
The Webster Groves-Kirkwood matchup is part of dying breed. Thanksgiving games, which once dominated the prep scene nationwide, are quickly disappearing mainly because of state playoffs.
"It won't happen here; the community cares so much about it," Greene said.
Last year, Easton (Pa.) and Phillipsburg (N.J.), one of the greatest high school rivalries, played football for the 100th time. The game was on ESPN2 and both teams were amid their postseasons.
Easton had the most to lose by playing the game. Less than 24 hours after beating their archrivals, the Red Rovers played and lost in the PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinals. Eight days later, Phillipsburg fell in the Group 4, Section 2 final. Both coaches said afterward they wouldn't change the game.
"This rivalry may not be the oldest in the country or oldest Thanksgiving game, but it's the grandest," Greene said.
Coaches Larry Frost of Kirkwood and Cliff Ice of Webster Groves, say the turkey tastes much better after a victory. And in some cases, sharing Thanksgiving dinner can be difficult.
For the last two years, Frost has received friendly jabs from Christian Ryan, Webster Groves '97 and former player. Ryan and Frost's daughter, Andrea, are married.
"He might have it tougher than I do," Frost said, laughing.
That's because Christian must split time sitting one half on each side of the field.
The centennial game should a smash-mouth affair, featuring state-ranked Kirkwood and Webster Groves (4-5) looking to salvage a non-losing season.
"This one is bragging rights for the year," Schaefer said. "You'll be measured forever as a player on how your team did in this game."
Frost insists it's difficult to drink up the moment, but Ice enjoys entering the field.
The descent into the natural bowl is awestruck. Once on Lyon Field, Ice will look up into the crowd to enjoy the pageantry before he gets to work.
"This won't be your typical crowd," Ice said. "I'll have chills and goose bumps; an amazing feeling."
It's easy to see why the Turkey Day rivalry casts a long shadow on others:
• The rivalry was discontinued for four years (1924-27) when a riot broke out after Webster Groves won, 7-0. The game was saved when concerned school officials assured no more violence would occur, but game would foster friendship between the towns.
• Greene, who played in two games, said the 1987 game was the "most tragic." A scoreless game took an unfortunate turn with 50 seconds left when the Webster Groves long snapper hiked the ball past the punter, producing a safety and 2-0 loss.
• The greatest individual effort was a 46-point performance by Webster Groves' Al Lincoln (a relative of President Abraham Lincoln) in 1917. Webster won, 76-0, but Greene said published reports thought the final score was a misprint because of its lopsided nature. "Lincoln's 46 points might have been a national record at that time," he said.
• To the winner goes the Frisco Bell. In 1951, Bob Stone, a Kirkwood resident, donated a 400-pound bell. Stone was a vice president with the Frisco Railroad. The losing side gets the Little Brown Jug, introduced in 1940. The consolation was fashioned after the Minnesota-Michigan college football rivalry prize and originally went to the winner.
• The Turkey Game culminates a week of spirited activities. The halls of both schools are decorated. Bonfires are ablaze and pep rallies pop up daily. Three weeks ago, a Friendship Dance co-produced by both schools, attracted 2,000 students. A Friendship king and queen were selected from each school. The first dance, in 1928, was held to promote compassion between the two schools. The alumni also held a Friendship Dance on Nov. 17 at a local country club. Local restaurants compete in a Chili Bowl Cook-Off.
• The Kirkwood Historical Society features an exhibit of memorabilia from both schools. Items on display until the end of the year are uniforms, programs, clothing and photos. Many of the items are on loan.
• Both teams will wear throwback uniforms from the 1950s. Webster Groves' are orange with black stripes. Kirkwood's are red with white stripes.
"Both teams enjoyed success in the 1950s so it was appropriate. We didn't want to go back too far when the uniforms were bulky," Velten said.
Additionally, All-Century teams were selected, 22 players from each school.
"People are proud of the game," Greene said. "It's the grandest [Thanksgiving] rivalry and the best documented."
The Turkey Day game is the oldest Thanksgiving rivalry west of the Mississippi and one of two games still played on the holiday.
Bad to the bone
The westernmost Thanksgiving rivalry might have the most unusual prize going the victor. That's because San Jose High Academy and Lincoln (San Jose) play for a cow femur.
The Big Bone Game started in 1943, with Lincoln holding a 38-24-0 series lead. The approximately 18-inch cow femur is mounted on a three-tiered base. The bone is painted in both schools' colors. According to legend, a Lincoln student found the bone in his uncle's butcher shop.
Both schools are committed to the game, which is Thursday at San Jose City College, 2 p.m. ET. A crowd of 7,000 is expected.
Lincoln coach Kevin Collins says the rivalry supersedes the CIF-Central Coast Section playoffs.
"We're two of the older schools in town and really enjoy this tradition,'' he said.
So much that both teams refuse to participate in the section playoffs.
"The section shouldn't change the format for two teams," Collins said. "Even if we were top-ranked in the state and were unbeaten, I'd decline."
Collins grew up in an era when Thanksgiving football meant something in Northern California. In the early 1980s, games were halted to accommodate the burgeoning playoff format.
The Lincoln Lion enter with a 5-3-1 record but SJHA (1-8) is suffering through a long campaign, having been outscored, 314-71.
That could all change Thanksgiving morning.
Famous alumni in the game include Lincoln's Courtney Bryan, who earlier this year signed a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins, and SJHA's Jacque Robinson, who was the MVP of the Rose Bowl in 1982 and Orange Bowl in 1985 with the Washington Huskies (Jacque's son, Nate Robinson, plays for the New York Knicks).
Thanksgiving games are a staple in the Northeast, most notably in New England states Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In Connecticut, the action started Tuesday night with St. Bernard-Norwich Tech at Montville. There are 13 games on Wednesday and 50 more on Thanksgiving morning. Most games draw crowds nearing 10,000. The most notable Connecticut rivalry is Ansonia and Naugatuck, which began in 1900.
Here's a look at other Thanksgiving games (All times Eastern):
• St. Joseph's Prep (Philadelphia)-Malvern (Pa.) Prep, 10:30 a.m.: Two of Philadelphia's strongest teams finally meet at Villanova Stadium. St. Joseph's (9-2) has won nine straight and is headed to the Philadelphia Catholic League Red Division final on Dec. 1 against Roman Catholic (Philadelphia). Malvern (9-0) is the Inter-Ac League champions.
• Phillipsburg (N.J.)-Easton (Pa.), 10:30 a.m.: A year ago the 100th edition was televised on ESPN2. Easton leads, 55-45-5. The game will be played at Lafayette College's Fisher Field.
• Loyola (Baltimore)-Calvert Hall (Baltimore), 10 a.m.: Calvert (5-5) carries a two-game streak into the game and looks for a winning season. Loyola leads all-time, 46-33-8, since 1920. The game is staged at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens.
• Fordham Prep (Bronx, N.Y.)-Xavier (Manhattan), 10 a.m.: Xavier (9-1) is flying high after winning CHSFL Division A title Sunday. The Jesuit schools tee it up at Aviator Field in Brooklyn.
• Boston Latin-Boston English, 10 a.m.: The nation's oldest continuous rivalry will be played at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge. Latin leads, 71-36-13, but is winless in 10 games this year.
• Cambridge (Mass.)-Everett, 10 a.m.: Everett (10-0), No. 8 in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 East Region, has allowed only six points in its last three games and leads the series, 37-10-2.
• New Bedford (Mass.)-Durfee (Fall River), 10:15 a.m.: Both teams enter on five-game losing streaks, but New Bedford has dominated the series, 67-38-10.
• East Boston (Mass.)-South Boston, 9:30 a.m.: The 90th edition has no playoff implications but Eastie looks to complete an undefeated regular season. If Southie wins it will even the series, which it trails, 42-41-6.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.