Rivalry on Thanksgiving menu in Maine

PORTLAND, Maine -- In the fall of 1971, a fierce snowstorm paralyzed the city of Portland, temporarily ceasing public transit, halting deliveries and keeping most people inside their homes.

It didn't stop the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game between Portland High and Deering High. The urban legend surrounding that snowstorm and the Thanksgiving Day game of '71 goes something like this: Some say Portland attempted to call the game off. When school officials picked up the phone to get in touch with their counterparts at Deering, there was no dial tone and no way to establish communication.

Game on.

"This game is something that's there every year, and I don't think it's ever been canceled, and if it has, I think there's only been one year," said Chris LeRoy, a 2007 Deering graduate and an offensive lineman at Harvard. "It's been played whether it's been rain, shine or any kind of weather."

As LeRoy prepared to play in the annual Harvard-Yale football game, the Crimson sophomore took a few minutes to recall the rivalry he grew up with. LeRoy was the third generation of his family to play in the Thanksgiving Day game, following his grandfather and his father, Bill, who is now the athletic director at Deering. When he was in elementary school, LeRoy was one of Deering's water boys.

"I remember how enormous all of the players were," LeRoy said. "I just thought, 'All of those guys are going to play in the NFL, they're so big.' "

LeRoy eventually played in the Thanksgiving Day game, and he will return as a spectator when Portland and Deering meet for the 97th Thanksgiving Day game at 10:30 a.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

The Portland-Deering football game is one that, on paper, means nothing. It's an exhibition, only for show. But to thousands of graduates of Portland's two public high schools, this game means plenty.

It means city bragging rights.

"It means so much to Portland," said Ryan Flaherty, a 2006 Deering graduate who is a shortstop in the Chicago Cubs farm system. "It's gone on for that long and there's been so many battles between the two high schools. Every year the rivalry keeps building and building and building. It almost divides the city a bit on Thanksgiving morning. People are intense."

It means a chance for graduates of both schools to reconnect for a few hours, not only with old classmates but also with school spirit.

"For three hours or so, the annual Portland-Deering football game is a chance for kids to come home from college and be in high school again, a chance to see that girl you had a crush on in 11th grade, or your 10th grade American History teacher," said Allen Stein, a 2006 Deering graduate who wrestles at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. "You find that you strike up conversations with your old friends almost as if you hadn't spent the last semester in college, in other states, and worlds apart.."

This game is a thread that connects families, friends and a community, and is a cultural staple in Portland.

"It's a true homecoming," Portland High coach Mike Bailey said. "You get a lot of elderly people, and there's a crew that's in their 70s who meet under the scoreboard every year. You still have the family rivalries, where some of the families may have people who went to both schools.

"And I've told my students now, you'll never have the friendships like the ones you have in high school, and those students, they meet again every year at Thanksgiving for this game. Sometimes, it's [an] aside [to/from] the football game. It's a huge social event, if you put into play everyone who comes to the game."

In Maine, high school football season ends a few days before Thanksgiving with three state championship games in three classifications. A few days later, the annual Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day game is played at Fitzpatrick Stadium, a 6,000-seat facility with an artificial turf surface that abuts Interstate 295.

Like LeRoy said, and as the myth goes, this game will be played in almost anything. The only interruption to the series came in 1920, when the game was canceled on account of poor weather. Otherwise, this Thanksgiving rivalry has stood the test of time.

When the rest of the city seems to be waking up late or watching the Radio City Rockettes high-step their way through New York during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, several thousand people are filing into Fitzpatrick Stadium on the final Thursday in November to watch the state's final high school football game of the year.

For two hours each Thanksgiving morning, Flaherty would wait in line with his father, Ed, and younger brother, Regan, to buy tickets to the hottest -- and only -- football game in town that day.

When it came to his allegiance as a youngster, Flaherty was torn. His father had played in the Portland-Deering game, and he wasn't sure which school he would attend. He chose to root for Deering, a team he considered the underdog.

Portland leads the all-time series 53-36-7, but Deering has won the past six Thanksgiving Day games. The first of those six came when Flaherty was a sophomore quarterback for the Rams.

"I got a chance to win three when I was there," Flaherty said. "It always makes Thanksgiving a little better when you win that game. My greatest memory was my first year in the game, when we had the chance to win it after a drought that was 12 years. But every year is special in its own way."

Bailey is a 1973 Deering graduate who has either coached or played in the Thanksgiving Day game for 31 seasons. This year, he has taken the past month to prepare for Thursday's game, as Portland's season ended Oct. 25 when the Bulldogs defeated South Portland 20-14 in the final game of the regular season.

Two weeks later, Deering was eliminated from the Western Class A playoffs with a 26-14 loss Nov. 8 to Bonny Eagle in a Western Maine Class A playoff semifinal.

But five days before Maine's state championship games, both the Bulldogs and the Rams were back on the field, preparing for the Thanksgiving Day game.

The days leading up to the Thanksgiving Day game are as intense as regular-season and playoff practices. Plays are diagrammed. Tape is broken down. Bleachers are climbed and the focus is on the opponent. Both teams might be shaking off the rust after taking a few weeks off after the end of the regular season. Or one team might still be fresh after completing the playoffs.

A state title is the crowning glory for any football player. But for high school football players in the city limits, whose schools are separated by only a few miles of pavement, winning the Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day game is just as sweet.

"Each player wants to win that game more than anything," said Flaherty, who will be in line Thursday morning for tickets. "It's like a bowl game."

Rachel Lenzi is a sports reporter for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.