PORTLAND — A lot of high schools have homecomings, but the city’s two largest high schools have a different kind of homecoming celebration every year: the Portland-Deering Turkey Day football game.
Thursday’s contest will be the 100th playing of the game that brings former players, coaches, cheerleaders, students and members of the community together every Thanksgiving Day at 10:30 a.m. for the big game.
“Both teams take it very seriously,” said Portland High School football coach Mike Bailey, who will be coaching his 31st Thanksgiving Day game this year.
“It’s a true homecoming for the whole community,” Bailey said.
The first crosstown game was in 1911; Portland won, 10-0. Portland also has an all-time 54-38 edge, with seven ties (the 1920 game was canceled by bad weather), although Deering has won eight of the past nine meetings, including 35-14 last year. Prior to that, Portland won 11 in a row.
While the game doesn’t count in the high school football season standings, it’s still important.
“The Thanksgiving game was always about bragging rights,” said Vinnie Difillipo Sr., who has officiated the games since the late 1970s.
Difillipo and his fellow officials used to donate the money the schools paid them to a scholarship fund. However, with school budgets getting tighter, the officials now volunteer their time.
Difillipo, who played football for Portland in 1968, and played for Deering in 1969 and 1970, said the game is a special part of the high schools’ rivalry. However, when the city began letting students choose which high school they would attend, instead of following district lines, the rivalry faded.
“The rivalry isn’t as much as when I was in school,” said Bailey, who played football for Deering in the early 1970s. “Back then, you never crossed paths with the kids from the other school.”
Now, students who went to the same middle school might go to different high schools, which, Difillipo agreed, has cooled the rivalry.
But, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a good game.
“It’s competitive,” Bailey said. “(Deering) is a good football team.”
Deering has been the much stronger program for the past seven years and went 6-4 this fall under first-year coach Jon Gallant, reaching the Western Class A semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Cheverus High School. Portland finished 2-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. This year, Deering won the teams’ regular-season meeting, 28-7, on Sept. 23.
The anniversary is not the only notable thing about this year’s game. This is also going to the be the 200th all-time Portland-Deering meeting. Portland holds an all-time 115-67 advantage (with 17 ties).
Bailey said that for many people, the game is an excuse to get together with old friends and have breakfast before the game. People used to go to the Sportsman’s Grill on Congress Street and imbibe “a little antifreeze” before the game, he said.
Now that the restaurant is gone, fans and alumni spread out all over the city to do their pre-game prep.
This year, in honor of the anniversary, the teams will invite everyone who has played, coached or been a cheerleader at a Thanksgiving Day game out onto the field at halftime. The booster clubs are doing pancake breakfasts for their players and cheerleaders, and everyone is thrilled that the city has kept this tradition alive for a century.
“I’m really proud I’ve been a part of this,” Bailey said. “I think it’s going to be a great football game.”
The cover from the 1951 program for the annual Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day football game.
The cover from the 1931 program for the annual Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day football game.
The cover from the program for the 1961 Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day football game.
The cover from the 1971 program for the annual Portland-Deering Thanksgiving Day football game.