PORTLAND — In October of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln one-upped the “general decree” made by George Washington in 1789, officially declaring the United States would observe the fourth Thursday of every November as Thanksgiving.
With the Civil War raging in the backdrop, Honest Abe suggested we grab a day simply for the purposes of “taking the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
And boy did we take him up on that one.
So too does Portland, where Thanksgiving is become synonymous with a football game at the bottom of a hill.
Since 1911, every year save one, the Bulldogs of Portland High have locked horns with crosstown rival Deering to settle the score in the fourth longest running high school football rivalry game in the United States.
In the 2009 exhibition held Thursday at Fitzpatrick Stadium – the 98th meeting between the two teams – the Bulldogs snapped a seven-year slide dating back to 2002 with a 41-6 victory over the Rams on unusually calm and comfortable Thanksgiving morning.
The Blue pulled a fast one on the Rams, switching up its season-long offensive strategy and riding the element of surprise, senior Jake Alexander’s tireless motor and the graceful strides of junior tailback Imadhi Zagon.
Portland jettisoned the Wildcat offense that helped them return to the Western A playoffs after a rare two-year absence, returning senior Gordon Parker to quarterback and lining up in much more traditional fashion with Zagon as the lone setback.
Parker responded with a pair of first half touchdown passes to seniors Adam Gould and Jon Brown, while Zagon continued to do his thing, gashing the Rams for 191 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
The Bulldogs piled on 20 unanswered points in the second quarter and grabbed a fork with bragging rights for the year, improving to 54-37-7 overall in the series.
Parker walked away with the Vinnie Allen Trophy as the MVP of the game for the Bulldogs.
“I was a little surprised,” Parker said. “I’m just glad I played well and we won the game. It was nice coaching and nice execution all the way around.”
Alexander, for his part, put on a memorable display in his final Turkey day showing, tipping a punt, sacking the quarterback and recovering a fumble on defense, while running wild on his trademark jet-sweep for over 100 yards and a score.
“We’ve had a couple of tough seasons,” Alexander said. “When this year started we just didn’t know how good we were. We started beating teams and gaining confidence. The seniors on this team love each other and the rest of the team fed off that.”
Deering, playing without several key seniors suspended for disciplinary reasons, spent the weeks leading up to the annual Thanksgiving Day game preparing to slow Zagon taking the snap directly in the Wildcat formation.
Sensing the Rams might be ready to contend with Zagon after being exposed to the offense on at least two occasions this season, longtime Portland coach Mike Bailey huddled with his offensive staff and went the complete opposite direction.
After running the ball 83 percent of the time during the season, the Bulldogs came out firing with Parker for a pair of scores while building a commanding 34-0 lead after three quarters, then salted the game away with Zagon powering off tackle to snap the Rams’ longest winning streak in the series.
“They had two games against the Wildcat already this year,” said Bailey. “We changed things up. We felt like we needed better balance. We had a month to prepare so we had to do come up something. This is the first time our seniors have beaten Deering. It’s a great group and I’m just happy for them.”
Deering was steadied by the presence of junior quarterback Jamie Ross and the outstanding all-around play of senior Travis Wade, but couldn’t overcome the turmoil of recent weeks and the loss of veteran contributors on both sides of the ball.
“We had some discipline issues and were missing a bunch of starters,” said Ross. “But we didn’t execute from the start. It’s tough to come back from 20 points against an experienced team like Portland. They came out with something different than we expected.”
Wade shined in the kicking game, helped Ross move the chains through the air with the run game sputtering, and played his usual stellar defensive back in the loss. For his efforts, Wade took home the Merv Kilgore Award as the Rams’ MVP of the game.
“It’s a great honor to win this award,” said Wade. “There have been a lot of great players get this. Jack (Heary) got it last year. But we would have like to win this game. We were missing seniors with big roles. It’s tough to win without those guys.”
Ross struggled to move the chains for Deering in the face of constant pressure from Alexander and Portland senior captains Joe Zukowski, Nolan Hellen and John Wescott, but did lead the Rams to a late score when sophomore Trey Thomes rushed in from the 7-yard line with just under a minute remaining in the game to avoid the shutout.
“This team has grown very close over the season,” Wescott said. “We have great chemistry and the line played the best it has all year today. It’s great to win on Thanksgiving. It ranks right up there with every other win this season.”
Portland senior Pat Curran, another force in the trenches, earned the James Banks Unsung Hero trophy for his play.
Bailey closed out his 24th year at Portland with the win, improving to 16-8 on Thanksgiving after taking over for the legendary Jack Garvin in 1986.
Bailey won his first four on Thanksgiving, the latter half of eight straight for the Bulldogs that ended with a 25-6 loss to Deering in 1990.
The next season, Bailey began a stretch of 11-straight wins, still a series record, posting an impressive 15-1 record through 2001.
But Deering ended the streak and had ripped off the last seven, surpassing its previous win streak of six that began in 1930.
Including this game, Portland went 6-4 this year, while Deering wound up 2-7.
Deering senior Trey Thomes fought his way through Portland seniors Joe Zukowski (11) and Jason Strauss to score a touchdown late in the contest. The score helped the Rams avoid a shutout as they fell 41-6.