Anyone who grew up in Portland, as I did, knows that Thanksgiving means more than a family celebration with turkey and the trimmings. Every Thanksgiving, the Portland High School and Deering High School football teams face off in the Turkey Day game.
Growing up on Oxford Street, I remember the excitement in the neighborhood leading up to the big game. This event has become a cherished tradition, drawing students and alumni from both schools as well as many community members.
The 100th Turkey Day game will be played on Nov. 24 at 10:30 a.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium. I encourage you to attend.
Portland High hosts the game, and the Bulldog football boosters have been working with their counterparts at Deering for a year to make this a special event. They have used Facebook, the school district’s website, word of mouth and other means to track down as many former players, coaches and cheerleaders as possible. All will be invited onto the field for a half-time celebration. The boosters also are making special T-shirts and a commemorative program for the game.
The tradition of holding high school football games on Thanksgiving dates back to the 1800s. Two of the country’s oldest public high schools, Boston Latin and English High School in Boston, have been competing every Thanksgiving since 1887 in the longest continuous match-up.
Several other high schools in the Northeast also have Turkey Day games that began more than a century ago. But many games involve schools from neighboring towns. Portland can claim one of the oldest and most intense cross-town football rivalries.
The Portland-Deering Turkey Day game began in 1911. It has been played every year since then except one. The two teams have competed in mud, ice, rain and heavy snow.
In the early 1940s, before Portland had municipal snow blowers, several inches of snow fell shortly before a Turkey Day game. The city put out a call for people to show up at the field with their shovels. Those who helped clear off the field got a free game ticket.
Perhaps the most memorable game was played in 1959. That year, the game decided the state’s football championship. Thousands of fans packed the stadium. Portland led at half time, 21-7. But Deering came roaring back. Using a play learned just that week, the Deering team completed a 33-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Then, Deering halfback Joe DiPietro scored, leading his school to a 26-21 victory. People still talk about that game.
Many families have multiple generations who played in the Turkey Day game, including siblings who played for opposing teams.
At least one student wore both the Rams and the Bulldogs uniform during his high school career. Vinnie DiFillipo Sr. lived downtown and attended Portland High School as a freshman. During his sophomore year, he moved to the Deering neighborhood and joined the Deering team. Now a Portland firefighter, DiFillipo officiates at the Turkey Day game. He and the other officials donate their time. “It is always an honor for all of us,” he said.
Regardless of their team allegiance, Portland residents take pride in the local players who went on to fame in the wider world. Dick Capp, a Deering linebacker, played for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers team that won the 1967 NFL championship. Quinton Porter (Portland High 2000) played quarterback at Boston College and now plays for the Canadian Football League. Several Turkey Day alumni played professional baseball.
The 100th Turkey Day game is a special event indeed. So pull on your long johns, grab a warm hat and gloves and head to Fitzpatrick Stadium with your family on Thanksgiving morning to celebrate one of Portland’s glorious traditions.
James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on theforecaster.net. He can be reached at email@example.com.