A classic Philly rivalry returns in the city where Thanksgiving football was invented

Northeast and Central high schools have squared off on the holiday for over 125 years.

Players from Central High's football team in 1967

Players from Central High's football team in 1967

Wasko / Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Archives
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The holiday was just six years old and the sport had been played for less than one month when Philadelphia kicked off a time-honored American tradition by hosting the nation’s first Thanksgiving Day football game.

The 1869 matchup in Germantown pitted the Germantown Cricket Club against the Young America Cricket Club. No winner was recorded.

Just 23 years later and a few miles away, there was another historic first (at least as far as local rivalries are concerned). In 1892, Central High School and Northeast High squared off in their inaugural Thanksgiving Day game.

The tradition is back this year after a rare break in 2020. In fact, the pandemic pause was only the second game missed since 1896, the other coming in 1918 when Northeast didn’t field a team due to World War I.

Several other local high school football rivalries also found a Turkey Day home. Neumann Goretti and Southern played each other on the holiday from 1934 to 2015, and are picking back up this year at the South Philly Supersite. Cheltenham vs. Abington made it 100 years before being moved to another date.

“There are other [Thanksgiving] games that have come and gone,” said current Northeast head coach Eric Clark, “but this is the granddaddy of them all.”

The 122nd meeting between the Northeast Vikings and the Central Lancers begins at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, at the Vikings’ home field at 1601 Cottman Ave. What to expect if you attend? Passion, pride, tradition, and serious excitement.

Christian Madison was a star for recent Central teams who now plays at Cornell. “Those games are always intense,” he said. “You feel the energy as soon as you hit the field and see both fan bases rocking.”

Former Northeast player Anthony Franklin, now head Philly writer for Pennsylvania Football News, concurs. “I played in the 2000 game,” he said, recalling crowds that felt 10,000-people strong. “I remember looking at both sidelines, and seeing standing room only, hearing the fans.”

Playing against Franklin in that game was Marcus Maxwell, and he remembers being really fired up. “It was all about getting that horse. About getting that trophy.”

The trophy in question is known as the Wooden Horse, a hand-carved mahogany statuette that’s been awarded since 1947, notching a prominent space in the winning team’s trophy case.

“Playoffs are great, but the rivalry makes this the game of the year,” said Eric Heisler, another Central alum who played in four Thanksgiving games, “It’s for the Wooden Horse and bragging rights. It means as much to the teams on the field as it does for the generations of alumni in the stands.”

Clark, the Northeast head coach, has experience in many roles. He played in the game himself, watched it as an alum, and was a Vikings assistant coach. This year is his first running the show.

“I know what this rivalry means to both schools, and to the City of Philadelphia. In the three games I played in, I had two wins and one loss. The one loss was on the best team I was a part of. That shows that on any given Thanksgiving there’s so much at stake, and it’s such a great rivalry that anybody can win.”

Anybody can win, but a certain team can dominate throughout an era. Recently that’s been Northeast, which has won every year since 2004 except one. “2013 was a huge upset,” said Franklin, the Pa. Football News writer, when Central eked out a 6-3 shocker.

Back in the ’80s, Central dominated the rivalry, as exemplified by their 60-3 win in 1986. “That,” said Michael Mulcahy, a player on that Northeast team, “was an all-time curb stomping.” His favorite memory was an alum three years later, when it snowed: “Howard Eskin showed up at that game in a fur coat and we pelted him with snowballs.”

There have also been times when the two teams couldn’t have been more evenly matched.

“My junior and senior year, we were the best teams in our divisions, so each of those games meant a lot to the title chase,” said Lou Tilley, the longtime sportscaster and Northeast star of the early 1970s. “In both years, we needed to beat them to beat them for the public league championship, and each year it ended in a tie.”

What’ll the outcome be this year? Few people follow local high school football as closely as reporter Franklin, and he’s predicting a continuation of the recent trend. “Central is much improved. I think you’ll see a close game in the beginning. But I think Northeast will eventually pull away in the second half and win.”

To coach Clark, this game is about more than the final score.

“Our young men will get a chance to shake hands with alumni who are 50 or 60 years older than them,” Clark said. “That is one of the most emotional moments, when those alumni come into the locker room to say a few words. At that point you know you’re a part of something special. Something bigger than yourself. Not too many people get to play in a game as special as Central and Northeastern.”

Sportscaster Tilley agrees. What advice does the former Northeast player have for the teams taking the field?

“Enjoy it. Soak it all in. Revel in it,” Tilley said. “Because it doesn’t get any better.”

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