Football, Old Glory And America: All Is Right With The World

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 08, 2012

I've been to high school football games all over the country. Hell, I've driven 11 hours to Ohio just to see a high school game.

So I know the sport in my little corner of the world in New England is not quite what it is in other parts of the nation. But nobody can compete with the history or tradition we have here.

That's what I thought of this morning when I snapped this photo: the boys from Boston Latin, America's oldest school (1635) and one of the nation's very first football teams, huddled under the American flag at Veterans' Memorial Stadium in Quincy, Mass., for a game against North Quincy High School.

Boston Latin

The brick walls give the stadium a rustic old vibe: it was a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, and the walls went up around the city's old schoolboy football field. There are granite reliefs above the iron gates at the entrance of leather-helmeted boys playing football.

During games late in the year, the cold wind whips off Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, not far behind those trees, blowing red, yellow and orange leaves onto the field. 

As CHFF contributor and Ohio resident Kevin Braig said on Twitter (@quantcoach): "Pretty sure this is what heaven will look like."

New Englanders are not as rabid about high school football as folks are in the Midwest or South. Not even close.

But football is DEEPLY ingrained in the culture of the region, as much a part of local heritage as the Pilgrims, old lighthouses and lobsters.

What we now know as football began as something called the Boston game: a sort of soccer-rugby hybrid that schoolboys first played on Boston Common during the Civil War. There is a monument to the Oneida Football Club, the first in America, on Boston Common today.

Ivy League and Eastern establishment schools soon adopted the sport and the first college game was played in 1869. Rutgers beat Princeton, 6-4. I remember reading an awesome illustrated book as a boy called "The Pro Football Experience" in which they described Rutgers that day "splendid in their scarlet turbans."

Pretty cool image. The post-Civil War period was the great boomtime for American sports, by the way. Baseball's National League, and many of its teams, formed in the 1870s.

New England schools Harvard and Yale soon came to dominate football in the early days and popularized it around the nation. This is an old image from Harper's Weekly, I believe of a Harvard-Yale game.

Harvard Yale

How ifluential were these schools? Consider the football "between the hedges" of Georgia, for example. We owe that great Southern football tradition to New England football. The hedges were planted to celebrate a visit by the mighty Yale football team in 1929. The folks from Georgia wanted to impress Yale.

The game, the first at Sanford Stadium, was so big that apparently every governor from the South attended. Yale donated money from the game to help pay for UGA's new stadium.

High school football grew up with college football. Boston Latin, the team huddled there in the photo this morning, has played Boston English every year since 1887, the oldest continuous high school football rivalry in the United States. That's pretty cool.

Latin-English meet each year at Harvard Stadium on Thanksgiving, the biggest football day of the year in New England.

Harvard Stadium itself was the first and for long time largest reinforced concrete structure in the world, a testament to the importance of Ivy League football in its time. It's near the banks of the "Dirty Water" of the Charles River and still a cool old place to watch football on a fall day. It has a classic coliseum-style design.

The Ivy League schools are no longer powers, of course. But they quite literally created and also saved the sport that has become our national passion.

Football was so violent in the early days that deaths on the field were common. Nearly 20 players died in 1904, prompting calls to ban the game. The 1894 Harvard-Yale match was so violent it was called "The Hampden Park Bloodbath."

But President Teddy Roosevelt came to know the game as a Harvard student (Class of 1880) and thought it was good for the national character. So in 1905 he teamed up with Ivy League and other schools leaders to create the NCAA and establish new rules to both save and improve the game, including the forward pass. 

There's a book out about it called "The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football."Big Scrum

As for that Latin-English meeting on Thanksgiving, I wrote a bit about New England's awesome "Turkey Day" football tradition last week. When most Americans talk about the tradition of Thanksgiving football, it means the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys.

In New England, and in Massachusetts most specifically, Thanksgiving football means high school rivals clashing at 10 a.m. on a chillly November day. The holiday tradition dates back to the earliest days of football in the 1870s. For a little perspective, the nation had only 37 states when Massachusetts schools started playing football on Thanksgiving.

I actually feel bad for the places that DON'T have high school football on Thanksgiving. Seriously, what the hell do you do all morning? We tailgate and watch high school football. THEN we go home and watch the NFL and eat turkey.

In every town, the hype for the big Turkey Day game is immense and everybody remembers it, because it's usually the last football game you ever play.

My little brother Andrew scored the winning touchdown in his senior Thanksgiving game with an 87-yard punt return on an icy field speckled with snow patches.

He darted right through the middle of the defense, appearing to tip-toe above the elments, as kids desperately flailed at him, falling inches short or slipping on the ice. One would-be tackler lined him up straight center. Andrew crushed the kid with a violent stiff arm and ran over his body. It's still one of my favorite football memories.

Thanks to that score and a dramatic late goal-line stand, the underdog Quincy High Presidents beat the rival North Quincy Red Raiders, 12-7. Our team got its name because two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, are buried across the street from the school. Like I said, we got history and tradition well covered.

The year before that game a tough kid named Timmy Santos, who I coached as a freshman, kicked the only field goal of his career to give Quincy a last-second 9-7 win on Thanksgiving. I'm sure he and his buddies talk about those games every time they get together.

My lousy winless team, 25 years ago, drove 80 yards in the final seconds to score a touchdown on the final play of the game and salvage a 14-14 tie on Thanksgiving against a much bigger and better North Quincy team. It felt like a win for our 0-9-1 club.

My teammate Billy Copson yelled out in the locker room that the party was at his house. I think the entire school, and half the police department, showed up at his mega-bash Friday night. His parents picked the wrong weekend to head out of town.

The schools meet for the 80th straight Thanksgiving in two months time, making it a mere baby by the standards of local high school football rivalries.

A whole sub-culture has sprung up around up high school football on Thanksgiving. One of the most peculiar traits? All the bars, at least in my town, open at 8 a.m. that day so people can drink before the game and perhaps liquor up to deal with the family later.

Here are a couple signs from around town last Thanksgiving, touting the 8 a.m. open. Both are walking distance to the stadium where I took that photo this morning. I find it rather convenient that the first bar opens two hours before kickoff and closes two hours after the final whistle.



Yup, drinking for breakfast is an old New England holiday tradition, too. When the Pilgrims landed, men, women and children drank beer morning, noon and night. It provided sustenance and was healthier than water because anything harmful was boiled out in the brewing process. They drank beer during that first Thanksgiving, too, back in 1621.

Even more interesting, the Pilgrims actually settled here because they were running out of beer.

"We could not take time for further search and consideration," wrote one Pilgrim aboard the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 19, 1620, "our victuals being much spent, especially our beere."

True story, folks.

And, yes, all that ran through my head when I took the photo of the Boston Latin football team this morning, huddled up under the American flag at an old Depression Era high school football stadium on the New England coast.

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