Cheltenham and Abington have played football against each other for a very long time. They first played in 1915, a-year-and-half before America entered World War I.
They’ve now played 94 times according to Calkins Media records. But this year’s Thanksgiving Day matchup, a 41-36 Cheltenham win, may have been the last holiday meeting between the two schools. In fact, next November 24th high-school stadiums all across the Philadelphia area will likely be empty. The new PIAA fall schedule that kicks in next year will make playing Thanksgiving football games logistically difficult if not impossible.
And that’s a shame.
For many years, Thanksgiving rivalries were the highlight of the high-school football season. In the city, matchups like Frankford-North Catholic were a holiday tradition. In the suburbs, some traditions still endure, including pairings like Hatboro-Horsham-Upper Moreland, Pennridge-Quakertown, and the aforementioned Cheltenham-Abington series.
But other matchups have gone away. Even though Central Bucks East and Central Bucks West still play each other, something is lost by not playing that game on Thanksgiving morning. Likewise, Upper Moreland and Hatboro-Horsham played on Thursday, September 24 this year and trust this Hatboro-Horsham grad, it wasn’t the same. And if Cheltenham and Abington open the season against each other next year, as has been suggested, it likely won’t feel the same either.
The demise of Thanksgiving football can be linked to the PIAA’s decision to implement state football playoffs beginning in 1988, Holiday games have been in the line of fire ever since and it really didn’t have to be that way.
At first, there were no playoffs in District One and in some other parts of the state as well; teams qualified for the state semifinals via a points system.
But from the outset, teams with Thanksgiving commitments had to decide whether they would play their traditional holiday game or participate in the playoffs instead.
Meanwhile, in Western Pennsylvania, teams in suburban Pittsburgh chose to boycott the state playoffs in favor District Seven’s own long-running postseason playoffs.
Eventually though, District Severn got on board, District One instituted its own playoffs, and gradually the PIAA’s postseason evolved into what it is now. This year’s football championship games will be played the weekend prior to Christmas. To its credit, the PIAA realized that changes had to be made and voted to shorten the 2016 season by one week. Unfortunately, it chose do so by chopping off a week at the front of the schedule instead of the back end. Next fall teams will still be able to play 10 regular-season games but will be allowed just one scrimmage (or nine games and two scrimmages). The state playoffs will conclude the weekend of December 9-10, which is good but the tradeoff is that many schools will play two games before school actually starts.
Most teams will conclude their regular seasons the last weekend in October. Even if non-playoff teams add an extra game the following week they would still be facing a break of almost three weeks before playing on Thanksgiving Day. Most schools are likely to opt out in fairness to student-athletes who have already endured a long season but who in many instances are now looking ahead to a winter sport.
The PIAA could have solved the problem by moving its championship weekend forward one week but leaving the start date of the season where it was and leaving the Thanksgiving weekend free for traditional rivalry games.
That would have forced most districts to shorten their own playoffs, which would not have been a bad thing. It’s our contention that some teams that are part of the playoffs don’t deserve to be there; that the postseason should be for teams that are truly elite. The expansion to six classes for football next fall may or may not address that issue. But its likely that the traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalries as we know them will be gone.
Call me a traditionalist, but I, and a lot of other people, will miss them.