The traditions surrounding Thanksgiving football games run deep in Massachusetts, where rivalries, some more than a century old, don’t just fuel bragging rights for the year but make memories for a lifetime.
Yet for all the well-known traditions — the pregame speeches, the late-game rallies, the postgame hugs and handshakes — here’s one you might not know about.
The after-game phone call.
That’s the one that is looking for a certain family member missing from the dinner table, the call that features a refrain heard by every coach who has ever worked a Thanksgiving game.
“When are you coming home?!”
“My annual call would be around 2 or 2:30,” Catholic Memorial coach John DiBiaso is saying over the phone, his wife Maureen in the background confirming every word. “ ‘Dinner is ready. Everybody’s waiting for you.’ ”
“Sometimes I’d get there and they’re eating already. I don’t think I was ever on time,” confesses Dan Buron, his nearly 30 years coaching at Bridgewater-Raynham keeping him well past the dinner bell.
“I try to get out at as decent a time as I can,” legendary Abington coach Jim Kelliher says. “I know my family doesn’t like it, but I always stay after the game to try and do my normal things, so I don’t have to come back on Friday or Saturday to a complete mess. I’d usually end up hurrying to wherever we are going, getting there anywhere from 4 to 6.”
That was then. This is now. Now, there is no high school football season in Massachusetts, which means there are no Thanksgiving games, which means all those coaches are home and wondering what to do with themselves.
For all the disappointment over the cancellations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a special well of emotional reserve set aside for the loss of Thanksgiving games.
From iconic Harvard Stadium, where Boston Latin and Boston English should be adding one more year to the nation’s oldest continuous high school football rivalry, to the countless, less famous fields tucked into corners across the state, Thanksgiving has gone quiet, save for the few coaches who might walk down to the field anyway, as if saying hello to an old friend.
This is the game that is circled on everyone’s calendar, the one single victory that can mean as much as — or more — than any playoff game.
“I am absolutely miserable,” acknowledges English coach Ryan Conway. “I have been in total denial. We usually kick off at 9:30.
“It’s a game that’s been played for over 100 years — I played in the 100th game. That was in ’85. I was still a baby. I was a sophomore.
“I played in this game, it’s near and dear to me and something I always followed, even during my 18 years [coaching] at East Boston High School. I still followed it, talking with alumni, watching the scores.”
“Let me put it this way: Since I was in the eighth grade, in 1958, it’s always been high school football,” says Jack Martinelli, Foxborough’s coach for the last 39 years. “Thanksgiving was high school football and family, not necessarily in that order.
“So it’s a giant void on a personal note, for the coaches and especially the seniors in high school. Without a Thanksgiving Day game — and, furthermore, without a real fall season — I think it’s been so detrimental to the kids. Their health and safety is the No. 1 priority, but it’s still left a giant hole for kids that have been playing all their lives.”
And a strange, unfamiliar setting for those who’ve been coaching them for most of their lives, ones like Kelliher, who has always spent the night before the game on a couch in the locker room, or Buron, who as Bridgewater-Raynham’s athletic director would be overseeing a week’s worth of activities, including a senior dinner with opponent Brockton and a full-school rally prior to the game.
Now, they’ll be pacing the floors or watching the oven, driving themselves — and those around them — just a little bit crazy.
“Oh, I’ll go out of my mind,” says Martinelli. “I’ve raked the leaves and mowed the lawn so many times. But I can’t be late for Thanksgiving anymore. I have no excuse.”
No excuse not to help out either, right?
“Oh, he’s helping with the cooking,” Maureen DiBiaso says from the background, as John insists he’s pretty good at chopping vegetables.
“For the first time ever, I volunteered to help with the stuffing,” he says.
Not everyone did the same.
“I usually don’t get involved with what’s on the table, so no, I’m not cooking anything,” Conway says with a laugh. “If it was me, it would be hot dogs and cheeseburgers. I think we’re going to try deep-frying a turkey, though.”
As Conway said, the upside of the pandemic is having more time to spend with family, and he is grateful for that. For many years, all four DiBiasos would be at the games, when John coached Everett across 30 dominant years, when Maureen was coaching their daughter Kristina on cheer and John was coaching son Jonathan in football. Even their late dog Lola was a local celebrity.
This year, with Kristina living in California, it’s mom, dad, Jonathan (a graduate assistant at Boston College), dog Ellie, and cat Baby for dinner.
Like all of us, these coaches are trying to make the best of it.
“You have to try to get through it,” DiBiaso says. “I tell the kids in school all the time: This is a once-in-a-100-year event, since the last pandemic, the Spanish flu. It’s terrible for them.
“But if you look back in history, during World War II, the kids were leaving high school to go fight in the Pacific or Europe against the Nazis. These kids are still home and hopefully still healthy.
“We will get through this, and as I tell the kids, we’re going to come out better and stronger for it.”
And yet they suffer. Look at Buron, whose planned retirement in the spring means this was his last football season. Even if the MIAA somehow pulls off a belated spring season, Thanksgiving is gone.
“I have thought about it — probably for the first time in 27 years, even longer when I was an assistant coach, so well over 30 years I was at a game,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do on Thanksgiving. It was always mapped out for me. There’s an empty feeling.
“There’s a big emptiness for everybody in the community. I’ve talked to many people, and they don’t know what they’re going to do on Thursday without a football game.
“I think I went to my first when I was 5 years old with my father, and I don’t think I missed one since. It’s like another homecoming. The people I really feel for the most are the seniors. Anybody that’s ever been in a locker room on Thanksgiving knows what I’m talking about.”
Kelliher hasn’t just coached Abington for the past 47 years, he spent four years playing for the team, too.
“My head is spinning because I can do something on Thursday because we don’t have a game,” he says.
He is not alone.
“I’ll probably have to get involved in the food part of Thanksgiving,” Martinelli says. “All I had to do before was eat it.”