Thanksgiving is usually starts with a busy morning of all the best high school football rivalry games in the state. In 2020, football field are quiet. So NBC Connecticut took a look back at what some would say is the greatest high school football rivalry in the country and even those who might not want to say that, can at least agree it’s the oldest.
If you’re going to ask questions about the Norwich Free Academy-New London high school football rivalry, there’s two things you need to know. First: it has very little to do with Thanksgiving.
“It was the first game of the year,” said Brian Girasoli, who literally wrote the book on the rivalry, ‘'The Norwich Free Academy v. New London Football Rivalry."
And second: believe everything you hear.
“To me there's no story that I’ve ever heard that I’m like there's no way that didn't happen,” said Norwich native, former NFA player and current NFA head coach, Jason Bakoulis.
There’s the time, Girasoli said, that Buckley played with some faculty members. Or in 1902 when NFA lead 130-0 at halftime. Another time one team punted the ball and it got lost in the snow. That was the end of the game.
But for all the stories, no one tells them quite like the ones who have lived it.
“I was in the locker room, I was on my knees, I was crying,” former New London coach Tommie Major is telling the story of his final game in his 35-year career: NFA-New London, the Whalers down by 16 at halftime. “I was telling them, ‘your momma loves ya, your daddy loves ya, the turkey loves ya.’”
They won the game. Between Bakoulis and Major, you can sum up the whole rivalry with two people. They check all the boxes, from competition to chatter. Bakoulis even coached under Major for a few years at New London. He said Thanksgiving meals were served outside for him those years.
Still, for all the stories, in nearly a century and a half of games, Girasoli said they’ve only ever missed one, “In 1952 because in the '51 game there was a fight that broke out.”
They didn't need a score to have a story in '52 and they don't need a score now.
“Their legacy of what they left as leaders and how they steered the ship through this adversity,” said Bakoulis about his current class of seniors. “That legacy will never go away.”
In 145 years of history, 2020 has earned its place
The CIAC canceled the fall football season but current players and coaches hope that they'll get a chance at these games in the spring.