On Thursday night the elevens of Fitchburg and Leominster High School lined up on rain-soaked Doyle Field to play football. While it was a Thursday, it obviously was not Thanksgiving Day. No, the traditional holiday classic is scheduled to take place on Thursday, Nov. 25 at Crocker Field.
As a result, this year will mark the first time since 1916 that the long-time rivals will play each other twice in the same season. The high schools did play each other twice in 2011 and 2014, but both of those extra matches were playoff games. Leominster earned a one-point victory in the 2011 contest, which occurred five days after Thanksgiving. Fitchburg won the 2014 game by a score of 7-0, 15 days before Thanksgiving. Leominster then rebounded and beat their archrival on Thanksgiving Day.
Those second games played in the early years of the last decade were an anomaly of sorts, solely the result of the MIAA postseason system.
This year is different. The two regular season games may strike a chord with some. This year it is even possible that a third game between the teams could occur if the postseason system so dictates. Do you like it? Do you believe the extra regular season games water down the iconic Thanksgiving tradition?
I enthusiastically endorse the idea of two regular season games. My first thought upon learning of the plan was the history of the series, something that may surprise no one. There were a number of years when the gridders of Leominster and Fitchburg faced each other twice, long before the MIAA or playoff schemes, and the statistics are truly amazing.
The old rivals faced each other twice in 1897, 1898, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1904, and then again from 1910-1916. There were a total of 26 games played in those 13 seasons and Fitchburg won 13 of those games; Leominster won eight and there were five ties.
The early history of the historic rivalry was dominated by hardnosed football in an era that did not feature the forward pass until 1906. In 35 games played between 1896 and 1919 the defeated (or tying) team did not score a single point with the sole exception of the dead-locked contest in 1907 which resulted in a 4-4 score.
Many of the early years of the rivalry featured Fitchburg’s utter dominance. Fitchburg was three times the size of Leominster in 1900 with an impressive population of 30,000.
Beyond sheer numbers, Fitchburg had a legend of a coach when Clarence Amiott took the helm of the Red and Gray in 1913. Leominster had to wait under 1927 for its first professional football coach when Raymond Comerford took charge of the Blue and White. When it came to football fields, Fitchburg was ahead of Leominster, too. In 1918 Fitchburg opened Crocker Field, a field so spectacular that Babe Ruth mistook it for a college field in 1920. Leominster had to wait until 1931 to counter when Doyle Field was opened on Oct. 10.
How dominant was Fitchburg in the early years? In 15 games played by the teams between 1913 and 1929, Fitchburg won 13 of the games and the other two (1913 and 1921) were ties. Leominster was outscored in those 15 games 400-20.
Spanning three centuries, at least a half dozen wars, the Great Depression and untold number of technological changes, the rivalry is resilient if nothing else.
One hundred and twenty seven years and 139 games later, the tradition continues. The increased competition of two games per season can only heighten the drama of the game played on Thanksgiving morning.
Either way, the teams will seek to sweep the yearly two-game series or find vindication for the early season loss on Turkey Day. Like other sports, for example, basketball, baseball, soccer, to name a few, two contests between the cross-team rivals will do nothing to dampen the competitive spirit between the high schools.
In last Thursday’s game, the first schoolboy football game played in the state this year, Fitchburg prevailed, 27-12. It was a hard-fought contest and in doubt until the last few minutes. The game was enthusiastically played and a large contingent of fans from both schools braved poor weather to support their teams.
One thing is certain; when the schools show up for their 140th game on Thanksgiving morning both will come to play, perhaps with even greater incentive than in a long time. I like to think those football warriors of the early years of the 20th century would nod approvingly. Good luck to both teams for a great 2021 season, football is back.
Mark Bodanza is a local attorney, author and historian who has written three books on the Fitchburg-Leominster football rivalry: “A Game That Forged Rivals”; “1933 Football at the Depth of the Great Depression”; and “Rivals.”