by Isaac Cass on Tue, Aug 6, 2013 at 9:51 AM / Updated Tue, Aug 6, 2013 at 10:06 AM
Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and classic high school football rivalries. For a good chunk of Americans, this is what Thanksgiving is all about.
Unless, of course, one happens to live in Westchester County.
Nowadays, virtually every high school football field across the county is vacant on Thanksgiving, which seems like something the Pilgrims would've frowned upon.
But it wasn't always this way.
Thanksgiving Day games used to be quite common in Westchester. New Rochelle and Iona Prep, Yonkers and Gorton, Saunders and Roosevelt and Eastchester and Tuckahoe all used to duke it out on the gridiron prior to feasting on mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Some games faded when the state football tournament was introduced in 1993. Others died when one team consistently outpaced the other in talent and skill. But one Thanksgiving Day rivalry still persists today: White Plains vs. Stepinac.
"We are the last one standing in Westchester," White Plains sports historian Don Gano said.
BIRTH OF A RIVALRY
The first White Plains vs. Stepinac Turkey Bowl was played in 1971. The Tigers of White Plains entered the matchup undefeated and were coming off a 30-0 victory over Kingston in the first-ever Class AA sectional bowl game just five days earlier. The Crusaders came in with a goose egg in the win column.
Undeterred by the odds, Stepinac took a 7-6 halftime lead, stunning the 8,000-plus fans in attendance. White Plains eventually rallied, though, outscoring the Crusaders 13-0 in the second half en route to a 19-7 victory.
And just like that, a tradition-rich rivalry was born.
The two White Plains-based schools — separated by less than two miles — have met every year since. In 2013, they will square off for the 43rd time. Crowds from 5,000-8,000 attend the game, which was moved to White Plains High School in 2008 after 38 years at Highlands Middle School's Parker Stadium.
"The game means a lot to the city of White Plains and a tremendous amount to us," said Stepinac coach Mike O'Donnell, who has been on the sidelines for the last 33 meetings, including the past 26 as head coach.
O'Donnell's counterpart at White Plains echoed the sentiment.
"It's awesome and I think more teams should play on Thanksgiving," said Tigers coach Skip Stevens, a veteran of 12 Turkey Bowl games. "A lot of other states play on Thanksgiving and I just think it's great for everybody. The atmosphere is tremendous and the rivalry is great. It's a great day for the city of White Plains."
TIGERS’ TURKEY TRACKS GO WAY BACK
White Plains' Thanksgiving Day history actually predates the Stepinac rivalry. The Tigers began playing on the holiday in 1932, squaring off against Indiana state champ Central High School from South Bend.
The original idea to play on Thanksgiving was hatched after the team was barred from traveling to Florida for a bowl game in 1931.
"In 1930, White Plains was picked as the best team in the metropolitan area and went down to Florida to play a bowl game, which was the forerunner to the Orange Bowl [which started in 1935]," said Gano, a 1967 White Plains graduate. "In 1931, we went 9-1 again but the [White Plains] principal wouldn't let the team go to a postseason game that year. That's why they started the Thanksgiving Day game in 1932. It was their own postseason game."
Overall, the Tigers played a total of 39 Thanksgiving Day games before the Stepinac rivalry even began. State champs from all over the country would travel to White Plains and, not surprisingly, droves of fans followed suit. Attendance figures ballooned up to 15,000 during the 1930s and 1940s.
"There wasn't television back then, so people weren't staying at home and watching pro or college on TV," Gano said.
White Plains played two different Indiana teams a total of six times in the 1930s. In 1947, Alliance High School from Ohio made the trip.
Eventually, however, traveling became an issue and teams from out of state stopped making the trek. White Plains' final Thanksgiving Day games against non-New York teams were in 1965 and 1966 against Pittsfield, Mass. They played Thomas Jefferson of Brooklyn from 1967-68 and Bishop Gibbons of Schenectady from 1969-70.
The White Plains-Stepinac rivalry was born the following year in 1971 due two main factors: First, White Plains was finding it increasingly hard to line up a Thanksgiving Day game; second, because Section 1 created a bowl game system and expanded the minimum number of games from eight to nine.
In its infancy, the White Plains-Stepinac rivalry was a lopsided clash. The Tigers won 20 of the first 26 games in the game’s history.
A BALANCED RIVALRY
The scales have balanced in recent years, with Stepinac winning nine of the past 16 games, including the last three in a row and six of the last seven. Overall, White Plains holds a 27-15 lead in the series.
Stepinac’s O'Donnell described the recent success of his program in the rivalry: "We've won the last three years, but for years [White Plains] dominated us," he said. "Lately, we've been winning more than we've been losing. My staff has really improved. I've got some great coaches and we've made a little bit more of a commitment to football at the school. We put a new field in and we've got a lot of excitement. We are getting some real good kids coming our way.
“Next year, I'm going to have 28 kids playing college football from the last four years — nine D1 and D1-AA kids. When that word gets out there that our kids are NCAA eligible and going to college, that's a big thing."
White Plains’ Stevens lost his first Turkey Bowl, 35-0 in 2001, but proceeded to win the next four straight. He has a record of 5-7 in the game.
"Stepinac's had our number the last few years and they have been playing some really, really good football," Stevens said.
That much was evident in the game’s 2012 edition, when Stepinac overcame an 18-0 third-quarter deficit to shock White Plains, 19-18.
"Last year was really close, but over the recent years [Stepinac] has gotten the better of us," Stevens said.
In the game, Daniel Hoffer threw a game-winning, 9-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in regulation. It was only the second time the game had been decided by a single point.
"I’m so happy to be a part of it," Hoffer told MSG Varsity after the game. "I told my brother [a former Stepinac player] that I was going to finish what he started. To know that he was on the sideline watching me was awesome. I can go and eat Thanksgiving turkey with a smile on my face.”
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
As the years have passed, the annual Turkey Bowl game between White Plains and Stepinac has faced some of the same pressures as other Thanksgiving Day games.
Problems surfaced when the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) created the state tournament format in 1993, which posed a potential conflict with the rivalry game. (Take, for instance, New Rochelle’s appearance in 2012's NYS Class AA final, played two days after Thanksgiving.) It seems fair to ask: If White Plains was in position to play for a state title so close to Thanksgiving, what would have become of the Turkey Bowl?
Coach Stevens admitted that any potential scheduling changes for both teams could put the rivalry at risk.
"What if the Catholic schools play in the championship the following Saturday after Thanksgiving?" Stevens wondered.
White Plains already makes concessions to keep the Turkey Bowl alive. The Tigers are forced to take a bye week during the regular season to keep their games under the amount permitted by NYSPHSAA.
"For a few years we didn't go to a bowl game," Stevens said. "We'd opt out and another team would go in. Lately, [Section 1] doesn't want us to do that because it affects the scheduling, so we have to take a bye during the year to fulfill our obligations at the end of the year."
It's hard to imagine Westchester's last Thanksgiving Day game disappearing. But the obstacles and potential concerns are real.
"There's a lot of outside pressure to end [the Turkey Bowl],” Gano said, “but not really from the inside. Both schools are still supported by the community. The only time the rivalry game problems came about is when the state playoffs started."
O'Donnell, who has coached in championship games on Sunday and played in the Turkey Bowl four days later, knows how tough it can be.
"It is really hard, but it's a great, great rivalry and I hope it never ends," O'Donnell said. "I wish the section would allow White Plains to play their regular schedule and still play the game. We play in front of 5,000 to 6,000 people and it's one of the biggest attended games in New York. It would be a sin for the thing to go away."
DID YOU KNOW?
* Art Monk, a 1976 White Plains graduate and Hall of Fame receiver with the Washington Redskins and New York Jets, played his first-ever varsity game vs. Stepinac in 1973. Monk was a sophomore on the JV that season, but was called up for the Turkey Bowl to play mainly on defense.
* Former NFL players who have competed in the Turkey Bowl:
Jay Saldi (TE) — A 1971 White Plains graduate, Saldi played seven of his nine NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
Tom DePaso (LB) — A 1973 White Plains graduate, DePaso played one season with the Bengals in 1978. He was recently named the NFL Players Association's General Counsel.
Sam Bowers (TE) — A 1975 White Plains graduate, Bowers played one season with the Bears.
Art Monk (WR) — A 1976 White Plains graduate, Monk played 14 of 16 his NFL seasons with the Redskins and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2008.
Eric Ogbogu (DE) — A 1994 Stepinac graduate, Ogbogu played seven NFL seasons with the Jets, Cowboys and Bengals. He was memorably featured in Under Armour's "Protect This House" ad campaign.
* During the first 10 years of the rivalry, both teams agreed to play their seniors in the first quarter. This ended around the mid-1980s, according to Gano.
* Stepinac capped its only undefeated season in school history with a 42-14 win over White Plains in the 2010 Turkey Bowl.
Email Isaac Cass at Icass@cablevision.com | Follow him on Twitter @MSGV_Icass