A bygone Thanksgiving holiday tradition in Tacoma was re-enacted Saturday, 74 days before Thanksgiving.
Hey, it’s the thought that counts.
On an overcast afternoon more evocative of late November than mid-September, Stadium and Lincoln continued a football rivalry fondly recalled as the “Turkey Day Game.” Between 1923 and 1957, Tacoma’s two oldest high schools scheduled their annual showdown for the fourth Thursday in November.
“It was sort of a civil war, the North End versus the South End, the rich part of town versus the blue collar, with Lincoln being the blue collar,” Lincoln grad Norm Eklund said before kickoff. “It was a little more serious back then. The players didn’t tend to fraternize. The blue-collar kids didn’t hang out with the doctors’ sons.”
For those former students old enough to remember Turkey Day football as the annual highlight of the sports calendar, fraternizing was the primary order of business Saturday at Lincoln, which turns 100 this year. Alums representing both schools participated in a pregame parade around the Lincoln Bowl track. Carrying banners representing every Turkey Day contest between 1923 and 1957, they walked behind a golf cart occupied by 98-year old Joe Cusato, the parade’s grand marshal.
The son of Italian immigrants, Cusato chose to attend Lincoln rather than Stadium because the South End school – true to its blue-collar roots – offered classes in auto shop.
“I always enjoyed the day after the game,” said George Haskins,
a 1956 Lincoln grad. “We came down as little kids and we’d go through the stands to collect nickels and dimes so we could go to the Rex Theater.”
Spare change was to be had. Crowds often exceeded 10,000 and some approached 20,000.
“We didn’t have TV,” said John Kauklis (Lincoln, ’58). “And if we did have TV, it was a black-and-white set. So everybody went to the game. My senior season, in 1957, both the Lincoln and Stadium sections of the bowl were full, so they set up bleachers along the side.
“We won that game because our coach, Norm Mayer, put Jerry Williams on Stadium’s best player, their running back. Coach told him, ‘You’re gonna be the wolfman. Wherever he goes, you shadow him.’ It worked.”
The Abes, whose sensational Luther Carr was among five Lincoln products to start for the University of Washington during the 1950s, dominated the series after Mayer arrived as head coach in 1945. That was payback for a Stadium run that coincided with the hiring of head coach John Heinrick in 1934. Under Heinrick, the Tigers outscored Lincoln by a collective 111-14 during a seven-year stretch.
The series achieved its zenith in 1944 season finale, when unbeaten Lincoln took on a Stadium team that had yet to surrender a score. Dean Mellor’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Len Kalupus was all the Abes needed to escape with the unofficial state championship.
The festivities surrounding Saturday’s celebration of a once-beloved Thanksgiving sports tradition posed an obvious question: Why was the Turkey Day game discontinued?
“They started adding more high schools in Tacoma,” said Haskins. “With more schools, you couldn’t single out Turkey Day for the Stadium-Lincoln shootout.”
Former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma (Stadium, ’60) thinks the captive audience for prime-ticket prep games was compromised by fans’ interest in the Seattle pro franchises that came to usurp local sports page headlines in the 1970s.
“Turkey Day games used to be mandatory – you had to attend – but over time, traditions like that faded. Elks, Kiwanis, bowling leagues, all those traditions have faded as other things became more important,” said Baarsma. “You also had moms and dads that didn’t both work, so you had time and a sense of community. The dynamics have changed.”
The premise of football on Thanksgiving Day is as old as football itself. While some high schools – primarily in the Northeast – have been able to continue the tradition, the sole Turkey Day rivalry game west of the Mississippi River still intact is the annual “Big Bone” high school contest in San Jose, Calif.
Dynamics change and culture evolves as the world turns. But every once in a while, it’s fun – and necessary, really – to reflect on the way it was, and never will be again.
On Saturday, before Lincoln scored early and often in a 62-0 blowout of Stadium, the revelry turned to Thanksgivings past, when the winners went home for a feast and the losers had to eat crow.
Unless there was a tie, in which case the verdict was in the eye of the beholder.
“I was quarterback in the 1950 game,” said Joe Stortini, a Lincoln grad who was accompanied in the banner parade by his brother, Ken, a Stadium grad.
“We ended up with a 0-0 tie in the rain and the mud,” Joe Stortini said, “but I thought of it as a moral victory. We weren’t very good.”john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com