PORTLAND – Matt Flaherty Sr. waited for the stands to fill an hour before kickoff at the 100th annual Thanksgiving Day football game between crosstown high school rivals Portland and Deering on Thursday and couldn’t wait for the electricity that would come with the crowd.

“You see the same faces every year,” he said.

Flaherty, the father of two Rams players, quarterback Matt and linebacker Patrick, ought to know. His grandfather played. So did his dad. And ever since he wore Deering’s purple-and-white uniform himself, he’s been attending the traditional Turkey Day game for nearly all of the past 40 years.

But he and many of the die-hard fans who gathered at Fitzpatrick Stadium also agreed that things have changed.

“The past five years, there seems to be a lower turnout,” Flaherty said. “I’m not sure why. Something is different. We hope the 100th sparks it again. But the whole season, the crowds don’t seem as much.”

Still, what the modern games might lack in attendance, they more than make up for in spirit.

Take the Downs brothers, Richard, Bill and Bob, all graduates of Portland High who have made the holiday game a ritual for more than 40 years — as much a part of their Thanksgiving Day celebration as their sister’s cooked turkey.

“The only years I missed were when I was in the service. And then if I was on leave, I would come then,” said Bill Downs, 68, of Gorham.

They say the final score — Deering beat Portland, 33-0 — doesn’t really matter; it’s more about coming together as Portland fans, even if the enthusiasm from 50 years ago has waned.

“When we used to come as kids, the stadium would be filled to capacity. It was standing-room only. You don’t see it today,” said Richard Downs, from Portland High’s Class of ’64, as he looked around at bleachers that had plenty of empty seats.

While fans spilled out along the lawn and walkways at the stadium, both sets of stands were far from full.

“We used to sneak in over the fence in that corner, before the highway went in. The cops would chase us from there,” said Bob Downs, Class of ’63, pointing toward Interstate 295.

“Those were fun days,” added older brother Bill Downs, Class of ’61.

Despite smaller crowds, the same spirited fun and feisty behavior seemed to spread throughout the stadium Thursday, whether fans were there for the first time, like 14-year-old Deering freshman Trey Adell, or the 40th, as it was for Matt Flaherty Sr.

Hugh Hodgkins of Concord, N.H., who played quarterback in 1948, ’49 and ’50, came to cheer on Deering for the first time in 20 years. He was glad to share in the tradition, even if it was different than he recalled.

“One year it was pouring rain. One year the field was frozen. Back then, there would be 5,000 packed in here. I was told by the school this one game would pay for all the other sports at Deering,” said Hodgkins, 80.

And Keith Hamilton of Annapolis, Md., caught the spirit, too. He drove 12 hours with his wife and two daughters to be at the 100th anniversary game. When he ran into teammate Mike Leary of Gorham, it was just like old times.

Leary, from Deering’s Class of ’86, and Hamilton, Class of ’85, said the crowds did used to be bigger, even 25 years ago, but the joy in the gathering is still very much the same.

“It’s ebbed and flowed,” said Leary. “When we played, it seems there was a lot more support. But it goes in cycles. I think we’ll see it again.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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