Thursday’s edition of the annual Thanksgiving football game between Deering and Portland high schools could mark the end of a tradition dating to 1911.

Officials from both schools plan to discuss whether it is viable to continue the Thanksgiving game, which will be played for the 105th time Thursday. Attendance has dropped dramatically over the past decade.

“I go around and tell people that this might be the last Thanksgiving game,” Portland coach Jim Hartman said. “Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ My next question is, ‘Are you going to the game?’ and they all say, ‘No.’ ”

Big crowds used to be the norm, with attendance estimated at 5,000 and 6,000, respectively, for the 2002 and 2003 Thanksgiving games at Fitzpatrick Stadium. The 1959 game that determined the state championship reportedly drew 13,000. Last year’s game drew about 500 fans.

Proceeds from the game help support athletic programs at both schools, but the event has operated at a loss for several years.



“It’s time to review and reflect. We’re just in the beginning steps now,” said Melanie Craig, Deering High’s athletic director. “We will get through Thursday’s game and then it’s time to form a review-and-reflect committee.”

Craig said the discussion needs to involve a variety of “stakeholders,” including coaches, players, former players and fans. She said the game’s future should not be determined solely by herself and Portland athletic director Rob O’Leary.

Players say the Thanksgiving rivalry is worth continuing.

“It’s an important game,” said Portland senior lineman Nick Giaquinto. “It’s a part of Portland High School history, it’s a part of Deering history, it’s a part of Portland as a city.”

“There is value. It’s bragging rights. It’s a tradition,” said Deering junior center and linebacker Blaize Vail. “It’s been going on for 105 years.”

Portland High center Dylan Wike (8), who lined up with his teammates last year, says his father and grandfather played in Thanksgiving Day games. "For me it's such a big deal to carry on the Wike tradition," he said.

Portland High center Dylan Wike (8), who lined up with his teammates last year, says his father and grandfather played in Thanksgiving Day games. “For me it’s such a big deal to carry on the Wike tradition,” he said. File photo/Gordon Chibroski

The series has been played annually with the exception of 1920, when a combination of rain, snow and freezing weather made the field unplayable. It has been an exhibition game since 1967.


Kickoff on Thursday is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Tickets cost $5 for adults and $2 for students, seniors and military personnel.

Portland (9-2) is coming off a 34-14 loss to Bonny Eagle in Saturday’s Class A state championship game. Deering (3-6) has not played for 25 days since losing to Sanford on Oct. 29 in the first round of the Class A North regional.

“To ask a team to sit around for almost four weeks is unfair,” O’Leary said. “Deering hasn’t had a meaningful game and probably not very many meaningful practices because kids are getting ready for their winter sports.

“Portland just played a state championship game and is being asked to come back after four days’ rest, and they don’t do that at any other time of the year. I understand the history and meaning of the game between the two schools, but I definitely think it’s time to put a committee together and look at it.”

Both athletic directors said they are worried that players could be at greater risk of injury because of having either too little or too much time off since their most recent game. Small roster sizes also are a concern. Deering expects to suit up 25-30 players Thursday.

And practices for the winter sports season began Monday.


“Let’s be honest, my basketball player is playing hoops,” Craig said. “Honestly, most of my team has already moved on to their winter sport.”

These are not new issues, said Mike Bailey, head coach at Portland from 1986-2011. He said his average roster size was in the mid-40s. Players also had extended time off when his teams struggled, and just a few days to prepare when Portland won the 2002 championship.


Student enrollment has decreased by 27 percent at Portland High and 28 percent at Deering since 2006-07. Portland has 780 students this fall and Deering has 897.

“I came in as a teacher with the Class of 1967 and they had over 700 kids in their (senior) class, and that’s about what we have at (all grades of) Portland High School now,” said Peter Gribbin, a retired history teacher and unofficial Portland High athletic historian and public address announcer. “You don’t have the same size student body that you used to have.”

O’Leary estimated that the 2015 game, when Portland was the host school, had a gate of less than $2,500. The revenue did not cover expenses for two police officers, other security, an ambulance crew, city workers to handle parking and ticket gates, and the stadium field crew.


“We play the game for people to watch it, and if they’re not coming to watch it, why are we playing the game?” O’Leary asked.

The Portland-Deering “Turkey Game” is the only one played on Thanksgiving in Maine.

“It’s a great tradition,” Gribbin said. “It isn’t what it used to be, but it is still a good tradition.”

“I take it very personally because my dad and his grandfather played in this game,” said Portland senior center Dylan Wike. “For me it’s such a big deal to carry on the Wike tradition of playing in the Thanksgiving Day game.”

Portland leads the series 57-40-7. The 1959 game served as the de facto state championship in the pre-playoff era, with Deering coming from behind to win the game and the title. The 1971 game was played in blizzard conditions. The 2000 game was interrupted by a Deering student streaking across the field.

Many of the city’s greatest athletes have played in the game, including Baltimore Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty (a Deering quarterback), former Nebraska football player Willie Greenlaw (a Portland running back), minor league pitcher Ryan Reid (Deering grad) and former Boston College quarterback Quintin Porter (a Portland grad).



“Up until the early to mid-2000s the crowd was good,” said Tom Chard, a Deering High grad and retired Portland Press Herald sportswriter who has attended all but one game since 1958. “Even when the crowd was good, it was a big homecoming, a big reunion, for the kids who had just gone off to school and even the longtime graduates like myself. I think the advent of social media has really cut into that reunion feeling. Kids are now in constant contact with everyone.”

Bailey participated in 34 Thanksgiving Day games, including three as a player for Deering and five as a Portland assistant coach.

After retiring as the Bulldogs’ head coach, he skipped the game until returning as a fan in 2015.

“The crowd was very small. I was kind of shocked by that,” he said. “I have mixed emotions. I’m a huge traditionalist. I’d hate to see the game go away, but from the athletic directors’ perspective, what they’ve experienced the past few years, I can see why they’re evaluating the value of the game.”


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