Last year’s Portland-Deering Thanksgiving football game was played on Wednesday to avoid bitter cold temperatures on Thanksgiving Day. But the players couldn’t escape the snow. Portland won 45-0 and leads the holiday series 59-41-7. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For the players, the Portland-Deering Thanksgiving football game still has relevance.

“It’s the tradition thing that drives all of these kids,” said Grant Crosby, Portland High’s sophomore quarterback. “For some of them that aren’t going to play college football, this is like the game of their life. It’s the big time. It’s almost as big as the state game.”

The Thanksgiving game started in 1911 and has been played every year since except 1920 when a combination of rain, snow and freezing weather made the field unplayable.

The game has been an exhibition since 1967, and attendance has plunged since the series’ heyday. But that doesn’t lessen its meaning, said Deering senior captain Mike Randall

“I take the game as seriously as any regular-season or playoff game. It means that much, regardless of whether it counts or not in the standings,” Randall said.

The 108th edition of the game returns to its normal Thanksgiving morning time slot, with kickoff at Fitzpatrick Stadium set for 10:30 a.m. Tickets cost $5 for adults, $2 for students, seniors and military personnel and are available at the gate.

Portland won last year’s game, 45-0. That game was played on Wednesday to avoid bitter cold on Thanksgiving. It was the third time in four seasons Portland came into the game with just four days off after losing a Class A final, while Deering had a long break since its final game.

This year, both teams have had significant time off.

Portland (1-7) did not make the playoffs in its first season in Class B South. Its last game was a 31-26 loss at home to Massabesic on Oct. 25.

“I can tell you despite our season ending without a playoff berth, the kids have taken it very seriously and our attendance and dedication has been tremendous,” said Portland Coach Jason McLeod.

Deering (2-7) last played on Nov. 1 when it lost a Class B South quarterfinal at Kennebunk, 49-0.

“This is a great opportunity for us to play one final game, with our big senior class, and to play to our potential, and for the younger kids to get out there and to start building toward our future,” said Deering Coach Rob Susi.

Portland holds an all-time advantage of 59-41-7. Deering won in 2017, 22-20, to snap a four-game losing streak in this series.

Keegan Stanton of Deering High finds an opening for a touchdown run during the 2017 Portland-Deering Thanksgiving game. Deering won, 22-20. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Randall said Deering’s 2017 win was “one of the best football games I think I’ve ever played in,” and he expects this year’s contest to be another close game.

“Any time it’s a competitive game, obviously it’s better,” he said. “The crowds get into it, the sidelines get into it. A fourth-quarter rivalry game that’s close, there’s nothing else like that.”

Portland junior wide receiver/safety Joseph Pike remembers how the 2017 loss hurt. He was a freshman and it was brother Joshua’s final game.

“That was a heartbreaker for him,” Joseph Pike said. Because Portland struggled this season, “it makes it that much more important, especially for our seniors, to get them off with a win,” he said.

Family connections are an important part of the Portland-Deering game. Crosby said his dad and two uncles were former Portland players.

Deering’s Soule brothers, senior Travis and sophomore Hilton, are third-generation Rams.

“It has a lot of meaning,” Hilton Soule said. “Just how long it’s been going on and for the kids that still take pride in going to Deering, and going to Portland, and wanting to play each other.”

In 1959 an estimated 13,000 fans attended the game, which that year determined the state championship in the pre-playoff era. As recently as 2003, crowds of 5,000 and more were routine.

But in 2015, only about 500 fans showed up. Ticket sales did not meet expenses that year.

Even as attendance improved slightly in 2016 (about 1,000) and 2017 (1,300) there was concern entering the 2018 game that the tradition was rapidly nearing its conclusion.

“There was a lot of talk last year about not having this game and this year I haven’t heard any of that,” Susi said. “It’s a much better feel this year.”

Susi and McLeod said they hope the game can be a vehicle for promoting football participation at both the youth and high school levels.

Crosby, the Portland quarterback, agreed.

“If you see both (teams) go out and battle it out and have a great football game, it carries on to the next generations,” he said. “It makes them want to join high school football and feel that adrenaline rush that you get from football, especially in a rivalry, traditional game.”


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