The Deering and Portland high football teams take part in 2019 Thanksgiving Day game. The holiday series between the two schools started in 1911. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

For just the second time in its 110-year history, the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Deering and Portland high schools will not be played this year, another athletic event shelved by the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no drama or surprise about this year’s game being canceled. Because of the pandemic, high schools in Maine did not play tackle football this fall.

The question is whether the holiday tradition, hurt by sagging attendance for at least a decade, should continue in the future.

The teams’ head coaches, along with Portland Athletic Director Lance Johnson, both made it clear they will do what they can to see that the Thanksgiving game, an exhibition contest since 1967, returns in 2021.

“I would love to see it come back,” said Deering Coach John Hardy, a 2011 Deering graduate. “I just think it’s a great opportunity for the community to come together and after the year we’ve had, I think we need things like that now more than ever.”

“The prestige and history of the game is just too strong to not think about doing it again in 2021,” said Portland Coach Jason McLeod.

Johnson, in his first year as Portland’s AD, has a personal connection to the game. He is a Portland grad.

“I played in four of them and coached in 21 of them (as a Portland assistant coach),” Johnson said. “It’s something I grew up watching and something that’s a great tradition and something that I hope continues.”

Deering Athletic Director Michael Daly did not return a message seeking an interview for this story. Hardy said, “I know our AD Michael Daly is in favor of (continuing the Thanksgiving game).”

Johnson said the fate of the holiday series has not been formally discussed, in large part because playing it this year was a moot point and schools are struggling with much larger, pandemic-caused issues.

“Hopefully by this time next year we’ll be back into more normalcy and we can play it and I’ll promote the heck out of it,” Johnson said.

The game has been played 108 times, with Portland holding a 59-42-7 advantage. It is the only existing Thanksgiving game in Maine. The only other time the game was not played was in 1920, when a combination of rain, snow and freezing weather made the field unplayable.

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 by 2018 that the tradition was rapidly nearing its conclusion.

“I agree, especially in 2018, there was a lot of discussion about even having it that year and a lot was weather related,” said McLeod, who was an assistant at Portland High that season.

Originally intended to be played at Deering’s Memorial Field, the 2018 game was shifted to Wednesday to avoid predicted bitter cold weather. It was also moved back to Fitzpatrick Stadium when it was determined the new Memorial Field artificial surface couldn’t be cleared of snow.

In 2019, McLeod said he and Rob Susi, then Deering’s head coach, “made it clear we wanted it to work and to get some more momentum and get it back to where it was and I certainly felt that wouldn’t have changed with Coach Hardy coming in. If we had the opportunity, we would make it work.”

Hardy was an assistant at Deering for four seasons before being hired in early March to replace Susi, becoming Deering’s sixth head coach since 2012.

After playing in three Thanksgiving Day games for the Rams from 2008-10, Hardy made a point to come to the 100th game in 2011.

“It seems like when we hit the 100th game, they made a big deal out of it and it was great and then every year since then it was a little less important,” Hardy said.

He believes part of the issue has been that the some of the previous administrators at the schools didn’t have a personal connection to the game. He also noted that “Deering’s revolving door of coaches didn’t help.

“It seemed with some of the athletic directors we had in years past and some coaches, it seemed like it was more of a hassle, instead of emphasizing playing your rival in front of your community on Thanksgiving.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.