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Why we play on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving day traditions run deep. When most people think of turkey day, the first thing that comes to mind is family, usually followed by food, then friends and — of course, after indulging in overeating — sitting and watching football.

In the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, however, eating is the last thing on the menu, as the Berkshire Bowl — the annual battle between rivals Housatonic/Wamogo and Gilbert/Northwestern — is the main course, served up at 10 a.m. every Thanksgiving.

This year the Yellowjackets, who hold a 14-12 series advantage, host the Housatonic/Wamogo Mountaineers at Van Why field. When asked about playing on Thanksgiving, players who have played against both teams and for both teams and coaches weighed in on what this turkey day tradition means to them.

Bobby Arigoni (played for Pequot conference team Haddam-Killingworth; faced the Mountaineers and the Yellowjackets throughout his high school career): Playing on Thanksgiving was special because it was a chance to play in front of all the alumni from years past. Also, the teams’ records are going into the game are meaningless; you might as well throw them out. It’s the last game of the season and, for some, of their high school careers. The brotherhood that you have created with your teammates will stay with you forever.

Matt McElhone (junior on the Mountaineers): Playing on Thanksgiving is the most fun you have all year. It’s so much more than just a football game. All the intensity and emotion really shows and it’s just about who wants the “W” more. It’s so important not just because it’s the last game of your season; it’s also the last game you’ll ever play with your seniors, so you have to leave everything on the field for them.

Deron Bayer (Mountaineers head coach for the last five years): Playing on Thanksgiving day, the intensity, 3,000 to 5,000 fans, the crosstown rivalry, the electricity in the crowd. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s always felt like old-time football to me.

Phil LaBonte (Crosby High School All-state lineman; faced  Gilbert/Northwestern in scrimmages from 2005 to 2006): To me it was the coolest feeling in the world. The cold air, my whole family finally being able to watch and cheer me on. The stands packed, fans rooting and, especially when it snowed, it gave you the feeling of playing for the NFL if only for the 48 minutes. It’s really just indescribable.

Looking back, my junior year, it snowed and the field was covered with a foot of snow. The coach told the janitors not to plow the field off. He called us that morning at 6 a.m., told us, ‘If you want to play, you’ll come shovel off the field.’ Every single one of us was there, and we got it done 30 minutes later. We won that game 48-17, and felt like a million bucks after.”

Forrest Hayden (senior Mountaineer standout, class of 2012): I used to think playing on Thanksgiving was just another game. Not anymore! When you put that helmet on, it’s a totally different feeling. The atmosphere makes it feel like you’re going to war, from what my grandfather and others tell me. My hands sweat, I feel sick.

Thanksgiving is not just another game. It determines how you look at a season. We could go 0-9, but win on Thanksgiving and be the happiest kids in the world.

When you win the game, then get to go home and eat like an army coming home from battle. Tired and mangled! I’m a big guy and I love food, but there is no better tasting food than when you win on Thanksgiving. It’s life changing!

Doug Richardson (Mountaineers assistant coach/JV head coach): Lots of factors combine to make it a very special game. It’s the last game of the year, a very bittersweet day; it’s the second-biggest holiday of the year and you know your family and friends will be there watching you, and you have a celebration to look forward to afterward. And of course, it’s the Berkshire Bowl, where we hope to grind our rivals to dust and give thanks afterward.

Bobby Lippincott (Gilbert/Northwestern quarterback 2007 to 2010): The Berkshire Bowl is no normal game. The rivalry has so much history behind it that you don’t play for your current team, but your alumni as well.

No matter what the teams records are, it will be a close, hard-fought game, which means you have to elevate your play.

It is always a great atmosphere, whether the game is held at Housatonic or Gilbert. The fans really enjoy coming out to cheer on their teams, which makes the whole experience of playing on Thanksgiving that much better. The four Berkshire Bowls I was a part of are a memory that I will keep with me forever.

Tanner Brissett (Mountaineers all-time leading rusher, class of 2011): What makes that game so special is tradition and what every player on our team is fighting for. On bowl day, you aren’t just playing for that year, you’re playing for every guy who ever wore a Mountaineer jersey. There is a certain sense of pride that comes with playing on Thanksgiving, one that no other game measures up to.

Thomas Brissett is the statistician for the Housatonic Valley Regional High School/Wamogo Mountaineers.

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