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Remembering 123 years of football and fans
By Paul Harber, Globe Staff, November 17, 2005

WELLESLEY -- It began in this town 123 years ago. Wellesley High School's Arthur Judson Oldman challenged his Needham counterparts to a friendly game of football.

The contest was scheduled for Thanksgiving morning.

Wellesley High School provided the football ($3.50 new from H. Harwood & Sons baseball factory in Natick) and the Needham players rode their bicycles to Morton Field for the game.

Thus began the oldest rivalry in the nation -- and America's love affair with Thanksgiving Day football.

Oldman and his companions played a game that hardly resembles what is played these days. What has lasted through the generations is the passion to excel.

In the early days, there were more fights than field goals. Historical societies of both towns offer illuminating yarns.

According to documents from the Wellesley Historical Society, many of those 19th-century contests were informal. There was no Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association to monitor eligibility, and it did not take long for heated rivalry to overtake good-willed sportsmanship.

The 1887 contest, for instance, was declared a scoreless tie because spectators rushed the field and brought down runners headed toward the end zone. Hard to believe, but it was legal.

The following year, Wellesley withdrew from the field in protest because Needham was using a lineup that included college and semiprofessional players, including one who was the father of a Needham student.

According to the Needham Historical Society, ringers continued to be a problem through the turn of the century. Out-of-town athletes were hired to represent both towns.

These ringers could have been used because there was simply a shortage of schoolboys. The Needham Town Report for 1902 states that there were only 33 boys enrolled in the four grades of high school.

In 1904, however, the Needham High School Athletic Association was formed and a team consisting exclusively of high school students played a football schedule.

Ironically, the schedule did not include Wellesley. Needham played Natick on Thanksgiving morning that year. The following year, Wellesley once again played Needham on Thanksgiving, and the game eventually matured into what it is now -- a ritual for so many from both towns.

It doesn't matter whether league titles and Super Bowl berths are at stake. It is The Game for both teams and begins long before kickoff with a series of rituals, such as the captains and coaches of both teams attending a Rotary luncheon the Tuesday before the game.

Wellesley athletic director Andy Levin, who served as head coach for 18 years, will always look back to the 2001 game as a special moment for him. ''We were huge underdogs, and it was my last game as coach, and we managed to win it," he said.

Levin said he also misses his own pregame ritual, which he nurtured when he was the coach. He would invite all of the school's coaches and his former players to his home for a party the night before the game.

His most memorable Thanksgiving Day was when a game was not played. ''It was 1991. Some kids from Needham wanted to play a prank, much like the students from MIT did at the Harvard-Yale football game years ago." The MIT students had planted a balloon underneath the field at Harvard Stadium and remotely launched it during the game. The Needham youngsters planned to have a rocket (Needham's nickname is the Rockets) blast off from a makeshift underground silo on the field during the game.

''But when the custodians got to the field and once they saw all the wires," Levin said, ''they knew something was amiss. They called the State Police bomb squad to handle it. We had to play the game the following Saturday."

''It's strange. It's really become a friendly rivalry," said Needham football coach Dave Duffy. ''There is no hate. It's not like Millis-Medway where they try to paint each other's goal posts with their school colors."

In fact, Duffy is a friend of the Wellesley coach, Bill Tracey. ''We live in the same town, and our sons are teammates on the Walpole Pop Warner football team," Duffy said.

Duffy has a special connection to the game. He played in the centennial game in 1982. His father, Jack Duffy, played for Needham in the 1951 game. His maternal grandfather, Frank Godfrey, played for Needham, circa 1915.

''When they put together the game program for the centennial game, they used a picture of my grandfather in the program," Duffy said.

He remembers that centennial game. ''We had had a great team that year. But like that old cliche, in this game you can throw out all the records. They don't mean a thing. I don't think I was ever more nervous on a football field than that game. We were lucky and we won."

And another generation could be represented in the traditional game. Duffy's younger brother, Mike, who also played for the Rockets, still lives in Needham. ''And he has two boys, Michael and Brett," Duffy said. ''In a couple of years, we could have four generations from our family to play in the game."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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