"If it was up to me, speaking strictly as a coach, I'd call off Turkey Day and pick up the tradition again next year," said Cliff Ice, the Webster coach, a blond, square-jawed man who has something of the hard edge suggested by his name. "But you can't. The annual game has a life of its own in these two communities. Everybody around here looks forward to it all year long."
The superintendent of Kirkwood's school district was on the phone Saturday night, pleading with his Webster counterparts to do something. The same dilemma had arisen twice before. When the Statesmen qualified for the state championship in 1979, they played both the Turkey Day game and the final two days later, and won both. But in the same situation in '88, Turkey Day was called off. The Statesmen won the state championship that year, too, but the communities of Webster Groves and Kirkwood were outraged and unforgiving. "It was the most depressing week I can remember in all my years at this school," says Holley, a boisterous cheerleader of a principal. "In both of these towns, the whole week was like a funeral."
There are places in America where football is taken more seriously, and there are Thanksgiving Day high school football rivalries that are older than the 96-year-old series between Webster Groves and Kirkwood (box, page 82), but nowhere is the tradition so ingrained in the lives of generations of two communities, and nowhere is it more redolent of America's all-but-extinct small-town culture. Turkey Day has featured the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of players who battled for the black-and-orange-togged Statesmen or the red-and-white Pioneers. The local radio station, KFNS, sells tens of thousands of dollars in advertising for its broadcast of the event. Shops and restaurants cater to the football crowds and the hundreds of family reunions the game prompts every year. The friendly rivalry shapes relationships among the two towns' residents all year round, and not just among the teenagers. Turkey Day is the cornerstone of the two communities' identities.
"We had protests right and left," says former Webster coach Jack Jones, referring to the cancellation of Turkey Day in 1988. "I was summoned to a meeting with the principals and the superintendents. They told me that if Webster was ever in such a position again, there would be a Turkey Day game, even if we had to play our cheerleaders against theirs." Maintaining tradition, it seems, doesn't mean just dancing the same steps year after year. It sometimes demands, of all things, a willingness to change.
So on the afternoon of Nov. 24, the day after Webster's state semifinal victory, officials of both schools plotted a solution. The Turkey Day game would go on, but it would be played by freshmen and sophomores from both schools. DJ Jackson, Jim McLean and the other Webster jayvees got only half of the story from the teenage drums. They would learn the next day, to their relief, that they would play against Kirkwood's hastily reassembled jayvee, whose season had ended three weeks earlier. Webster's varsity could concentrate on its state championship game, and the annual rivalry would continue.
The Turkey Day game would be smaller and less polished, played on raw talent and emotion. "That's what it will have to be," said Kirkwood coach Mike Wade. "We sure don't have time to teach them anything." The decision would gladden the hearts of about 70 surprised 14-, 15-and 16-year-olds in both towns, most of whom had grown up dreaming of playing someday in the Game, and it would satisfy the communities' appetite for Thanksgiving ceremony and hoopla—the annual breakfasts, luncheons, banquets, pep rallies, bonfires and other game-related events. The only losers would be... Kirkwood's varsity.
The Pioneers hadn't had as good a season in Class 6A as Webster had in Class 5A. ( Webster Groves High is slightly smaller than Kirkwood High.) When the Pioneers were eliminated in the first round of the state tournament, the loss was easier to take because they still had their biggest game ahead. If they could beat Webster on Turkey Day, local bragging rights would be theirs. In these communities, victory or defeat on Turkey Day lasts a lifetime. At the annual breakfast the morning of the game, alumni are invited back to break bread with the young men about to do battle for the Frisco Bell, the big brass symbol of Turkey Day victory that goes to the winner until the next year's contest. The elders stand up one by one, call out their years and announce, "We took the Bell" or "We lost the Bell." For Kirkwood's seniors, who lost the Bell in 2001, this year's game was one final chance for vindication. And just like that, it was gone.
The Pioneers took it hard. Big Joe Mopkins, a junior lineman, was angry. "Websters are all cowards," he said. "How much would it take out of them to play one half, or one quarter? Then they could put in their subs." What made it harder for this suddenly sidelined varsity was that Turkey Day week was proceeding with all its usual gusto, but without them. They had become ghosts at their own party. The hallways of Kirkwood's sprawling orange-brick campus were alive with excitement, the profusely decorated hallways and classrooms filled with students, many with color-coordinated faces and hair in addition to their red-and-white clothes, buttons, ribbons and hats. The Kirkwood pep rally on Tuesday shook the school as the cheerleaders unveiled elaborate new routines and students performed skits poking fun at their teachers and, of course, at Webster Groves. Meanwhile, Kirkwood's football coaches were scrambling to match helmets and pads with freshmen and sophomores who had finished their seasons three weeks earlier. They collared recruits in the halls.
One of them was John Lothman, a 6'5" sophomore who was already into his basketball season. He got permission from his coaches to take a week off and resume football practice. "I always pictured myself playing in this game someday," he said with the grin of someone who has been given a great unexpected gift. "Looks like it's going to be the day after tomorrow."
John would be the fourth generation of his family to play in the Turkey Day game. His father, Carl, played for Kirkwood in 1971. His grandfather William played for Webster Groves in the 1930s, and his great-grandfather Richard Kremer played for Webster two decades before that.