Coach Wade rallied his startled new team for its first practice on Monday afternoon in the gym. "We're going to go with about five passing plays and five running plays," he told a reporter. "Ordinarily we'd go into a game with a book of about 85 plays, but a lot of these kids haven't ever played with each other. But you know what? We're going to win this game. I don't think it's as important to Webster as it is to us. They're going to be focused on the state championship game."
Behind Wade, his demoralized seniors were draped over chairs and sprawled on mats, watching the underclassmen do calisthenics. A few varsity players led their proxies in exercises, but most just looked stunned and angry. "It's horrible," said Holley. "I feel so bad for these varsity guys. Something important has been taken from them. But I think we made the best of a bad situation."
Two days later Webster's coach, Ice, was less compassionate. At a Lions Club lunch for his players and cheerleaders he said the sympathy for Kirkwood's varsity was excessive. "They started their season with the same opportunity you guys had," he told the players. "Bottom line? They didn't take care of business. You guys did."
Driving west on Interstate 44, away from the muddy Mississippi River and the giant silver Gateway Arch, you encounter the exits for Webster Groves about 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis. Webster Groves is a leafy, stately suburb centered around a quaint train station and a thriving business district. The same description pretty much applies to Kirkwood, about five miles farther west. It was named after a railroad engineer, and its historic train station is still used by Amtrak. Both towns were founded in the late 19th century as stops along the Pacific Railroad, and in their older, tonier sections they resemble the gilded suburbs on Philadelphia's Main Line, shaded by towering elms, oaks and maples, with grand houses that feature wraparound porches and the kind of rooflines and eaves that were dismissed as frilly by the more practical architects of postwar suburbia. Kirkwood, being slightly farther out, was hit harder by 1950s and '60s architecture, but it boasts 300 acres of open space and a spectacular Frank Lloyd Wright house. Webster Groves has 300 houses in the National Register of Historic Places.
What may be most remarkable about these two communities is their continuity. In the U.S. young people grow up and leave. Parents tend to move out of the old homestead when their children are gone, and every 20 years or so whole neighborhoods turn over. The very idea of the modern suburb is of something temporary. Most people today, returning to the blocks where they grew up, find familiar streets and houses with strangers in residence. Not in Webster Groves and Kirkwood. To a great extent, these two Missouri towns either keep or recapture their young, who raise their own children just down the street from their parents and send them off to their old schools to be taught, in many cases, by their old teachers.
Time hasn't left Webster Groves and Kirkwood untouched, but more than most modern suburbs they cling to an ideal of enduring community. An event such as Turkey Day symbolizes what has been lost by a society that so unquestioningly embraces motion and change: a sense of history and place, a sense of belonging, a communal memory, the idea of lasting values and accomplishment.
"Every year it is a reunion, not just of your old class, but of every class, of the whole town," says Andre Nelson, who quarterbacked the 1979 Webster Groves team to victory on Turkey Day and in the state championship game two days later. "When we won the semifinal game the Saturday before Thanksgiving, our coach started talking about skipping Turkey Day in order to get ready for the championship game. We all said, 'Skip Turkey Day? No way!' So we played both. We were young, and we didn't think anything of playing twice in three days. We ran up the score in the first half of the Turkey Day game and then put in the subs."
Nelson is a stockbroker in his early 40s. He grew up in Webster Groves's sizable African-American community and says he never felt anything but included in the town. Today he lives in Ballwin, a nearby suburb, but he attends the Turkey Day game every year and says he may move back to Webster Groves. "I'd like to send my kids to Webster Groves High School," he says.
Similar sentiments abound in Kirkwood. "If we took you to Kirkwood High, then to Webster High, you wouldn't know the difference," says Jones, the old Webster Groves football coach, who now does substitute teaching at Kirkwood. "You couldn't tell the kids apart, or their parents. Turkey Day is just your basic bragging-rights game. Around here, the words Turkey Day are a synonym for a big game or a big deal. If you say, "This is my Turkey Day,' people know exactly what you mean."
The fact that the event revolves around football doesn't trouble Webster principal Pat Voss, who brags about her school's female teams and rattles off all the rallies, contests, awards presentations and other activities the school organizes to involve students whose interests don't lean toward sports. "I've always had a great interest in student activities of all kinds, but the key at any school is to establish a positive culture," Voss says. "An event like this gives students a sense of ownership of the school. The event gives the students a spark of connection with each other and with the larger community, whether they are cheerleaders, band members, committee members or just fans."