For Ryan Conway, head football coach at The English High School in Boston, there are three football seasons. First, there’s the regular season, followed by the playoffs. Then, every Thanksgiving, there’s a special, one-day season when the English Eagles face their biggest rivals, the Boston Latin School Wolfpack. That game means more to Conway than almost anything, even state titles.
“And that’s probably the most important to the community at-large, well, to The English High School community," he said. "I would rather beat Latin than win a Super Bowl."
The two schools that only enrolled boys until 1972 have been meeting on the gridiron every year since 1887. They’ve played in three different centuries, through 23 U.S. presidents, two world wars and a Cold War. Even in 1918, as the world was battling an influenza pandemic but celebrating the end of the Great War, 3,500 watched Latin beat English, 28-0, at Fenway Park in moderate weather. The next day, the Boston Globe reported the score on its front page.
As movies turned to talkies and TV turned to TikTok, the game has carried on. It’s the longest running continuous high school rivalry in the country, undeterred by the slow, creeping hands of time.
That is, until 2020. This year, the win-loss column will be blank as the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped high school football off the fall calendar in Massachusetts. For everyone connected with both schools, the loss is bigger than just a game.
“I think [the game is] a unifier between students of the present day and any graduate who's ever gone through the school at any moment in time," said Rachel Skeritt, head of school at Latin and a 1995 graduate. "So any living graduate has this memory as a seminal tradition.”
Back in her day, Skerritt was a member of the pep squad and remembers even then being impressed by the energy around the game and the droves of alums who would show up.
“When you meet a member of a class from several, several decades ago, this is the often the thing that we refer to and are able to quickly make that connection," she said. "And that means something.”
To Ray Butler, Latin’s head coach, it’s strange to have to skip the annual matchup, which his school leads 82-38-13.
"You know when you do anything that many times in a row, right, it’s gonna obviously have some major significance to a lot of people," he said. “You look at some of the other rivalries that are close to ours in meetings, but they have had gaps in them, they’ve stopped. We’ve never stopped playing this game.”
Butler compares Latin-English to other classic contests like Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale, where one game between old opponents can make or break a whole year.
Like Ahab hunting his white whale, the coach gives a particular focus to the Eagles. He'll sign off emails with a simple mantra: Beat English.
For Roy Thompson, Latin’s quarterback, the intensity is close to Yankees-Red Sox. “I wouldn’t say we hate each other, but we are passionate, and we really want to win to represent our school," he said.
Thompson was looking forward to starting in the game at QB for the first time this year and being part of another chapter in the game’s history.
“There’s more disappointment more than anything else… in not having that same energy in that tradition of 133 consecutive years of playing," he said.
Ricardo "RJ" Santos attends New Mission High School but plays offensive tackle for English through a co-op between the schools. He wanted to go out in his last year of high school with a win against Latin.
The game was a centerpiece of his last two Thanksgivings.
“This year, it’s gonna be different," Santos said. "It’s like, there’s gonna be no football, I haven’t had football this whole year, so it’s like I’m really anxious to play football. I’m mad that we’re not able to play this game.”
Skerritt said she feels for all the students who are missing out on the traditions around the game, like the half-day before when Latin holds a spirit day to hype the campus and take a rare break from academics.
"It is tough that these small moments are just coming up on the calendar and getting removed from the calendar with some continuity," she said. "And not necessarily knowing when those moments are gonna stop."
But there’s still hope. Both sides agree they want to try to schedule a game in the spring, when the MIAA has tentatively slotted a makeup season for football. Jack Owens, Latin’s athletic director, says the players are ready.
“When somebody gives the okay, they’ll play this game," he said. "Hell, they’ll play in a parking lot, anywhere.”
Over at English, coach Ryan Conway is willing to do whatever is necessary to make it happen. It's pained him that his players, particularly his seniors, haven't been able to showcase what they've built up to this season.
"I'd play 'em anywhere, it doesn't even matter to be honest with you," he said. "I'd play 'em even at the conclusion of the season, just to play 'em."
Latin quarterback Roy Thompson is all in on the idea.
“But I definitely think that we would, both schools, jump at the idea to play each other," he said. "Just to get it in. Just because it’s a tradition, you know?”
Even if it’s not on a holiday as usual, Ricardo "RJ" Santos is game, too.
“I would love it. The day of it being on Thanksgiving, I mean, yeah, that’s cool," he said. "But as long as I get to play Latin, I’m fine.”
The field at Harvard Stadium, where Latin and English have met in recent years, will be empty this Thanksgiving. But wherever and whenever the Eagles and Wolfpack meet again, for both sides it will feel like its own holiday.