By Mitch Stephens
SAN FRANCISCO - It's been played every year for 83 seasons.
They play it in a stadium where NFL players used to compete.
The winner claims a championship.
That is what separates San Francisco Section's Turkey Day Game from other high school football games played on Thanksgiving.
And what distinguishes today's 11 a.m. (PDT) 84th annual Turkey Day Game at Kezar Stadium from the other 83 is that perhaps the finest running back to ever play in the contest is playing his final prep game.
Lincoln senior David Henderson, along with O.J. Simpson (Galileo), Ollie Mattson (Washington) and Calvin Jones Jr. (Balboa), are considered the best runners to grace a San Francisco Section/Academic Athletic Association field.
Future Hall of Famers Simpson and Mattson never played in the game because their teams didn't qualify.
Jones Jr., who later starred at the University of Washington and Denver Broncos on defense, led Balboa to two straight Turkey Day Game wins starting in 1967.
But the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Henderson not only has the most career yards in San Francisco Section history (5,337 yards on 567 carries and 64 touchdowns), but today against Washington, he'll attempt to lead Lincoln to a third straight Turkey Day Game championship, a feat accomplished by only three other schools, the last being Galileo from 1988 to 1990.
"That's the thing I'm most proud of," Henderson said. "Winning championships is everything. If we can win three straight . I can't even describe how that will feel."
As far as being mentioned with the likes of Simpson and Mattson, Henderson said: "That's great, it really is. But my name doesn't do the running, my heart does."
It doesn't hurt to have ridiculous speed either.
Henderson ran a 10.60 100-meter dash last spring for the track team in a sport he rarely trains.
But he's not just a burner.
"He makes moves you can't even describe," Lincoln coach Phil Ferrigno said. "His shoulders go one way and his hips somehow go another. He's like a home run hitter."
In a terrific comparison story by The San Francisco Chronicle's Will McCulloch this week, Mattson starred in San Francisco's golden era and went on to earn All-American honors at USF and NFL greatness while Simpson's fame came after high school.
Jones Jr. seems like the best comparison.
One who has seen them both compete, 1971 Balboa graduate Kevin Hicks, told The Chronicle: "Calvin was more of a juking and dancing runner, who would leave defenders tackling air. Henderson is more of a slasher, reading his blocks, spotting an opening and just exploding through a hole. Both runners, when out front, were not going to be caught."
All Henderson cares about is how he fares against Washington today.
He did it all for Lincoln in a 28-26 win over the Eagles on Oct. 26, the 63rd playing of the Bell Game. Henderson returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, then rushed for 202 yards and three more scores as Lincoln prevailed despite being outgained 459-217.
Its doubtful first-year Washington coach Karl Finley, called the AAA's "Coach of the Year" by Ferrigno, will kick to Henderson this time.
But Ferrigno promises the Mustangs (8-3) will have much more to contend with offensively than Henderson.
"We'll need to that's for sure," Ferrigno said. "But I have a good feeling about this group."
He has a good/bad feeling about the Eagles as well.
Good as in Washington (7-3) is just that. Bad as in, "we have our work cut out. They have a passer who can really pass. A runner who can really run. And a receiver who can really catch."
The passer is Derf Butler, a tall, athletic senior who completed 14 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns against Lincoln in the first game.
Three of those TDs went to 6-2 senior Anthony Marshall, who along with twin Anthony, are distant nephews of all people, Mattson.
Add in bullish and elusive Maurice Barton, who last week rushed for 179 yards and two scores in a 34-16 win over Lowell, and Division I-A tight end prospect Solomon Walker, and the Eagles might just out-man Lincoln.
"We've played in a lot of big games over the years," Henderson said. "That can only help."
Guys like Henderson, 6-2, 312-pound two-way lineman Marquice Lewis and safety Mike Paolucci will be playing in their third Turkey Day Game, which should draw around 3,000 fans.
"There's nothing like it," Lewis said. "Thanksgiving Day can never be as good as this. This is what we point to all off-season through all the tough workouts, all the weight training. This is the best."
San Francisco Section commissioner Don Collins agrees. He called the Turkey Day Game the section's highlight of the year that brings more AAA fans to one event than any other.
And while most games on Thanksgiving pit traditional rivals, the fact a section champion is crowned makes it even more special.
But what gives the game ultimate richness, like stuffing and gravy, is the history.
"It crosses generations," Collins said. "It links the past and present and helps us forge together for a very bright future."
Paolucci has shined extremely bright on Thanksgiving.
As a sophomore, he spelled injured starter Adam Au and blocked the potential game-tying extra point with remaining in a 21-20 win over Balboa.
Last year, he recorded a last-minute interception to secure a 29-22 victory over Lowell. He had two second-half interceptions to secure the win over Washington last month.
"He's a big-play guy," Ferrigno said. "He's proven it time and time again."
Lincoln, the round-robin champion after its seventh TDG title, has some less proven players who are stepping up as well.
Last week, juniors Ricky Ohlssen (a 6-3, 248-pound lineman), 5-11, 181-pound linebacker Deshon Marman, and 5-8, 163-pound cornerback Shawn Meneses keyed the team's 20-0 semifinal home win over Mission.
It was Lincoln's first shutout of the season.
Another junior is 5-9, 190-pound quarterback Ronnie Marania, a second-year starter, who fired a 24-yard TD pass to tight end Ramiro Raygosa last week. Marania will likely need a big game today to balance the Lincoln attack.
"We have a lot of good juniors so the cubbard won't be completely dry when (Henderson) graduates," Ferrigno said.
But it sure will be missing something tasty and nutritious.
Last year, Henderson saved Lincoln's cookies by rushing for 196 yards and two touchdowns in a game it held the ball only compared to 36:36 for Lowell.
His spinning, dancing, sprinting 47-yard TD run with wiped out a 22-21 deficit and gave the Mustangs the lead for good. He also had a 49-yard touchdown run and added two two-point conversions.
"It takes no rocket scientist to figure out what to do," Ferrigno said at the time. "Give it to 24 (Henderson's number) and get out of the way."
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org. See a game report from Stephens later today.
SF SECTION - TURKEY DAY GAME
Galileo 15, Poly 15, Lowell 14, Balboa 9, Washington 8, St. Ignatius 6, Lincoln 6, Mission 5, McAteer 3, Commerce 1, Wilson 1
1966: St. Ignatius
1963: St. Ignatius
1962: St. Ignatius
1958: St. Ignatius
1956: St. Ignatius
1945: St. Ignatius