The Mansfield (Mass.)
football team is 5-5, its playoff dreams are kaput and a deep freeze has hit the region. Snow is everywhere.
And yet, there isn't a brighter, warmer or busier day in the football life of 27-year Mansfield coach Michael Redding.
It's Turkey Day football in Massachusetts, and nothing beats it.
The only thing Redding, his Hornets or fellow Mansfield residents want is to beat the stuffing from the Warriors from Foxborough (Mass.)
, their Thanksgiving Day rivals for 87 years.
"It's a day, game and event like no other win or lose," Redding said. "But the turkey tastes a little better if you win."
Unlike all other states, Thanksgiving Day football in Massachusetts is the pinnacle, not just a quirky tradition. Redding estimates only about a dozen of the 300 teams in the state will not play on the last Thursday of November.
And almost all partake in a rivalry game crammed and baked and boiled with all the trimmings.
"Every once in a while the game will decide a conference title, but mostly it's for pride and bragging rights in the respective communities," Redding said. "The players, the parents, the younger siblings, the alumni all played youth football and basketball against each other.
"It's a giant athletic and social event in one. Everyone from both communities show up. It's the centerpiece. It's the only show in town."
A typical home Mansfield game draws 2,000 fans, Redding said. A big game, maybe 4,000. Today, they're expecting between 7,000-8,000 and it's like that every year.
"Half of those fans will be watching the game," Redding said. "Half will be socializing, catching up with old teammates and classmates. The younger Pop Warner kids will be champing at the bit, wishing they were older to be playing. The old guys will be wishing they were younger and could still play in the game. That, or it's a time to relive their glory days."
Like Thanksgiving feasts themselves, there was loads of preparation and rituals.
On Wednesday, there was a pizza party that featured a video of great games and players from the last 30 Mansfield-Foxborough games. There was a powder puff game too. Last Saturday, the JV and freshmen teams played.
And beyond the game itself, it's also Senior Day where seniors are introduced with their parents, adding an extra layer of sentiment, emotion and tradition.
"There's a ton of history all wrapped into one event," Redding said. "And it's not just here. It's everywhere throughout the state. It's pretty special."
So special, when the state changed its playoff system two years ago, Turkey Day games were preserved and very much considered.
The prior convoluted format crowned 19 regional champions which would require finalist to play a absurd three games in nine days – a Turkey Day game, a regional semifinal final the following Tuesday finished off with a championship games the Saturday after that.
The state now crowns six state Super Bowl champions with Turkey Day games serving as scrimmages before having nine days off. It does present some effort issues on Thanksgiving for the 12 finalist.
Last season, Mansfield had clinched a spot in the finals but lost their best receiver Brendan Hill
to a torn ACL on Thanksgiving. Mansfield went on to win the Division II title 28-14 over St. John but it was "heartbreaking for Brendan not to be able to play."
Neither Mansfield nor Foxborough will be in that "should we hold back?" position today. It's full speed ahead.
Thanks to Turkey Day football, almost half of the teams in Massachusetts will finish the season with a victory.
And we all know how good that tastes, er, feels.