Times Have Changed At Thanksgiving

Times Have Changed At Thanksgiving

November 28, 1997|by RUDY BEDNAR (A free-lance story for The Morning Call).

The season that comes to my mind today is 1962 when Thanksgiving Day games were still very much part of schoolboy football around here.

Oh! what a great moment in time, which disappeared shortly thereafter, never more to be enjoyed by future generations.

Nothing today can compare to the atmosphere, the aura and electricity surrounding those games. It was a time like no other for high school football, especially in the Panther Valley.

The weeklong tempo mounted steadily right up to the time Lansford would face neighboring Coaldale in the 41st renewal of their classic confrontation.

No it was not referred to as a rumble or anything nasty like that which is what it might be called today. It was tradition and a lot more historic than a season-ending game for both teams.

I'm not completely aware of what went on in the Morning Call's nine other Turkey Day game sites , but throughout the Panther Valley, it was special.

There were colorful banners displayed everywhere, car stickers, hats, buttons, sparklers, bon fires and rallies-reaching their peak with giant dinner pep programs on the eve of the game as both squads broke bread with their followers and alumni.

It was truely festival time. Coaldale staged its gala fete in the school's auditorium with the Tigers' 1948 team as guests. More than 250 Lansford faithful crammed the Lansford Amvets to celebrate.

Parades led by the respective school bands followed both dinner programs with special ceremonies outdoors in the downtown business districts.

The spirit carried onto game day as the fans, dolled up in all their Sunday best, including raccoon fur coats (men and women) poured into the stadium. Many proudly wore fresh flower corsages and boutonnieres.

A standing-room only crowd was on hand early in Coaldale stadium. It was a colorful and cheerful spectacle to be sure. Each year, this season-ending matchup was the scene of countless reunions, meeting old acquaintances-many home for the holiday and talking about old times.

I'm not sure which meant more to the folks: the game or all the fuss surrounding it. But, the kickoff brought all the attention onto the playing field.

Palmerton had already beaten its traditional rival by a 6-0 score in their 28th annual Turkey day tussle that morning on a frosty field across the Lehigh River at Victory Park in Slatington.

What a thriller. Billy Heydt fell on a blocked kick in the end zone in the third quarter for the only score. It was the Blue Bombers' 18th win in the series and concluded their 1962 campaign at a respectable 6-4 mark.

But, more was riding on the game that afternoon at the other end of the Carbon-Schuylkill county line as Lansford invaded Tigertown to renew their classic Turkey day clash.

The Tigers would be putting an all-winning record on the line against the 2-6-1 Panthers. But, records usually meant very little in this series. So many upsets were scored down through the years.

This time it was a case of Coaldale having everything to gain and Lansford, nothing to lose. How often has that scenario come up in sports?

Not since 1949 had Coaldale sent an unbeaten team against Lansford. The Tigers romped 33-6 that year to finish 9-0-1 but Coaldale fans had no such illusions this day.

Coach Geno Poli, a former CHS standout, culminating his second year at the helm of his alma mater, warned "this is the kind of Lansford team you got to watch."

Across the field, John Harkins, ending his first season as the Lansford skipper, said he was counting on the great enthusiasm of his team for this game.

Both were right on. But, this was to be the year of the Orange and Black. Coaldale had lost the last four decisions to the Panthers even though the Tigers held a 24-13-3 edge overall.

So the battle lines were drawn. Unexpectedly Lansford surprised the Tigers by coming out in a shotgun offense led by Don Fredericks. He scored on a seven-year carry for a 7-0 first quarter lead.

The inspired Panthers blocked three Coaldale punts during the game, but the Orangemen tied the score in the third quarter as All-State and Big 33 halfback Eddie Kassak scored from the 2 and added the extra point on foot. (Only a point for extra point placements and runs back then.)

Later, the Tiger defense forced Lansford to punt from its end zone and Kassak returned the kick from midfield to the 5 from where two plays later he hit pay dirt on a swing pass from Bill Edwards.

The final point for a 14-7 win was added by Edwards on a plunge. Lansford battled back with a closing drive the full length of the field but ran out of downs inside the 5.

Actually, Coaldale had been in only two other close contests that season. Two fourth-quarter scores enabled the Tigers to escape with a 20-14 win over Tunkhannock in the season opener.

They rolled over Jim Thorpe 47-0 but then needed another rally to beat West Hazleton 27-12.

After that it was pretty much a breeze: Coaldale 47, Cass Township 0; Coaldale 27, Shenandoah 7; Coaldale 32, Schuylkill Haven 7; Coaldale 41, Nesquehoning 0; Coaldale 31, Kulpmont 7; Coaldale 41, Ashland 0 and Coaldale 27, Summit Hill 0.

Coaldale needed that 11th win though to beat out Tamaqua for the 1962 mythical Carbon County-Panther Valley championship.

The Blue Raiders finished 10-0-1 which included a 14-0 triumph over Blakely for the coveted Eastern Conference crown.

The Thanksgiving Day rivalries usually signalled the end of the grid season, but playing in December was the ultimate goal of every coal region football team. It didn't happen often.

Before the Blue Raiders' Dec. 1 victory over Blakely, only Lansford (1943 and 1944) and Nesquehoning (1946) extended their seasons into the final month of the year, playing for the conference title.

Back then the conference featured just one class of competition. Nowadays, of course the post season in the sprawling loop involves semifinals and finals in four divisions in different classes. And also, there now is district and state post season play.

The last to successfully appear in a December game was Marian which won the 1990 state PIAA Class A crown.

The Colts were making a run again this season and managed to stay in the hunt longer than any other of our area teams.

Bring on the hoops which back in 1962 were already well under way. How times change.