The last time Frankford and Catholic clashed on the gridiron was 75 years ago, when they played for the Philadelphia city scholastic title in 1947 before at least 45,000 at Franklin Field. The Gov. James H. Duff and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell there. Roman won, 40-12, by the way.
The stakes for Thursday’s game between the Pioneers and Cahillites at Frankford Stadium were lower – but not insignificant. This is the first time these two schools have played on Thanksgiving, doing their part to keep a fading but beloved local tradition alive.
Not surprisingly, Roman (9-3) beat Frankford (2-10), 34-8, but the result wasn’t the point. Football was on Turkey Day in Frankford, and hundreds of fans flocked to Frankford’s ancient Memorial Stadium for the 9:45 a.m. kickoff. to soak in the atmosphere.
“We usually have night games, so it felt good to come out and have some fun,” said Roman senior Jamir Robertson, who scored one attack and passed for another.
The Cahillites lost Saturday’s PIAA Class 5A state playoff game to Imhotep Charter and would have played their reserve Thursday had they won. Frankford was a bit of a consolation, but Roman senior defensive end Jamieal Lyons was still up at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, anyway.
“Thank God we were able to play another game,” said Lyons, who has committed to play at Penn State. “It was great to be able to put the pads back on.”
With the game between West Philadelphia and Overbrook canceled because four Overbrook students were shot near the school Wednesday, the Roman-Frankford game was one of only eight in the city to be played Thursday.
The Pioneers did Roman work for the win, scoring the first touchdown on a long pass play and taking an 8-8 tie into halftime. But Roman poured it on in the second half, and Frankford coach Damon Brockington stopped the game with about two minutes to play.
“I didn’t have any other kids,” Brockington said later, explaining that several players were injured. “You never want to end the game like that, but sometimes that happens.”
Fittingly for this day and age, the game came together as a result of a tweet. Roman coach Rick Prete said the Cahillites were supposed to play Archbishop Carroll the night before Thanksgiving a year ago, as they did in 2019, but Carroll politely asked.
So, last November 8, Prete tweeted: “Looking for a game on Thanksgiving Eve. Please contact me if interested.”
Frankford was interested. Thanksgiving morning football games are standard in Frankford. For 80 years, from 1930 to 2009, the Pioneers played North Catholic on Thanksgiving — sometimes after Thanksgiving if, say, Philadelphia was hit with a blizzard.
The game between Frankford and nearby North Catholic, which was located a mile and a half away, was sometimes called “The Rowhouse Bowl” because apparently players from both teams lived in one. The 1978 Frankford-North game was played at Veterans Stadium before about 25,000.
That game, the 50th in the series, was so big that the Eagles, coached by Dick Vermeil, announced that they would practice that day at Franklin Field. JFK Stadium, which had natural turf, was made off limits because the Army-Navy Game was to be played there on December 2.
“It is probably the only traditional scholastic game in the East that continues to improve with age,” wrote Don McKee in The Inquirer on November 19, 1978.
But North Catholic, which had more than 4,700 students in 1953 and was the largest Catholic high school for boys in the world, closed in June 2010 because enrollment had dropped to 551 students. Frankford, wanting to keep the tradition alive, was looking for another enemy.
“Certain traditions, or certain things that we do as a school, are very important,” said Ben Dubin, Frankford’s athletic director.
Frankford officials had informal conversations with Roman in 2010: “Although the grandfather of the city’s Public Catholic Thanksgiving football competition is now dead, a beautiful baby may take his place,” wrote Ted Silary in the Daily News. But nothing could be organized that year.
So the Pioneers played Samuel Fels from 2011 to 2013; Charter Preparation in 2014 and 2015; Conwell-Egan in 2016; Boys’ Latin Charter from 2017 to 2019, and Cheltenham last year. There were also a couple of flag football games between Frankford and North alumni.
Meanwhile, Roman’s Thanksgiving Day football rivalry against Roxborough High School, which dated back to 1972, ended in 2018 because it was no longer competitive. Roman won the last 17 games in the series, with Roxborough’s last victory coming in 1991.
“I’m a bit old school. I believe in tradition,” said Prete, who grew up in Norristown. “It’s an opportunity for the seniors to play their last real game. And that [Thanksgiving] tradition goes back to when I was playing – or anyone here was playing.”
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Prete said he heard many Roman alumni thought he was the one who canceled the 2021 game against Carroll, a more competitive opponent than Roxborough, but that was not the case. Frankford fit. Many North Catholic students had transferred to Roman after North closed.
“No one looks forward to the end of the season, God forbid,” said Prete.
Keeping strictly to Frankford-North tradition, kickoff for the Frankford-Roman game was at 9:45 a.m., at least 15 minutes earlier than any other local game. Frankford-North, it was said for years, was the earliest Thanksgiving scholastic football game in the country.
One fan wore his red North Catholic hoodie. Another wore a blue T-shirt from the Frankford-North game. The halftime festivities were modest: the Frankford cheerleaders did a dance routine, followed by a performance by the Frankford drum line.
And Frankford’s homecoming queen and king, seniors Briseyda McKissick and Angel Hernandez (wearing a crown and his No. 6 football jersey), had to take a lap around the track in a Jeep open McKissick described the scene as “very refreshing.”
“Being out there cheering with my friend was a big comfort,” he said.
After the postgame handshake between the two teams, David Nguyen, senior center and defensive end for the Pioneers, slowly walked off the field. It was still a good day: he played football with what he called his “second family” before going home to eat a lot of turkey.
It didn’t really make any difference who Frankford was playing, he said.
“I was happy to take the field with my brothers once again,” he said. “It was a blessing.”
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