Tuesday | January 16, 2018
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Wright On: Plenty ohana, plenty grinds, but no football

The Big Island’s most historic site for football is empty today.

The parking lot outside Wong Stadium is vacant. There are no tailgate grills, nobody showing up with five pounds of poke for the group, parents were not seen tossing a football around with their keiki an hour before the game.

We are like a lot of places in the country in that we no longer have a high school rivalry game to go see on Thanksgiving Day.

The first high school football game on the Big Island happened to occur on Thanksgiving Day in 1921, at what was then called Hoolulu Park, now the site of Wong Stadium. If you were there back in 1921, please stop whatever you’re doing and email the address at the end of this column. We have a lot to discuss.

On that day 96 years ago, Hilo High School put a 24-0 lesson on a team from Hilo Boarding School, according to Wayne Suber’s outstanding history of the facility, “Historic Honolulu Park,” which every Big Island sports fan should have in a nearby bookcase.

A sentimentalist would say the team started something that day almost a century ago that the current Vikings finished last week in Honolulu with their state championship victory, the first by a BIIF team, extinguishing years of dumpster fire defeats for Big Island schools.

That passes the test on a day reserved for memories, like today, but in a sweep of Big Island sports over time, it is probably more accurate to say basketball was the big sport on this side of the island for a long while, and it has been Konawaena that led the way in football, but you can look through the Kona trophy case and not find a piece of hardware with state championship written on it like the one the Vikings are displaying these days.

Still, why is it the state of high school sports in the 21st century that so few parts of the country still play their Thanksgiving Day rivals?

State championship tournaments, all conducted under national guidelines, have wedged their way in and elbowed out traditional local Thanksgiving Day games in the same way your older cousin had no qualms cutting in front of you in the holiday dinner line.

In Massachusetts, the annual rivalry between Fitchburg and Leominster will be extended on Thanksgiving Day, the 112th renewal between the two that have met 155 times, in all. There are other high school games in the state, and other states, such as New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Ohio, to name a few.

Could such an event be renewed here?

“I wonder,” said Bobby Command, the Big Island’s unofficial historian for high school sports, “if we got a group of people together, how many of them would even know that there used to be games on Thanksgiving? It used to be such a big deal.”

Command grew up on Oahu and was able to enjoy the “Turkey Games,” that used to be contested at old Honolulu Stadium.

“I remember it was town schools, there would be two games and it was just great to be there,” he said. “Probably, I got into more than some because we lived about three blocks from the stadium, so it was like a babysitter for me, I’d look forward to it every year.”

The general disappearance of traditional high school rivals playing on Thanksgiving Day feels like a commentary on the times. Where families once gathered for the annual rival game, supporting their team and their players while sharing a quirky fellowship with familiar faces representing the opponents.

Now, they huddle in their homes in isolation, watching games on gadgets, playing war games on tablets, engaging in social media with people we don’t know and will never meet.

Instant engagement is achieved while a piece of the larger community is lost, or neglected.

Memories are baked into Thanksgiving Day rivalries, as much as the roster of players and coaches at Hilo will remember the victory over Damien for the rest of their lives. And sure, there’s bound to be something memorable in a high school season, but random occurrences fade over time against participation in long-standing traditions.

This is a request for anyone who played, coached or viewed those games in person, to check in here as a way of filling in some of the blanks Command has discovered in trying to research high school sports here on the Big Island.

Perhaps if we get a recollection of memories we can expand them to a larger piece on the almost forgotten tradition of Thanksgiving football on the Big Island.

The records compiled by Command are a work of love he committed himself to years ago as a journalist in West Hawaii, but there are missing dates, sometimes whole years are blank.

Any true sports fan appreciates the value of historical records, so perhaps this will encourage some to recall those times in an email.

Command suggests “a good place to start in modern history is Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, 1946, the year after the war ended, when Hilo lost to the Lincoln Wreckers, 7-0 at Hoolulu. Note, this was the same year as the tsunami and Hiloans were likely still recovering from that devastating event.”

You remember the Thanksgiving Day game in 1946 if you survived the tsunami. What was it like?

Here are a few other memory pokers from Command:

“In 1966 (Nov. 24), Hilo’s MIL team beat HPA 27-26. As far as I know, this game is technically the last BIIF game played on Thanksgiving as in 1967-68, games were played the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. In 1967 Hilo defeated Kohala 32-7.”

The last Thanksgiving may well have been in 1968 when Hilo beat HPA 54-6.

At their best, these are more than games, they are community rituals to be honored, respected and recalled as mile markers in time.

If people are interested, it may be possible to revive the annual event, to bring back the past with a level of reference. If that’s the case, email me here and we will try to make some progress, though it will take time and perseverance.

Maybe in a few years it could be revived, maybe in time for the 100th anniversary of the first game in 1921.

Tips? Questions? Memories? Send to Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com


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