WESTFIELD – Mother Nature has been known to throw a snowball or two at the Westfield High School football team throughout the years on Thanksgiving Day.
There have been memorable snow games, rain-soaked fields, biting winds and sunshiny days with throngs of fans lining the perimeter of the field hoping to catch a glimpse of a crushing blow, a high-arcing touchdown pass, a sensational touchdown grab, or a run for the ages.
This holiday season, silence will blanket high school football fields all across the state like a new-fallen snow in the wee hours of dawn at morning’s first light. There are endless memories though, which should serve as a reminder for people to stop and give thanks for the blessings bestowed upon us.
“I can particularly remember my first Thanksgiving Day as a coach (in 2015) because it snowed pretty good the night before and the morning of our game like it did my junior year in high school and I was walking into a long established history between two programs,” said Westfield High School football head coach Rob Parent, referring to the Bombers final turkey day matchup against the Cathedral Panthers. “I know it wasn’t the Cathedral of old, but in any rivalry you don’t want to be the team to make the mistake.”
Westfield junior quarterback Austin St. Pierre, who suffered through an injury-riddled season, rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another, a 71-yard strike to Zach Adams as he directed the Bombers to a 50-0 shutout of the Cathedral Panthers.
It was the ninth straight win for Westfield on Thanksgiving Day and 14th victory in 15 tries against Cathedral, which would soon become Pope Francis. The Bombers closed out the series with an all-time mark of 44-28.
“There was a particularly large crowd that day with a lot of alumni — even officials – and people had something to say about the game, both programs, the long-standing history, and how important those two programs were to both areas,” Parent said, reminiscing.
After a brief hiatus, Westfield re-established a presence on Thanksgiving Day, striking up a partnership with the Minnechaug Falcons.
While at first glance there might have been some appeal for the two teams, who both sought out a holiday dance partner, to forge an annual tradition, the newly structured playoff format has somewhat watered down the matchup with a potential for the two teams to meet three times (regular season, postseason, Thanksgiving Day).
“It’s hard to force a rivalry but with the type of competitive programs we each had it made sense to play on Thanksgiving,” Parent said. “With the competitive shape of our programs and the potential to play each other three times a year now, I don’t think it’s fair.”
Still, together the two programs have created some entertaining competition.
In their first meeting three years ago, Minnechaug squeaked out a 19-18 win behind the strong-armed quarterback play of sophomore Anthony Izzo. A year later, it was Westfield senior quarterback Mike Nihill, who drove his team to victory, scoring three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) en route to a 27-18 victory. Last season, Izzo exacted revenge, upending the Bombers 28-7.
Westfield’s head coach is no stranger to the significance a holiday victory can have on a community. As the starting quarterback at West Warwick High (Rhode Island), Parent, a junior, led his team to a thrilling 8-7 win over longtime rival, Coventry, on Thanksgiving Day. The morning of that game, the football team helped clear a snow-covered field by shoveling just hours prior to kickoff.
Then, during his senior year, in one of his final games, Parent engineered a blowout victory in a rain-soaked Thanksgiving affair.
“Nobody cared how many wins the team had or if we had won a state championship,” Parent said. “The first question people always asked was, ‘Did you beat Coventry?’”
Thanksgiving Day football is a tradition that dates back decades all throughout the northeast. Although a restructured playoff format has ultimately taken some of the luster and significance away from Thanksgiving Day games, it is better than the current alternative — no games due to the pandemic.
“It’s been a tough road for sure,” Parent said in describing a fall season without a single high school football game.
The Westfield Bombers just recently wrapped up a series of 15 non-contact practice sessions after the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association postponed the high school football season until later this winter amid coronavirus concerns.
So what’s next?
“I mentioned to the kids just before we concluded our mini-camp that I wanted them to enjoy their time with their families and the fruits of life and to see what they are missing now,” Parent said. “At some point, the game is going to end for everyone, so do the school work … cherish the moments and take advantage of the opportunities life gives to you.”
Zoom meetings are set up, at-home workouts have been assigned, and Parent has tasked his players with watching college and NFL games on television to help them increase their football IQ in the days and weeks ahead.
“I think we have truly lost sight of what impact sports has on kids,” Parent said. “We don’t glorify successes; we downplay it on the field. It’s unfair. If you follow the science and follow the data, we should be playing a season. Right now, kids are missing out on opportunities that could change their lives forever.”
Parent said he stresses clean, healthy habits with all of his student-athletes and the rest of his coaching staff, and said that he believes there will be a winter season if players continue to take of themselves in the next several weeks.
Although at this point in time with COVID-19 cases spiking all around the country, things might appear a bit murky. The future for the Westfield High School football team actually appears quite bright.
The 2020-21 version of the Westfield Bombers features returning playoff-caliber talent and new highly-skilled players, including a freshman class which boasts players from some of the most talented youth football teams the city has ever seen.
“Our program is strong with roots in our youth, the kids,” Parent said, also alluding to a group of eighth graders, who also display special talents on the field. “There is reason for some real optimism.”