By Rick Anderson
Photos courtesy of Aberdeen Museum of History, Polson Museum and Pat Pearson.
It wasn’t the state’s most prolific or even the longest continuous rivalry. But the Aberdeen-Hoquiam high school Thanksgiving Day football series represented a tradition few other communities could match.
From 1906 through 1973, with a few interruptions in between, the Bobcats and Grizzlies squared off before capacity crowds on Thanksgiving. For the participants, the outcome could make or break a season.
“It was like the world championship,” said Dave Wayman, a 1962 Hoquiam High grad who is now the co-superintendent of North Beach schools. “If you were from Hoquiam or Aberdeen, you had to win that game. “
“You could make your statement by winning the Thanksgiving Day game,” agreed Aberdeen Hall of Fame quarterback John Wilson, a 1966 AHS alum.
The contest itself, however, transcended mere bragging rights. Even for those without obvious athletic ties, it became part of the Harbor’s holiday legacy.
“When I was a little boy, I never remember not going to the Turkey Day game. That was one of my favorite days of the year,” said Grays Harbor Superior Court Judge Mark McCauley, a fullback and defensive back for the Bobcats prior to his 1972 graduation. “After the game, we’d come home and have dinner and talk about the plays.”
“It was what you thought a football game was,” said Aberdeen educator Derek Cook, a Hoquiam native who was too young to play in the T-Day game but attended several as a child. “It was more of a social event for folks who lived in these parts than anything.”
The rivalry actually had a relatively rocky genesis.
While the 1906 series opener was played on Thanksgiving, that wasn’t always the case in the early years of the series. The Harbor rivals sometimes met as often as three times in a season. Due to World War I and a flu epidemic, the Bobcats and Grizzlies collided only once between 1917 and 1921.
By the 1920s, the game had become a Thanksgiving staple — first at Electric Park on the Myrtle Street boundary between the two cities and later alternating between Hoquiam’s Emerson Field and Aberdeen’s Stewart Field.
Hoquiam’s Olympic Stadium, an 8,500-seat facility built by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, was dedicated in 1938. Significant underdogs, the Grizzlies celebrated the occasion with a 12-0 win that cost the Bobcats not only an unbeaten season but a mythical state championship. That game came to represent the capricious nature of the rivalry.
The late November date required some unusual preparations. The Bobcats and Grizzlies often spent more than two weeks from their previous contest practicing for the T-Day game.
“The weather was usually pretty cold, pretty wet, so the practices weren’t much fun.” McCauley said.
“Back then, at the end of the season, you knew you were going to play your rival, so you were pretty pumped up,” said 1968 HHS grad Keith Reynvaan, a former Grizzly halfback who is still a teacher and coach in Hoquiam. “Right now, I don’t know if that would be the case.”
Several future college and professional standouts participated in the series. Jack Elway, the father of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and himself a successful and influential college coach, quarterbacked the Grizzlies to a 22-7 win in 1947.
The players were usually treated to Thanksgiving morning breakfasts sponsored by the police or area service clubs and often received police escorts to the stadium for the noon kickoff. The Daily World published an extensive special section, generally 12 to 16 pages, on the Wednesday prior to the game and delayed publication of its Thanksgiving Day edition until completion of the contest.
Enthusiastic capacity crowds were a given.
“The noise was amazing to me coming out of the tunnel,” Reynvaan said. “You’d get chills and have to look up in the stands to see what was going on. It was something to behold and it was scary.”
By the late 1960s, with both schools fielding outstanding teams, spectator interest was perceived by some to have outgrown 5,500-seat Stewart Field. To the outrage of legendary Aberdeen coach Al Eklund, among others, much larger Olympic Stadium was designated to host the Thanksgiving Day contest annually. Disgruntled Bobcat boosters composed a sardonic sign, “Home Sweet Home” to be displayed on one of the years the Cats were the “host” team for a game in Hoquiam.
Few at the time realized that the Thanksgiving game’s days were numbered.
The advent of the state playoffs in 1973 forced school officials to choose between tradition and playoff eligibility. They selected the latter option, a decision that still rankles some veterans of the Thanksgiving series.
“People in Hoquiam were upset they dropped that game,” Wayman said. “I thought that was too much to give up. Just the intense rivalry between the two schools, I think it was bigger than the state playoffs. It was going to happen every year and people would come back for it.”
“To us, it was the equivalent of playing a major championship game at the end of the year,” McCauley agreed. “I guess if we had turned into a Bellevue-type program that won state championships year after year, it would have been a different story.”
As it was, the Bobcats and Grizzlies staged their final Thanksgiving Day battle in 1973. Hoquiam’s roster included future University of Washington running back (and record-setting Western Washington University coach) Rob Smith, all-state lineman Joe Pellegrini (who went to play professionally for the New York Jets) and Steve Irion, later a Little All-American defensive back at Pacific Lutheran University. But Aberdeen won, 49-0.
Even at the end, the Thanksgiving Day football rivalry was capable of producing the unexpected.