A Jesuit Thanksgiving football tradition turns 100
If there’s one constant in life, it’s that the Detroit Lions play on Thanksgiving Day.
While the Lions have played a whopping 83 times on Turkey Day, two Jesuit high schools located in New York City have that number beat by a fair margin: They have been playing on Thanksgiving for a century.
While the Detroit Lions have played 83 times on Turkey Day, two Jesuit high schools have that number beat by a fair margin: They have been playing on Thanksgiving for a century.
On Nov. 23, the Fordham Prep Rams and the Xavier Knights will meet on Thanksgiving Day for the 100th time, a landmark matchup for the fourth-oldest high school football rivalry in American history and the oldest prep school football rivalry in New York City.
The first iteration of the Turkey Bowl in 1887 may have been called early due to darkness setting in before either team scored a point, but the spotlight on this rivalry has become bright over the years, culminating in Governor Kathy Hochul of New York’s recent recognition of the game as a culturally and historically significant event in the state and the broadcast of the game on YES Network, the home of the New York Yankees. (The two teams have met 100 times on Thanksgiving, but not consecutively.)
Rivalries as deep as this one have a way of creating memories that last a lifetime, and the Turkey Bowl has put an exclamation point on highs and has helped pull players and coaches out of lows.
In the 1954 installment of the game, Fordham Prep took down Xavier 18 to 12 in front of over 8,500 fans at Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx, marking the Prep’s first undefeated season in program history.
Fordham Prep was able to replicate this feat just two years later in 1956, again defeating Xavier on Thanksgiving Day by a score of 14 to 13 to revel in their second undefeated season in three years.
In 2012’s Turkey Bowl, Xavier came out on top, 38 to 21, in a matchup that doubled as a Catholic High School Football League AA semifinal playoff game against the defending league champion Fordham Prep. For many, it was a surprise the game happened in the first place.
The game was played that year on Nov. 22, just weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the New York City metro area. Many of the Knights on that team were left without a home, let alone their football equipment, for weeks after the hurricane. According to a social media post from Xavier, about a quarter of the team was left homeless in the aftermath of Sandy.
But true to their motto “keep marching,” the Knights insisted on playing the game, practicing wherever they could—even in their school cafeteria. With the deck stacked against them, Xavier took down the Rams and went on to win the 2012 Catholic High School Football League AA Championship against St. John the Baptist, 32 to 14.
This year’s game will be a special one for Jack Raslowsky, Xavier’s president. The 100th Turkey Bowl will also be the 15th of Mr. Raslowky’s presidency, more than any other president in Xavier’s history. When asked about the personal significance of this year’s game in an interview with America, the first thing he said was, “God has been good.”
Mr. Raslowsky continued, “It’s not exactly a personal anniversary. It’s a moment to pause. I think for me it’s a reminder of the goodness of the work of the Society of Jesus right in New York City for generations and generations.”
Mr. Raslowsky has long been steeped in Jesuit education. As a graduate of St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, he found himself back teaching and coaching at his alma mater from 1985 to 1990, then moving up to serve as principal of St. Peter’s Prep for 11 years beginning in 1992. After a brief stint serving as Superintendent of Schools on the Hoboken Board of Education, Mr. Raslowsky found his way to Xavier, where he has served as president since 2009.
Mr. Raslowsky also sees the game as a way to practice gratitude through the Thanksgiving tradition that Xavier and Fordham Prep have built together.
In 1954, Fordham Prep took down Xavier 18 to 12 in front of over 8,500 fans at Jack Coffey Field, marking the Prep’s first undefeated season in program history.
“I say to folks that Thanksgiving is the most Ignatian of holidays,” Mr. Raslowsky said. “Gratitude was so important to Ignatius. That resonates so much with all of us in the work of Jesuit education and all of us who have been shaped by the Society. So even without football, it would be a wonderful, wonderful day.”
And while Fordham Prep may be Xavier’s fiercest rival on the football field, Mr. Raslowsky knows that at the end of the day, Xavier and Fordham Prep are family.
“Is there a rivalry on the field? Absolutely,” Mr. Raslowsky said. “But is there this great historical connection, this great mission connection, and this great shared work? Yes. And Thanksgiving really is the beginning of a family celebration, right? The family celebration begins in this Jesuit family on Thanksgiving morning, this year on Rose Hill.”
Further north, Anthony Day is in quite a different position from Mr. Raslowsky, serving in his first year as president of Fordham Prep, which leads the all-time Turkey Bowl series between the schools by 54 to 41 (with four ties).
But don’t mistake Mr. Day for a newbie when it comes to his involvement with the Society of Jesus. In his first job out of college, Mr. Day was a teacher in the English department at Fordham Prep from 1992 to1999, then served as assistant principal of Regis High School in New York and principal of Loyola Blakefield in Towson, Md., before returning to The Prep as president.
Mr. Day recalls his first Turkey Bowl experience, well before he went on to become president at Fordham Prep: “I remember my first Turkey Bowl game back on Thanksgiving of 1992. And I was just amazed to see how many people came out and how excited people got, because up to that point, I never thought about spending Thanksgiving anywhere but at home with my family, right?”
And while they may be on opposite sides of the bleachers at Coffey Field, Mr. Day looks forward to spending time with Mr. Raslowsky, whom he has known for years now.
“One of the things I’m most excited about is sharing this day with my good friend Jack Raslowsky. We go back decades; in fact, his [father] and my father were classmates in high school. Jack and I have known each other and he’s a good friend. So sharing that Thanksgiving morning with him is really meaningful to me.”
While the Rams aim for a three-peat on the gridiron (the 2020 Turkey Bowl was played virtually by the two schools’ presidents on the Madden NFL video game because of the pandemic), Fordham Prep also lays claim to the inception of the Great Ignatian Challenge, a yearly competition among Jesuit high schools to see which institution can bring in the most donations for local charities that was launched by Prep alum Jim Rowen ’82 in 2016. Many Jesuit schools, including Xavier and Fordham Prep, hold a friendly competition at this time of year to see which school can gather the most donations. In 2022, the Prep raised over $77,000, equating to nearly 46,700 pounds of food.
Speaking on using the platform that the Turkey Bowl provides to give back, Mr. Day said: “It’s certainly an opportunity for folks to want one more reason to think of Fordham Prep as they’re considering making a gift. But it’s also a day for us to invite people back home,” Mr. Day said. “Bringing everybody back here to Rose Hill is an opportunity for us to express gratitude to them by inviting them back by always reminding them that they have a place here.”
Since this author’s prediction for the Boston College and Holy Cross football game wasn’t too far off, I’ll take a stab at guessing a final score here. To the likely dismay of America’s deputy editor in chief, Tim Reidy, who is a Fordham Prep graduate, I, a Xavier alum, am predicting the Knights snap Fordham Prep’s recent hot streak with a gutsy 24-to-21 road victory over the Prep. Slam the Ram!