Hut! Hut! Thanksgiving Brings out the Pigskin

Webster University supports century-old Thanksgiving Day football game

ST. LOUIS - While millions of Americans around the country are finishing up dishes of their secret family recipes and putting pies into the oven, thousands in Kirkwood, Mo., will be lining up for a standing-room-only position at the community’s most anticipated football game of the season.

Sign at Webster Groves HSOn Thanksgiving Day, the Kirkwood High School Pioneers will play the Statesman of Webster Groves High School for the Frisco Bell. It’s not a PAC-10 game or even an NFL match-up. It’s more important than that and loyal fans will spend the first half of their holiday cheering for their team.

 With an average of 7,000 spectators each year, this game is a big deal. And Webster University is helping make it happen by co-sponsoring the television broadcast of the match.

“It’s a tradition valued by all ages in this community,” said Sarah Riss, the superintendent for schools in Webster Groves. “It’s not only about football. While football is where it started, it’s really about the relationship between the two communities.”

Corey Nesslage, the athletics director at Kirkwood High, agrees. “The rivalry means a lot to the players, and whenever we play Webster Groves it’s a big deal,” he said. “But more importantly, it’s a great community event, a day where you can see graduates from more than 25 years ago reuniting. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Because of the popularity of the event, it often is covered by several newspapers, regional television and radio stations. Conventionally, it has aired on AM radio. This year the University will sponsor televising the game on Charter cable. Starting an hour after the game’s end, fans can watch each play for the first time or relive the tackles and touchdowns they witnessed during the game for days to come.

historic photo showing an early webester-kirkwood gameDating back to 1907, it is believed by many to be the oldest Thanksgiving Day football game west of the Mississippi, if not at least one of the three oldest in the nation. The tradition is so well known there is a book and a documentary movie about the “Friendship Dance,” which was started in 1939 and still is held annually to ease tensions between the two schools, keeping it a “friendly” rivalry (read a 2007 New York Times article or ESPN story about the game). That’s not to say that there is a rivalry like the Hatfield and the McCoys. In fact, the students at the two schools get along well. For example, Riss said that last year students from Kirkwood helped the students at Webster with a robotics competition.

But as game time nears, the rivalry does heat up with a week full of games and contests. It doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the tastiest competitions during the action-packed week are the chili cook-offs held in both communities the evening before the big game.  Chili Bowl at Kirkwood will be 5:30-8p.m. in the Denver Miller Gym followed by the community pep rally, and Webster’s Best Chilifest will be held from 5-7p.m. the same night in the WGHS cafeteria coinciding with a pep rally and bonfire. The winners of the Professional category will go on to compete for the Frisco Bowl, a taste-off competition between the winner of the Webster’s Best Chilifest and Kirkwood's Chili Bowl. Also during the Turkey Day Week are tug-of-war games, many spirit rallies, drum line performances, a “Turkey Day” run, a laser light show and other events at each high school to get students pepped for the big game.

But the game itself is the main attraction, which thousands refuse to miss, regardless of the weather.

The Frisco Bell“There was a game a couple of years ago where it literally rained, sleeted, and snowed and fans still came out to support their teams,” Riss said. Undeniably, everyone wants to win the Frisco Bell, which is the 400 lb. trophy that has been passed between the two schools for decades. This trophy was actually repurposed trash, as it was just a brass bell from the steam locomotives that the Frisco Railroad Company didn’t need anymore and gifted to Kirkwood High in 1951. The principal of the time charged students with finding a purpose for the bell and they decided it would best serve as the trophy for the winner of the Turkey Day game. Traditionally, they also ring it once every hour during the first school day after the game, Riss said.

Lacking a football team of their own  – and thus never having rung a bell in victory of a football game – Webster University  students have jokingly proclaimed the University “undefeated since 1915” on t-shirts. But the sponsorship offers the University an opportunity to invest in something that means so much to the community on a holiday so many hold dear.