First Thanksgiving: War of Roses football
Thanksgiving Day used to offer one final glimpse of high school football in York, before winter set in and the best seniors across the county and league went off to bigger things.
For almost 20 years, football players and their families delayed Turkey Day for War of the Roses, an annual game between York and Lancaster All-Star teams.
"It was fun," former South Western football coach Don Seidenstricker said. "I think it had its moment in time, but understand this was when they only took four schools in each classification for playoffs."
By the time District 3 expanded playoffs in 2004 from 16 total teams to 32, it was only a matter of time before the annual matchup ended.
The War of the Roses series ended in 2005, during the same era other All-Star Games — including the famed Big 33 Football Classic — also struggled to attract the same interest.
The Thanksgiving Day football tradition in York started with a question between cousins. Don Carr, who served as a football coach at Central York and William Penn, asked Tom Murphy, "What do you think about starting an All-Star football game?"
Murphy, who served on the Quarterback Club of York's board of directors for decades, started asking questions. He found out Kreutz Creek Lion's Club used to host an annual game, but it had been discontinued. The York County All-Star Football Game was reborn in 1983, with proceeds from the first game spread across five charities. That season the game featured players from 17 of York's 18 teams, including Northern York and Red Land. The only holdout was Spring Grove, which didn't participate because it had reached the District 3 playoffs.
"This game is refreshing. ... It's a pleasure not to have the pressures of a normal-season game weighing down the kids or the coaches," then-York Suburban coach Bob McCoy told the York Daily Record before he coached the North to a 21-6 victory. On what the Daily Record described as a "drizzly, dreary Thanksgiving Day," Central York's Lee DeBandi rushed for 110 yards, and Dover's Steve Costabile made a game-high seven tackles before being taken away from Small Field in an ambulance for a concussion.
When Lancaster inquired about joining the game, it seemed like a natural progression.
"You pick up a better game," Murphy recalled. "Originally it created a lot of interest."
York County's talent was no longer diluted across two teams in 1989, and only the best players earned roster spots.
"Just the sound of it is very exciting: Lancaster vs. York," then-Contestoga Valley and Lancaster coach Jim Cantafio told the York Daily Record before the game.
It was a day — and not necessarily a game — to remember, with York County coaches shoveling 3 to 4 inches of snow off the yard lines so the game could be played.
"The first War of the Roses will be hard to forget," wrote Daily Record reporter Bill Rabinowitz in 1989. "How can you forget snow that covered the field and temperatures so chilling you wondered if your toes would ever come back to life."
Dover's Ron Sanger noted punting was "like kicking a block of ice."
"Well, I can't feel my feet right now," Dover quarterback Mike Wilt told the Daily Record after the game.
The teams combined for 15 turnovers, including nine by York.
Murphy was willing to see the game move across the Susquehanna River every other season after hearing that Millersville University might be willing to host the game. It would have created a problem for York, with no college football team in York County, but the plan hit a major snag in trying to find a Lancaster organizer.
"They didn't want any part of it," Murphy said.
So it remained a York County tradition, rotating between several high school venues, including Central York, Dallastown, West York, William Penn, York County Tech and York Suburban. Off to a rough start, York lost four of the first five matchups. The York Daily Record headline after the first game read: "Rivalry off to bitter start for York stars." But York won 10 of the final 13 matchups and held a 10-7 edge in the series when it ended.
"It was neat, especially with Lancaster and York," Seidenstricker said.
It became a family tradition. Murphy's sons, Ben and Kevin, played in the game. His wife, Joanne, worked as the game director. And even though he ran a tavern at the time, which meant he didn't return home until 2:30 or 3:30 a.m., he made sure he would be out on Thursday to help the gameday production at 6:30 a.m.
"It was a sacrifice," Murphy said.
In the end, all the work went to a good cause. The proceeds went to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Easter Seals Central Pennsylvania in 1989. Eventually, proceeds helped fund the Quarterback Club of York's then-$4,000 college scholarship and two $500 scholarships for female recipients, Murphy said.
"I thought it was a lot of fun to play on Thanksgiving," said Central York coach Brad Livingston, who coached the War of Roses twice.
"I thought the thing that was really fun was getting to meet and know all the players and watching these kids come together and form a team over a week of practice."
Lancaster ended the series after its coaches voted, 10-9, to drop their involvement after the 2005 meeting. Lancaster left the series how it started — with a victory.
Murphy heard one Lancaster coach become vocal about stopping the game, since Lancaster County was never allowed to host a game.
That was the one negative. "It wasn't true," Murphy said.
Murphy wanted Lancaster to host the game too, he just couldn't find someone willing to organize the game in Lancaster.
Sponsorship, which at one point had come from the York Daily Record, decreased. Organizers struggled to find a band willing to perform, Murphy said. The lone exception Murphy recalled was William Penn, when the Bearcats band used the game as a dress rehearsal for a performance at a Washington Redskins game.
After Lancaster's exit, the YAIAA attempted to keep the game going, reverting back to a North vs. South game. But that too ended.
"Everything was a little tougher. ..." Murphy said.
"It's the times, if anything is fun you can't do it. And there's so much red tape now."
Still he has no regrets. During a 26-year span he helped bring football to York County on Thanksgiving Day.
"All I can say is, I know a lot of kids who said they enjoyed the game," Murphy said.
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