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TOM WILLIAMS COLUMN: How to help Thanksgiving football continue

Mike McGarry wants to end Thanksgiving – no family gathering, no turkey or ham, no pies, no wine and no high school football.

Okay, the award-winning Press columnist doesn’t really want to end it all – just the football. It’s fine with him if families get together to celebrate the first Thanksgiving when the pilgrims shared a meal with Native Americans just a few months before trying to wipe them out.

McGarry actually wants those pesky Thanksgiving Week rivalry games out of the way so that the NJSIAA playoffs can expand to public school state champions for the first time and in violation of the current NJSIAA constitution.

He also is concerned about the safety of the young student-athletes when playing in late November, though you could make a good argument that it is unhealthier to play football in August than in November. And eliminating the Thanksgiving games would allow everybody to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, he claims. But the way things are going for big box retail stores recently, Macy’s could disappear before the football games.

In case you missed it, McGarry’s associate, Dave Weinberg, also an award-winning columnist who actually played in one of these rivalry games, disagrees and believes the tradition of Thanksgiving football should live on.

Anyway, the thinking by the architects of state public school football championships in New Jersey, voted down repeatedly by NJSIAA membership, is that the state finals are on the horizon because people will fall in love with this year’s bowl games and make them legitimate state semi-finals. And, if that happens and another week of football is needed, Thanksgiving games will be an obstacle.

But there could be a better way to set up the playoffs.

Before continuing about the playoffs, let’s make this clear. The NJSIAA should not structure state public school playoffs in a way that will make Thanksgiving Week games nearly impossible. Almost 100 high schools played Thanksgiving games last week and the area crowds, despite record low temperatures, were significant. A large majority of people want to keep these games during the holiday week.

Here is how both goals can be accomplished – increase the number of public school football groups in New Jersey to 10, similar to some other states.

By qualifying the top four teams in each group there would still be 40 teams in the playoffs, just like there were in South Jersey with five groups this year. But one less week would be needed.

The schedule could look something like this.

Teams would play seven or eight games from week zero through week seven. On week eight, the last week in October, the four playoff teams in each group would play and the teams who don’t qualify would have a bye.

Based on this year’s enrollment and United Power Ratings, this is what the first round might have looked like in South Jersey:
Group 10 – Washington Township @ Rancocas Valley, Toms River North @ Vineland
Group 9 – Kingsway @ Williamstown, Lenape @ Millville
Group 8 – Hammonton @ Clearview, Northern Burlington @ Shawnee
Group 7 – Winslow Township @ Highland, Ocean City @ Mainland
Group 6 – Triton @ Burlington Township, Timber Creek @ Woodrow Wilson
Group 5 – Pinelands @ Delsea, Oakcrest @ Wall Township
Group 4 – Cinnaminson @ Haddonfield, Cedar Creek @ West Deptford
Group 3 – Delran @ Camden, Collingswood @ Pleasantville
Group 2 – Glassboro @ Willingboro, Buena @ Gateway
Group 1 – Woodbury @ Penns Grove, Paulsboro @ Salem

This could also lead to a reduction in the 68-26, 41-6, 57-0, 53-7 and 48-0 scores that were among those that littered the first round this year.

The first round winners would play in week nine, the first week in November, for the South Jersey championships. The state semifinals would be the second weekend in November and the state finals the third weekend in November. Then, the teams that choose could play the following week against rivals on Thanksgiving to end their seasons. Or not.

The teams that do not qualify for the playoffs could be arranged in groups of four and would play a mini-tournament, like the ECAC events in college sports. Those games would be played on the first and second weekend of November.

There also needs to be some adjustments in the system that creates the United Power Ratings. The Born Index has to be fine-tuned or another similar index substituted. And it probably should be a smaller portion of the final number.

Sure, this is a big change. But it gives everybody what they want and leaves the decision of whether to play on Thanksgiving up to the schools, as it should be.

Eventually, even Mike McGarry might grow to like it.