MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

Hard to believe it’s been 49 years since Maryland caught up with the rest of the country and began to have state football playoffs. Naturally, most people here were against it because this is Allegany County and in Allegany County, as the great Bill Zapf used to say, “We’re against everything.”

In this instance we believed the elimination of the Turkey Day games in Cumberland and in Frostburg would trigger the demise of Western Civilization as we knew it; when in reality, that had already taken place with the creation of pee wee football and the participation trophy.

Charlie Lattimer, the head coach of Fort Hill at the time, was all for the state football playoffs. Of course, he was unique in his thinking on a lot of things, as he believed the consolidation of Allegany and Fort Hill would not only one day be inevitable, but a good thing, nearly 50 years ago.

Lattimer had two teams in particular that would have been hands-down favorites to win the Maryland Class A (now 3A) state championship — the last two Fort Hill teams to play Allegany in the Turkey Day Game, the 1972 Sentinels, who went 9-1, and the 1973 Sentinels, who went 10-0, with both being quarterbacked by Mark Manges.

The following year, 1974, when the state playoffs began, Valley won the Class C title under head coach Tom Harman, while the Sentinels lost in the semifinal round to Northwood. And in the early days of the MPSSAA playoffs, the semifinal round was the first round, as only the four region winners from each classification qualified.

The Sentinels would get their first state title the following year in 1975 with a 12-0 season. Allegany, under Coach Jim Refosco, would win its first state title in 1978. The following season, the Campers dropped a classic Homecoming Game, 20-16, to the Sentinels and would not qualify for the playoffs despite their 8-2 record. That’s how goofy the playoffs were then. Not like now.

The idea of the 1974 Homecoming Game was pretty weird, but the truth is it was so immediate that it lent an excitement to the game that we would come to discover had not existed in our sacred Turkey Day Game.

With Homecoming, the teams play the next-to-last week on the schedule, and the big game is — bang — right there waiting for them the following Monday. With the Turkey Day Game, there was a three-week dead period between Week 9 and Week 10, which many of us believe led to some pretty dead games.

Don’t misunderstand, the tradition and the pageantry of the Turkey Day Game was like nothing else. It was a wonderful day and one of the most beautiful family days Cumberland and Frostburg ever experienced. But face it, some of the games were just barkers.

For beginners, you know how difficult it is for a coach to keep a team’s attention when there is no game to play for nearly a month? Think summer practice the way it used to be, except not only is it miserable, it’s dark and cold. And while the time off could give some bumps and bruises a chance to heal, it could also eliminate a team’s cohesion and crispness as a unit, not to mention give coaches far too much time to reinvent the wheel.

We just didn’t know any better then, as the Turkey Day Game was it for nearly 40 years running. But once the 10th game of the season was played on Week 10 instead of Week 13, we all kind of looked at each other and admitted, “That was actually pretty cool.”

It was cool because if your team lost the Turkey Day Game, it wasn’t cool at all, for not only was Thanksgiving dinner ruined, your entire season was as well as that last game carried the weight until the following Thanksgiving when the teams played again.

In 1971, Allegany defeated Fort Hill, 18-14, in the Turkey Day Game — a.k.a. The Snow Game — to complete a 10-0 season under first-year head coach George Stimmel. As for the Sentinels, they finished an otherwise fine 8-2 season, or so you would think.

Not the case at all as Coach Lattimer made painfully clear to Cumberland Evening Times sports editor J. Suter Kegg, who reported in his sidebar story the day after Thanksgiving, “Fort Hill, although finishing with an 8-2 record, ‘lost everything’ in the holiday defeat, according to Lattimer.”

“We had nine scrimmages and worked so hard for this one game,” Lattimer told Kegg, “then we let it go down the drain. We didn’t win anything.”

To Suter’s credit, he always tried to shed a positive light on things, no matter how dire the circumstances may have been, and he prodded Lattimer into reconsidering his assessment.

Weren’t there some bright spots that shone through the gloom, Kegg asked?

“Nope,” Lattimer said. “At this point I can’t think of a single thing.”

If you were there or if you knew Coach Lattimer, you can hear those words in your sleep. Manges was there and he, in fact, heard them first-hand as he was Fort Hill’s sophomore quarterback that season, and he told me once, “I remember that game very well because, obviously, we lost. And what struck me about reading Coach Lattimer’s comments the next day was the attitude afterward in his interview with Suter Kegg. That’s what it was all about. It always was and we had to live with it.”

But just until basketball season, right?

“The way it was with the Turkey Day Game,” Manges said, “if you lose, you’re nothing and we understood that. That was your season. It was everything and it’s the game that follows you your whole life.”

Fairly, or unfairly, I can personally attest to that, as my father, Glen Burke, the City record-holder for made extra points at the time missed his only extra-point attempt during the 1948 Turkey Day Game when Allegany beat Fort Hill, 6-6, in the series’ first famous battle of unbeatens.

Yes, you read that correctly — Allegany beat Fort Hill 6-6, as complete strangers felt compelled to remind the old man about it for well over 50 years, once while he was in North Carolina, and I am not making that up.

The game was just different when it was played on Thanksgiving. It definitely carried a “for the rest of your life” stigma to it, good or bad — mostly bad, because there was such a stark finality to each one.

Homecoming and having the state playoffs to still play for has been much better and far healthier from the very beginning.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT