Thursday, 10:24 AM
A classic football rivalry: Wellesley v. Needham
By Keith OBrien, Globe Staff
WELLESLEY - On Thanksgiving Day in Wellesley, children will wake up hoping to ruin dinner for the good people down the road in Needham. Some will think or say nasty things. And some will even be ready to throw a punch to defend their town.
A few miles to the east, in Needham, children will wake up still tasting the bitterness from last year's loss to hated Wellesley in the annual Thanksgiving football game. They, too, will think or say nasty things about their neighbors. And they, too, will be ready to fight, if it comes to that. After all, they have fought the fine people from Wellesley before.
"I remember in 7th grade, one of my friends a girl, actually got into a fight with a 40- or 50-year-old man in the stands," said Needham High School senior Nick Simmons-Stern, a starting safety on the football team. "And they both got kicked out."
Nearly 180 high schools will face off across the Commonwealth in Thanksgiving Day football games, and more than a few of those games will feature fierce rivalries between neighboring towns. But no local rivalry has roots deeper than Needham-Wellesley's, the nation's oldest public high school rivalry, which began in 1882 when 22 boys assembled on a field in Wellesley to play football with a round ball.
Much has changed since then, including the ball. Pastureland pioneers have been replaced by suburban commuters. But the game to be played for the 120th time this morning in Wellesley has remained a staple of the fall in these two communities and surprisingly competitive, too. After 119 games, Wellesley has won 58 and Needham 52 with nine ties between them.
And so, even though both teams are 4-6 this year, this game between one comfortable suburban town and their slightly more comfortable neighbor still matters. It epitomizes life in both towns, marks the changing of the seasons, and lingers forever with those who actually play in the game.
No matter where the players go, or what they do, years down the line townspeople will only care about one thing: Did they beat Needham when they had the chance or, alternatively, Wellesley?
"I'd give anything to win, if I was playing," said Paul Esposito, a Latin teacher at Wellesley High School who was a backup center in 1964 when the Needham Rockets beat his Wellesley Raiders, 20-14. "It's unfinished business. Always will be. That's the feeling."
Needham and Wellesley are more alike than different. They both have about 28,000 residents. They both are known for their good schools and safe streets, and they both are predominantly affluent suburban communities. But the two towns -- which are friendly neighbors today, except when it comes to matters on the football field -- did not always get along.
The main beef between Needham and Wellesley began more than 200 years ago when, as Needham folks are fond of pointing out, there was no such place as Wellesley. Needham, founded in 1711, was the only town in those parts. Wellesley? It was primarily just farmland, known as West Needham or the West Precinct, and people there claimed to feel slighted by the townspeople a few miles east.
In 1881, finally fed up, West Needham residents voted to form their own town. Wellesley was born and soon, so was the football rivalry. In late November 1882, a slender high school boy from Wellesley, Arthur J. Oldham, challenged the Needham boys to a game of football.
Needham, still stinging from West Needham's defection, accepted and lost by the odd score of 4-0. But getting their revenge, the Needham kids won the next three. The game soon became an annual Thanksgiving tradition, passed on from generation to generation, and perhaps inevitably, kids grew up learning to take to take it seriously and to take pot-shots at each other.
The Needham kids characterize their Wellesley counterparts as pompous preppies who live in McMansions. At Needham town hall, town counsel David Tobin likes to ask the selectmen's secretary, a Wellesley resident, how things are going in West Needham. And just last year, as a good-natured joke, the Needham board of selectmen marked Wellesley's 125th anniversary by inviting the town to "abandon its prodigal ways and once more return to the fold as West Needham."
Wellesley declined. After all, bashing Needham has been a local tradition for decades. When a school play in the 1960s called for cast members to play prostitute cheerleaders, Sue Melanson, a 1964 Wellesley graduate, recalls that they dressed the girls in Needham cheerleading outfits. And Wellesley kids today describe Needham kids as classless fans who are all talk
"They're always saying this is their year," said Phillip Zabriskie, a Wellesley junior. "But they can't follow through."
In fact, Needham has lost seven of its last 10 meetings against Wellesley. And at a pep rally this week, Wellesley kids said they had to win again. But Needham students were hoping this year would be different.
"Wellesley kids are, like, preppies," said Lindsey Farrell, a Needham senior.
"And their boys are so ugly," said Vanessa Myette, another Needham senior.
In the end, though, much of this is just pre-game chest-thumping nothing more. Kids in Wellesley have friends in Needham and vice versa. The fights between the two factions were more prevalent years ago, according to Needham police. And today's game at 10 a.m. will be, as usual, a family affair, an event that will draw some 2,000 people.
Win or lose, most people are just happy that there is a game, that they have this tradition, and many say they will be thankful today if the kids just play their hardest. But those being honest are forced to admit the obvious: They will be more thankful if they win.
"This is the last time I'm ever going to be in full pads for a football game," said Simmons-Stern, remembering how much it hurt to lose to Wellesley last year. "I want to be able to come back to Needham High in future years come back from college and be able to say, 'We won my year. We won that game.'"
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