(Photo by Jon Mahoney for the Boston Globe)
Clad in blue shirts, goldenrod shorts, and black leggings, the Needham girls powderpuff football team stood along the sideline today, hopping up and down, as much from adrenaline as from the chilly weather.
“I’ve been waiting all four years of high school for this,” said Courtney Steeves, 18, staring across the field at the rival Wellesley High team.
The Wellesley girls, wearing red shirts and black pants, were screaming so loud they drowned out the Needham players across the field. They had nothing to lose—Needham had beaten them three years in a row, hanging on to a powderpuff trophy Wellesley was determined to win back.
“We’re really competitive,” said Erin Baker, 18, from Wellesley. “There’s almost a concussion every year.”
The Needham-Wellesley powderpuff football game has been held the day before the men’s Thanksgiving Day game since the 1980s in celebration of the schools' claim on the oldest standing public school rivalry in US history. Until the past decade, however, the games were secretly held by students in the woods and would attract underage drinking and violence between the schools.
“It was very unorganized and wasn’t very safe,” said Officer Tim Barrows of Wellesley Police. “It got pretty carried away to the point where police were called every time the game was played to break up fights.”
The "rumbles" got so bad that the towns' police departments volunteered to take over the tradition and coach the senior girls to compete for a trophy each year.
Now, the game is quite a bit more peaceful, but no less passionate.
At today's game, a group of shirtless boys with blue paint on their faces and chests spelling “NHS!” cheered on the sidelines, blowing plastic blue horns. “I love this,” said Tyler Reilly, 17, a senior at Needham.
Said Christina Gagosian, 17: “It’s a women bonding thing, a rite of passage”
Wellesley played Needham to a 6-6 tie, with Needham scoring a touchdown with only 20 seconds left in the game by Needham’s Katherine Rayner. Then, the two teams played a "kick off" that had each kick field goals until one missed. Wellesley won out.
“There was so much more community as a group,” said Leah Dowd, 17, who scored Wellesley's first touchdown. “ We got really good at our positions and were really able to exel.”
The Wellesley team, with about 30 girls, was smaller than normal this year. Needham’s team had about fifty girls.
The Wellesley girls will take a victory lap with the trophy at Needham High School’s Memorial Field during the boy's football game tomorrow.
It is a far cry from the pranks from years ago.
In 1991, some Needham students planted a rocket on the Wellesley field to show support for their mascot (the Needham Rockets), but officials thought the device was a bomb, and the Thanksgiving game had to be delayed a day.
The Boston Globe reported the rocket incident on Nov. 30, 1991, along with fans’ concerns that the prank and the powderpuff “rumble” took the rivalry too far. The Globe quoted one graduate claiming students looked forward to the powderpuff fight more than the game.
“We were chasing them through the woods,” said Officer Mike Schlittler, who coaches the Needham team. “The kids were put into a situation where they were going to get injured.”
Now retired Holliston Police Chief Tom Lambert, who was a sergeant in Needham at the time, led the effort to get the police involved with the game in 2000, said Schlittler. The first couple of years had a lower turnout, but participation has grown ever since, he said.
The new tradition attracts family, friends and even some teachers in the stands, although the event is still not school-sanctioned, and the football team is not supposed to attend, said Barrows.
“They’ve really taken what could’ve been a bad experience for many people and turned it into something great and positive,” said Diana Parkhurst, a wellness teacher at Needham High.