ALLSTON — Mike Thomas remembers a time when his alma mater played in front of electric holiday crowds at Harvard Stadium.
His Boston English team in 1966 came into its Thanksgiving showdown against Boston Latin with an unbeaten record, its only blemish a tie against Catholic Memorial.
"We played in a foot of mud at White Stadium," Thomas said of the scoreless finish against the latter.
An injury forced Thomas on the field as a quarterback in the '64 game against Latin as over 20,000 were in attendance. The number was probably less than that, somewhere around 14,000 or more for the '66 game.
That day, English fell in early, 12-0 hole. But thanks to a long touchdown pass from Thomas to the late Tom Cassidy (a journalist for CNN, Cassidy passed in 1991), English rallied for a 20-18 win.
Things are different now, of course. You won't find many high school football games, if any, in Massachusetts with crowds that size. Neither Boston Latin or English, which is now a co-op football program with New Mission, is considered a powerhouse. Thursday's game in the nation's longest continuous rivalry at Harvard Stadium was seen in person by hundreds, not thousands.
A few years younger than Thomas, fellow English graduate Jerry Sybertz knows the dynamics of the sport have shifted. Jerry's brother, Leo, coached the great West Roxbury teams in the 1990s that could have played with anyone and were regulars in Dan Ventura's Sweet 16 poll in the Boston Herald.
"I know what (Boston Globe columnist Dan) Shaughnessy's getting at," Jerry Sybertz said of the recent column on how the current playoff system has hurt the current Thanksgiving Day atmosphere. "But that doesn't affect this game."
Sybertz knows you could put any playoff system in place and you wouldn't pack the house for Latin-English again.
"Times are changing. We live in a different culture now," Sybertz said. "Everybody is busy doing things. This concept seems to fade into the darkness a little."
In the city, many of the best players leave for suburban, Catholic, or private schools. Numbers are down.
"High school football has lost its social aspect of life," Sybertz said. "There's no neighborhood network that supports the whole group."
Yet there they were, the former English players, laughing and cheering on their school, hoping to get that rare win against Latin. After that '66 triumph, English has only tasted victory three times — in '81, '97, and 2013.
So when English fell behind Thursday, Thomas, Sybertz, Sal Giarratani, Frank Williams, and others did not head home early to eat turkey. They stayed and cheered the team on, hoping to break through again.
"To me, this is still a big deal," Thomas said. "Even though none of the city teams are a super duper big deal. . . . You could go 0-7 (in the regular season) and if you win this game, it's a successful season (in the eyes of the alumni)."
Thomas and Co. watched as Latin's Joseph Prior blocked a punt for a safety in the first quarter. Ulysses Brenzel added a 7-yard touchdown run to help push the Latin lead to 9-0 on the following drive. Wolfpack quarterback Matt Susich ran in a 6-yarder to help make it 16-0 by halftime.
It was a familiar script, but English found some life late when Tyreese Ford rumbled in from a yard out to cut the deficit to 16-6 early in the fourth quarter.
There was still time for a dramatic finish, not unlike the defensive stands that held up English's '66 win. Thomas said Bobby and Billy McDonald stuffed the two-point conversion attempt by Latin to preserve the 20-18 margin. Williams remembers making a tackle on the last Latin drive of the game to help seal it.
"The people that remind me, they embellish it more," Williams said.
But on Thursday there was no comeback, and Latin closed out the 16-6 win. The Wolfpack improved their record in the series to 82-38-13.
With all that history tiled toward Latin, and the current state of Boston city football, you would think someone like Thomas would be discouraged, or that he would possibly skip out on future Thanksgiving Day games and get to the dinner table sooner.
However, that's not the case, and not why he shows up.
"It's tradition," Thomas said. "(The recent history of the rivalry) does not mean it can't change."
And even though you don't see tens of thousands of screaming fans in the stands, Latin-English is far from a "meaningless" game now. In Thomas' eyes, it will always be significant.
"It does matter," Thomas said. "To the people that go to these schools, it certainly does."