Some of us feel an emptiness this week that has nothing to do with turkey or stuffing. City College and Poly should be playing football on Thanksgiving Day, the way they did for roughly a century.
But they’re not.
They played three weeks ago, and City won, giving the Collegians a 63-62-6 edge in the series after 131 years of competition. This is one of the oldest football rivalries in America, high school or college.
But the game was removed from its traditional Thanksgiving Day spot because of a state playoff system that was instituted in 1992.
How big was City-Poly on Thanksgiving Day? Big enough that Memorial Stadium would be erupting with students and alumni roaring to the skies. Big enough that at its peak, not one but two local TV stations and radio all carried the game.
Big enough that graduates from both schools would identify their high school years by the outcomes of the big holiday game.
In my case, you still hear guys say, “I was there when Duley ran the kickoff back,” and they know that nobody needs any further explanation.
It was Tom Duley, whose 85-yard return of a kickoff with only seconds remaining in the first half propelled City to victory and became the stuff of legend.
This was November of 1960. City hadn’t beaten Poly in a full decade. Entering that final game of the season, City had only won two games all year, while Poly had only lost two games. Poly looked primed for an easy win.
That’s not the only stuff worth remembering. Two weeks earlier, John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon to become president of the United States.
Hold that thought for a moment.
With 22 seconds remaining in the first half, Poly scored a touchdown to take a four-point lead and knock the wind out of City’s upset dreams. Duley, a stocky 15-year old sophomore, stood on his 10-yard line to take the Poly kickoff. He slumped visibly. A referee approached him.
“Keep your head up, son,” the ref said.
“I will,” said Duley.
We spoke several times over the ensuing decades, and Duley always remembered the details. It was the highlight moment of his entire life. He could still see the kickoff bouncing twice, and four Poly guys hitting him simultaneously as he reached the 25-yard line, knocking him straight up.
There was no place for Duley to fall. And so he ran. And a generation remembered the run, 85 yards of it, for years and years, and talked about it because it helped define an era, and a Thanksgiving holiday.
When Duley reached the end zone, he heard the crowd roaring his name: “Duley, Duley, Duley.” And to everyone’s utter astonishment, inspired, underdog City upset Poly for the first time in a decade, 30-26.
Years later, I asked Duley how he had gotten home from Memorial Stadium that day. I’d always imagined him riding in a convertible, cheerleaders surrounding him, waving to cheering throngs like the king of France.
But he said he rode an MTA bus home.
When he reached his stop on Harford Road, he spotted the day’s final Evening Sun edition at a corner newsstand, and the big front page headline: “City Upsets Poly; Duley Electrifies Crowd of 18,000.”
“I still have that paper,” he said. “When I walked into the house, the whole family was there for Thanksgiving dinner. I held up the paper, and my mom said, ‘Look at this. It took my son to bump John Kennedy off the front page.’”
It’s one of the great legacies of local sports that City and Poly still square off, as they have every year since 1889. But some of us remember when they played on Thanksgiving Day, and all of the flavor it added to Baltimore’s long, festive weekend.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He was a member of the Baltimore City College class of June 1963.