Gloucester’s annual “Fight for the City” brings together brothers, rivals

On the line Thanksgiving morning: Gloucester Catholic's seniors can complete clean sweep while Gloucester would clinch its first winning season since '15 with a victory.

Bragging rights are on the line in the annual Turkey Day game. Gloucester is eyeing its first winning season since 2015 while Gloucester Catholic’s seniors are eager to a complete a 4-0 sweep, never losing to their rivals during their high school careers. Kickoff is set for 10:30 a.m. on Thursday. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

As the sun began to set behind the trees and an early afternoon breeze gave way to a late November chill, helmets and pads crashed against each other, providing the soundtrack for the night.

Gloucester City High School’s football team was in the midst of one of more than a dozen practices this month during a long layoff between games. After pulling off a 15-14 comeback win over Maple Shade on Nov. 7, in a game they trailed 14-0 heading into the fourth quarter, the Lions weren’t scheduled to play again until Thanksgiving morning.

Twenty straight days without a game.

“You can tell they’re chomping at the bit to get out there,” Gloucester coach Rob Bryan said. “It’s ‘let’s just get out there and play.’”

When the Lions do suit up in the game uniforms next, for the final time in 2019, it will have been worth the wait. City rivals Gloucester and Gloucester Catholic will take part in their annual battle for the Football City Series Cup on Thanksgiving morning. Kickoff is set for 10:30 a.m.

“It’s the fight for the city,” Gloucester’s Derron Cooney said, “and we’re going to take it back.”

“It means everything,” fellow Gloucester senior Nick Brandt said. “We have to come out and defend our city the right way, which we haven’t done in the past three years. It’s going to change on Thanksgiving morning.”

Gloucester City High School coach Rob Bryan, a 2006 grad, is in his second season coaching his alma mater. He understands the gravity of the rivalry game with Gloucester Catholic. “I remember (playing them) my senior year, I remember the last time playing on this field,” he said. “It’s very vivid.” (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Thanksgiving rivalry games have dissipated through South Jersey since the turn of the century. New schools within districts and the ever-changing conference alignments have separated some natural rivalries. Some schools have also pushed the game off the holiday and onto Friday or Saturday night.

But not Gloucester. Bryan remembers the subject coming up around the time he was hired to take over at his alma mater two summers ago.

“I think it’s important, for both teams, and it’s important for our community to keep it going,” said Bryan, a 2006 Gloucester graduate. “There wasn’t much question (we’d keep it). It’s the way I grew up, I grew up watching it. I grew up playing it, grown into coaching it now. It’s too big of an event to look past. You come here and see the crowd, it’s really a spectacle. You know it means a lot to both sides.”

It’s probably no surprise that the two schools within the blue-collar town along the Delaware River are both coached by alumni. Like Bryan, Rams head coach Casey Murphy, a 1998 Gloucester Catholic graduate, grew up in town and understands the gravity of the game.

“I was just born in the building, I grew up with it, grew up with the rivalry,” said Murphy, whose father was the school’s long-time basketball coach and now works as the school’s athletic director. “Back then, all my friends from town would play for Gloucester Catholic and we knew all the guys at Gloucester. It was intense, it was big time. You eat, sleep, breathe it. It’s huge.”

Gloucester Catholic players run through a play during a practice last week in preparation to play for the Football City Series Cup in the season finale against Gloucester on Thanksgiving morning. The Rams lead the overall series 24-20-1 and have won three straight over the Lions. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Within the South Jersey towns that reside closest to Philadelphia in the suburbs – the schools in Camden, Gloucester and Burlington counties – there are few schools that share such a connection to a rival school in the same city. Cherry Hill is too big and suburban. Camden-Woodrow Wilson is probably the best of the bunch, but Gloucester-Gloucester Catholic has a unique distinction that separates the rivalry from the rest.

“We share the same field,” said Murphy, whose team practices at the Patrick Peyton Athletic Complex in Sewell and buses to Gloucester High for games. “I remember back when we took the bus (there when I played), kids used to throw rocks and eggs at the bus when we went to the field.”

The Gloucester-Gloucester Catholic game wasn’t always played on Thanksgiving, but that never changed the game’s intensity. A rivalry that kicked off in 1948 – but then had a 27-year gap in between games until reuniting in 1993 – has had its share of memorable games.

“My senior year we were up 9-0 late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter,” Murphy said of a 1997 game that pitted his Rams against a Lions team that was ranked among the top 10 teams in the state. “They ran a reverse pass, took the ball all the way to the 10 and scored. Now it’s 9-6 with five minutes left. … (Later) they threw the ball down the side of the field, our guy tips the ball away and it comes down … right into (their guy’s) hands, he catches it and goes 80 yards for a touchdown and we lost 13-9. I cried like a baby on that field for a half hour.”

Gloucester Catholic’s seniors are eager to a complete a 4-0 sweep, never losing to their rivals during their high school careers, with a win over Gloucester on Thanksgiving. From left: Brandon Madalion, Pat O’Neill, Jerry O’Donnell, Ben Watkis and Luke Van Auken. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The fact that Murphy can recite games and plays from more than two decades ago is a testament to the pride people in Gloucester have in their high schools.

“I don’t know any other towns like it,” Murphy said. “It’s tight-knit, it’s close. It’s one of those things where you want to beat the hell out of these guys (in this game) but tomorrow or the day after you’re tight with them once again. It’s like having a brother. You always want to beat your brother at everything. But at the end of the day, he’s your brother.”

Gloucester Catholic has beaten its “brother” in each of the last three seasons, but the overall series has been fairly even: the Rams hold a 24-20-1 edge heading into this week’s game.

Gloucester probably doesn’t need much more motivation than knowing its seniors need a victory to avoid being shut out in the series for the duration of their high school careers. But, there’s this: with a win, the Lions (5-5 this season) are eyeing a winning record for the first time since 2015.

“It’s a huge reason why I played,” said Gloucester senior Keegan Farlow, a wrestler who didn’t play high school football until this fall. “It’s really the main reason, it’s the biggest game of the year. We’ve planned for this since the beginning of the season. You have playoff goals, but Catholic is the ultimate goal. It’s the only thing on our mind.”

Gloucester is eyeing its first winning season since 2015 with a win over rival Gloucester Catholic. From left: Keegan Farlow, Nick Brandt, Gavin Callahan, Steve Burkhardt and Derron Cooney. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Gloucester Catholic’s seniors, meanwhile, relish the fact that they’ve never lost a game to the Lions. And they don’t plan on seeing that streak end on their watch.

“Since my freshman year it’s been in everyone’s blood,” Rams senior Luke Van Auken said. “My upperclassmen since I was a freshman always taught me that it’s all about ‘Beat the High,’ you’ve always got to ‘Beat the High.’ And we’d like to go out of the season 4-0 against them.”

“It feels great, knowing that there’s a chance to shut them out,” fellow senior Pat O’Neill said. “And you know they have the worst feeling on the other side of that, they don’t want to go out (without a win in four seasons).”

“They don’t know what it feels like, so they’re going to be gunning for it,” said Gloucester Catholic senior Brandon Madalion. “It’s been just a fight every Thanksgiving.”

Like his counterpart on Gloucester Catholic’s side, Bryan, in his second season as the Lions head coach, recalled his senior season as his most memorable game in the rivalry. As with Murphy, his team lost.

The Rams beat the Lions 27-7 in that 2005 game and defeated their rival in eight of the 13 games since. 

“We didn’t get it done,” Bryan said. “In ‘03, ‘04, and ‘05, in each one, we were coming off a conference championship loss. That hurt stuck with us going into that game, knowing we should have been in a state title game. So, I do remember my senior year, I remember the last time playing on this field. It’s very vivid.”

Murphy remembers, too. The stories they can recall from their own high school football playing days make up a few pages in the dozens of chapters people in Gloucester City could write about the rich, prideful tradition of the Lions-Rams rivalry.

“I told my team yesterday that I lost that game 20 years ago and that’s why I’m here now and I’ll never give it up,” Murphy said. “As many as I can get back from them, it’s never going to compensate for the one that I lost when I was on the field. That’s how important it is, to me anyway.”

Jump ball: two Gloucester High players battle for a ball during practice. The Lions are in the midst of a 20-day run in between games following a 15-14 win over Maple Shade earlier this month and before hosting Gloucester Catholic on Thanksgiving. “You can tell they’re chomping at the bit to get out there,” Gloucester coach Rob Bryan said. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)