Jennifer Norcross

Jennifer Norcross, a Stonington High teacher and graduate (Class of 1986), has missed just two Stonington-Westerly games since her freshman year of high school. | Harold Hanka, The Westerly Sun

STONINGTON — Before Jennifer Norcross entered Stonington High, she spent Thanksgiving Day traveling to Worcester County in Massachusetts to be with family.

But when Norcross became a freshman, that changed. She was going to spend her holiday morning at the annual Westerly vs. Stonington high school football game. The trip to Massachusetts could wait till later in the day.

"As soon as I became a student, my parents knew it would be a thing," said the 52 year-old Norcross, a 1986 Stonington graduate. "I don't have a lot of memories of that first game. I probably went with my basketball teammates and was hanging out with them."

This fall, Norcross, who's in her 24th year as a Stonington teacher, will not be attending the game because it's been canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.

She has missed it only twice since her freshman year of high school.

In 2002, she was living in Budapest, Hungary, as part of a Fulbright teacher exchange program. In 2012, she traveled to Georgia to see her brother, who had just become a father for the first time.

"I listened to the game on the WBLQ app," Norcross said.

In 2000, the two teams went to overtime and Norcross had to leave early to catch a flight to Virginia to visit her sister. The Bears lost 24-17.

"I listened to the end of the game on the radio on the drive to Providence," Norcross said.

This will be the first time since 1922 that the two teams have not played a game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day (it has been moved to other days a few times due to poor weather conditions).

"I really feel bad for the boys. In retrospect, the pandemic is a worldwide issue. It's bigger than us. There was nothing else that could be done," Norcross said. "It will sort of be a badge of honor of this class. It's very unfortunate. We are going to remember this year for the lack of the game."

Stonington and Westerly first started playing football in 1911. The first Thanksgiving Day game was played in 1913.

The two teams played each other the following Thanksgiving in 1914, but did not play again on Turkey Day until 1922.

Norcross has worked the ticket booth when Stonington hosts the game ever since she became a teacher in 1996. She arrives at the school at 8 a.m., two hours before kickoff. 

"I enjoy that. I get to see classmates, former students and people I've come to know over the year," she said. "You see so many people coming through and everyone is in a good mood."

Norcross said the game is about football, but so much more.

"I think for people who aren't from here, they really don't get what the big deal is," she said. "It brings the whole community together. I grew up in Pawcatuck but spent a lot of time in Westerly. I love that it brings the two towns together. In the end, we are all a part of the same community."

Norcross teaches English, but has also been a history teacher.

"I have an appreciation for the tradition of the game. I think the boys, the cheerleaders and the band have a sense they are a part of something special that has been happening for a long time," Norcross said.

"For of a lot of them, their parents, grandparents and great grandparents were a part of the game. A lot of them have grown up hearing about the great players and the great games. It really means something."

Norcross said the touchdown reception by Brendan Wilkins with 42.7 seconds left that gave Stonington a 22-19 win over the Bulldogs in 2008 stands out as memorable. Stonington drove 65 yards in less than a minute with no timeouts for the victory.

She said Christian McGugan's performance in a Stonington win in 1984 stands out, too. McGugan had a 78-yard TD run.

Norcross will fill the void on Thanksgiving Day by visiting family. Still, it will be strange to be somewhere other than Stonington or Westerly taking in a football game.

"It feels like we are really missing out on something, but every community in the country is missing out on something. As important as it is, there are more important things in the world than football," Norcross said. "We will not be knocked down forever. We will be back and this game will be back."

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