You probably missed the most remarkable Thanksgiving football game of the last 50 years. Very few people saw it. Very few knew that Edison High School was the place to be that day.
The witnesses have no ticket stubs as memorabilia. They can't boast of being there, and they wouldn't bother anyway. It wasn't that kind of game.
The highlight wasn't even a play. It came almost an hour after the final whistle, away from the field, on the asphalt of North Philadelphia. Bright green and yellow jerseys dotted the neighborhood, on the backs of teenage boys who appeared to be floating.
They had never been allowed to wear the uniforms home before. Their coach guarded them carefully, washing everything himself to insure that the colors stayed the same on each jersey. Faded limes amid the emeralds would not have been right. And Larry Oliver did all he could to make things right for the Edison High football team.
Yet there he was, on Thanksgiving Day 1991, without a single win in the previous seven seasons. Over 58 games, his team had tied twice, forfeited once because the number of players fell too low to compete safely and surrendered a two-point win in 1986 a day after the fact. Oliver learned that one of the players had been in school for five years, making him ineligible.
Things had started to shift ever so slightly by '91. Edison had recently moved into a new building. Its football field was well-groomed, and it had a working scoreboard, an amenity missing from some other venues in the Philadelphia Public League. Players found ways to attend practice more regularly, even though several of them held down jobs to help support their families.
"For football, some of them stop working for a while or just work on the weekends, but it's hard,'' Oliver said for a Nov. 1 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I covered the city's high school sports for the Inquirer back then. The job allowed me to watch some great athletes in their formative years. Rasheed Wallace played basketball then at Simon Gratz, which would be Edison's opponent in the Thanksgiving football game. Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning's future favorite target, had just graduated from Roman Catholic and gone on to Syracuse. Frank Wycheck, best known for his role in the Tennessee Titans' "Music City Miracle,'' had played at Archbishop Ryan.
But the most memorable part of the job was getting to know kids growing up in conditions I could never have fathomed before, vulnerable in ways that, no matter how much time I spent in their neighborhoods, I would never fully comprehend. At one school, a basketball game ended in a lockdown, everyone barred from leaving the building for an extra half-hour because somebody had given someone a funny look in the stands and now certain offended parties associated with a gang were lurking suspiciously in a fast-food place nearby. At the home of another athlete, two bullet holes pockmarked the frame of the front door. Another missed the first half of a season while he recovered from a drive-by shooting.
The Edison players lived in one of the most rugged parts of the city. "All around this neighborhood, there are a lot of things that grab at you," Jose Montanez, the quarterback, said. "Materialistic people, trying to talk you into selling drugs. … They wouldn't want to come out and work this hard."
It takes a special kind of athlete to keep playing on a team that never wins. The Edison players could count on being taunted at school and on the street. Montanez heard it all. "You're a bunch of scrubs,'' he said, repeating an insult hurled at him while he talked with his girlfriend.
Oliver constantly tried to counter that noise. In 1990, he asked Calvin Jones, a member of Edison's Class of 1970 working at another school, to be his first assistant so that they understood a tradition of success. A multisport athlete, Jones had been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, gone to Delaware State, and then been drafted by the Detroit Tigers after he finished college. He briefly went to the minors, then took up teaching and coaching.
For one game, Oliver invited a bunch of former players to stand on the sideline in their Edison jackets, supporting the current team. "I wanted us to really hear a lot of voices out there,'' he said. "We weren't used to it, just having numbers on the sidelines.''
A lot of Public League schools found it difficult to retain football players, but Edison's program withered more than most as its enrollment shifted to a predominantly Latino population, with no cultural attachment to American football. From 1978 to 1982, the football team went 27 games without scoring, setting what was believed to be a national futility record. Oliver took over as head coach the following year. The year after that, the 58-game winless string began.
Each defeat would deflate Oliver, but only for so long. He'd find a message for the kids in all of it. "We tell them that being on this team is like being in a marriage,'' he said. "You have to work at it all the time, and it can be frustrating, but you can't give up. We feel like, if a kid can last on this team, he can make a marriage work."
Besides, Oliver knew that Edison had endured much greater losses. The Vietnam War claimed the lives of 54 graduates, more than from any other American high school. Thanksgiving morning arrived with an array of more important games, from a purely football perspective. The Archbishop Ryan-Washington rivalry would produce the unofficial city champion. But Edison was the place to be. At least, that's what I told my editor. The losses had stopped being blowouts. The team had registered both of its ties that year. Gratz, Oliver's alma mater, looked like an even match.
The game came down to the final minute. With Edison trailing, 20-14, Montanez threw a 23-yard touchdown pass. The celebration started … and then … a flag appeared. Clipping. The ball went back.
For some reason, the call didn't demoralize the Edison sideline. Maybe it was because everyone there had already overcome so much to make it this far, healthy and still playing football. Maybe it was because they didn't want to acknowledge the obvious. A 23-yard touchdown pass in high school football is a pretty special play. Teams don't see a play like that erased and then come back from it, especially not teams that have found ways to lose for seven years.
So what did Montanez do? He found the same receiver, Robert Selby, and threw to him again, this time for a 29-yard touchdown pass. If you didn't know better, you'd have thought they were showing off.
The conversion for the win was not a simple matter. Edison didn't have a genuine placekicker, so Oliver, encouraged by his players and Jones, called for a pitchout to the fullback. The result: three yards, two points, a dead end at 58 for the streak.
"It feels good, and it feels odd," Oliver said after an icy shower from the water bucket. "It's hard to believe that all that frustration and anger and depression that you feel is finally over."
When he told the players they could wear their uniforms home and show the neighborhood what happy Edison players looked like, linebacker Eddie Jones said: "I'm going to sleep in this tonight. I'm not taking it off until Sunday for church."
Oliver would remain as the Edison coach another 18 years, until the 2009 season. He stayed on as a health and physical education teacher one more year, then retired from the school district. Over the phone from Philadelphia this week, he said the team made the playoffs once, in 1999. But most of the seasons were under .500, and his last yielded just one win.
"I just couldn't overcome how small we were, and not having a junior varsity,'' he said. Oliver reported that the fields all over the city have been upgraded, he eventually got a washer and dryer at the school and help with the laundry, and that some of the kids on the '91 team went on to college, for education if not for sports. That was what he'd always wanted, to make the same impression on them that his coaches had left with him: Turn this into something more.
Back in '91, Oliver knew how to make the joy of that 22-20 win reverberate. I drove away from the field and saw his players on the sidewalks, wearing those neon jerseys, holding hands with girlfriends, walking with family, turning a dingy November day bright. It was the perfect Thanksgiving moment, a picture embedded in the memory forever and framed by gratitude. On that day, there was no better place to be than Edison High.