‘Bad Blood’: 135 years of Needham-Wellesley Football Rivalry

November 20, 2023
• Thanksgiving and football go hand-in-hand in communities across America, but the pairing is notably and historically special to Needham and Wellesley.

Since the 1880s, the two neighboring towns have stoked the flames of the rivalry, which is reportedly the longest one in public high school football history.

The origins of the famous Thanksgiving football game, however, date back even earlier than Wellesley’s founding, said Gloria Greis, executive director of the Needham History Center and Museum.

Needham established two high schools by 1865: one on the east side of town and one on the west. But by 1881, Needham’s west parish voted to form its own town, which became Wellesley, and with it went the other high school, which became Wellesley High School.

The 1904 Needham High School football team stand on the steps of the Emery Grover building, which was once the high school until 1930. (Courtesy Needham History Center and Museum)

Before the separation, the two schools had already played each other, sparking an “informal rivalry,” Greis said. That seemed to have “kicked up a notch” once Wellesley split off, she said.

While some question whether Needham-Wellesley is actually the oldest — Boston Latin and Boston English may have a longer, uninterrupted rivalry — Greis stands firm in her belief it is.

The current standings have Wellesley in the lead with 65 wins to Needham’s 60. The teams have tied nine times over the last three centuries, the last being in 1963.

Wellesley’s won the last three matchups, so it’s perhaps time to even the score. With a 9-2 record this season, this Needham Rockets squad may be able to do so.

No one knows the stakes as much as Needham Head Coach Doug Kopsco, who exemplifies the generational significance of this game. An NHS alum, Kopsco once captained the football team, where he faced rival Wellesley captain Justin Davis, who now coaches his own alma mater. Before high school, the two even played on the same youth football team.

Going into Thursday’s game, Kopsco said the tradition is “a huge part of my day-to-day existence,” having grown up here and continuing to live and work here.

A game booklet for the 1959 Needham Wellesley Thanksgiving game. (Courtesy Wellesley Historical Society)

“The rivalry, it’s almost like fighting your cousins or something,” Kopsco said. “It’s competitive, and that’s what makes it so great, but it’s because there’s so many commonalities and so much that bridges those two towns and so much history around it.”

Needham and Wellesley have met for a Thanksgiving game nearly every year, with few exceptions.

World War II interrupted the match in 1917 and 1918, and the teams didn’t play the two years following, after the Spanish Flu epidemic. A much more recent pandemic paused play in 2020, breaking a 98-year streak. They played in March 2021 to renew the rivalry again, post COVID.

In the earlier years, the game varied widely, Greis said, and it wasn’t always on Thanksgiving. The game itself also looked a lot more like rugby, she said, which is a progenitor of current-day football.

That style of play is perhaps reflected in old box scores. In the first 11 years of play, neither team scored more than four points. In the first game played in 1882, Wellesley won 4-0, and in 1890, Needham beat Wellesley 4-2.

Needham and Wellesley face off in a 1930s iteration of the Thanksgiving football rivalry. (Courtesy Needham History Center and Museum)

In more modern history, the 1991 game was famously postponed after two NHS students planted a rocket at the Wellesley field ahead of the game, which a maintenance worker mistook for a possible bomb. Police ended up exploding the rocket. As former Needham Head Coach and Athletic Director Roy Johan said in 2017, it was perhaps a “prank that got a little out of hand.”

Three years later, Needham achieved an iconic victory in overtime, ending the Raiders’ six-game win streak. Throughout the years, players have also overcome difficult weather, including ice on the field in the early 2000s. At Fenway Park in 2015, Needham beat Wellesley 12-7.

And though the competition has remained relatively friendly, Needham’s loss in 2019 ended in a brawl.

During his own senior matchup with Wellesley, Kopsco and the Rockets fell 27-20, after winning the previous three years of his high school career. Win or lose, it’s a time the community can come together and rally, Kopsco said. He’ll still run into old friends and familiar faces he hasn’t seen in decades. They bring their own kids to the game, and the cycle continues.

A 1950s Wellesley High School pep rally featured “the Needham bull.” (Courtesy Wellesley Historical Society)

“It’s just such an amazing tradition and opportunity for guys, especially the seniors, to go out in the most important game of the season,” he said.

The timing of the game — at the end of the football season, when the playoffs are on the line — as well as its association with Thanksgiving helped solidify the rivalry, Greis said, but the “bad blood” between the two towns has ensured its longevity.

It started with feuds over the location of the west parish and evolved into future the Wellesley side’s desire to distance themselves from Needham’s working class demographic, Greis said. While Needham housed knitting mills and industry, Wellesley housed the wealthy.

By all accounts, Greis said Wellesley split off because Needham was apparently “dragging them down.”

Needham and Wellesley face off in the 1966 Thanksgiving football game. The Rockets won the game 38-20. (Courtesy Wellesley Historical Society)

“It’s the kind of snobbism that we associate with Wellesley to this day,” Greis said laughing.

While the rivalry has become much tamer over the years, Wellesley still has a reputation, Greis said.

“When you’re talking about some of the businesses that are coming into town or things like that, they’ll say, ‘People’ll think this is going to be Wellesley,’” she said. “There’s still aspirational, derogatory comments.”

As the Raiders prepare for the next four quarters, former players will join them on the practice field, Coach Davis wrote by email, and those who can’t make it will send good luck texts and emails from across the country.

Multiple members on both coaching staffs have also played in this very game, Davis wrote, but “it is a special time of year” for all involved. One of the joys of Massachusetts high school football is playing on Thanksgiving Day, and Davis stated the importance of giving that gift to today’s high schoolers.

A game booklet for the 1937 Needham Wellesley Thanksgiving game. (Courtesy Wellesley Historical Society)

“We all feel a strong connection to the game and a responsibility to pass it down to the next generations of players and coaches,” Davis wrote. “For me personally, it is a time to connect with former players and families who have come back to support the program. It reinforces the positive connection that these kids and their families have made through their time in our program.”

Wellesley is 5-5 in their 2023 season, but Davis signaled his team’s hard work, both in the classroom and on the field. The game should be an interesting one.

“Needham has had an excellent season,” Davis wrote. “They are well-coached and play the game with class. We are very much looking forward to playing Needham on Thanksgiving.”

Needham High is entering the 135th rivalry game with a capable lineup of players, including senior running back Tate Hoffmeister, who Kopsco called “a lead-by-example guy,” and senior and middle linebacker Jake Reiser, considered “the voice of our team throughout the year,” he said.

“This team has actually already broken Needham High history by winning the highest number of playoff games, too,” Kopsco said, “so we’ve already kind of set that record, and we’re looking to finish out the year strong against the very talented Wellesley team.”

The game will be aired on The Needham Channel and Wellesley Media.

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