"A couple of years ago the game had to be played on the Saturday before Thanksgiving because Heights was in the playoffs," Haddonfield football coach Dick Eastwick said.
"I got phone calls - parents, kids, all very upset that the game wasn't played on Thanksgiving. I heard words like 'hollow' and 'depressing.' This was about Thanksgiving."
That is not to say that these two boroughs, whose combined population is fewer than 20,000, wouldn't celebrate the holiday unless a football game accompanied it.
"I don't think football wags Thanksgiving around here," said Haddon Heights principal David Sandowich, a former Heights guard who graduated in 1972. "But for one reason or another, people always come out."
"It's where you go before Thanksgiving dinner," Haddonfield athletic director Frank Panhuise said. "Honestly, it really doesn't matter who wins."
He is exactly right. Haddonfield holds a 42-36-6 advantage, but there is more at play than the final score.
"It's not a game anymore," said Howard Pomroy, Haddon Heights athletic director. "It's more than a game. It's an event. A happening."
As the two teams take the field for the 85th time today in South Jersey's second-oldest rivalry, consider this perspective from former Haddonfield coach Russ Spicer:
"Before one Thanksgiving game, we were really up for it. I mean, the kids were as ready as we could possibly be, and I kept building it up and building it up. Sometimes you don't know where to draw that line.
"Well, we went out and lost. One of the kids came up to me after the game and I asked him, 'What was going on out there?'
"He said, 'Coach, we were just exhausted.' You always expect a great game on Thanksgiving, but sometimes it's a little too big. But that's the thing about these games."
In South Jersey, only Vineland and Millville were playing each other before Haddonfield and Haddon Heights started their series.
It was 1902. Football helmets were a thing of the distant future, the forward pass was four years from legalization, and Haddonfield beat Haddon Heights, 12-0.
From a purely football perspective, several games have distinguished themselves since that opening kickoff.
There was the 1944 classic, which featured an unbeaten, untied and unscored-upon Heights team against an unbeaten and untied Haddonfield squad.
Let former Heights halfback Don Landis pick up the story.
"I had left school to join the Navy in December of 1943," said Landis, now 67. "I was stationed in the Pacific (on the Sahara, a repair ship), and I got a letter from a friend of mine. It said they'd played to a 0-0 tie."
Games like that helped build the Haddonfield-Haddon Heights matchup into one of huge proportions.
"I can remember some real mob scenes," said Bob Alleger, 69, a 1942 graduate of Haddonfield. "People would be lined up five deep behind the ropes. For about 40 years, it was the dominant game around here."
When Haddonfield won the 1949 game, 14-12, the team gave itself a reward, according to Wilbur "Pony" Wilson, a 1950 Haddonfield graduate and athletic director at Rutgers-Camden. "We hadn't beaten them in a few years (since 1941), so when we won, all the seniors took the following Monday off. We got reprimanded for it, but we did it anyway."
Although each has been unique, one game in recent history rises above the rest.
In 1970, Heights again entered the Thanksgiving game unbeaten, while Haddonfield was 7-1. Before several thousand fans, the two battled to another classic deadlock, 26-26.
"Both teams had such great scoring potential," said Spicer, Haddonfield coach from 1953 to 1973. "It was a matter of wondering whether you wanted to score again, and give them a chance to score after you."
Each school's stadium is a Depression-era, red-brick edifice marked by archways and weather-beaten bleachers. Haddon Heights' stadium, where the game gets underway at 11 this morning, is surrounded by tree-lined avenues in a peaceful, quiet suburb. It will be filled with about 3,000 fans this morning.
"It's not just a neighborhood rivalry," said Joe Foulk, a former Haddonfield athletic director. "It's like a family reunion. Even though nobody's setting the world on fire, I'm sure it'll be packed."
Several communities commingle at this event - the two student bodies, the two groups of townspeople, the civic leaders. The home school has a breakfast each Thanksgiving morning, where the seniors, their parents, and school and town administrators meet before the game.
Among those attending, traditionally, are the mayors, who have made it a practice to make wagers that are rarely, if ever, paid off.
"Nobody ever pays off," Haddonfield Mayor Jack Tarditi corrected, "but we've bet things like raking the other guy's leaves, or painting curbs in the other town. It's all in good fun."
"I haven't heard from him yet," Tarditi's counterpart, Robert Battersby, said with a chuckle. "We'll have to work something out (this) morning."
If other friendly wagering goes on, much of it will remain within families, several generations of which will contribute to the crowd at Haddon Heights.
People tend to return here, whether just for the holidays or to stay.
"The reason the tradition is so strong is the way it's been passed down through families," Foulk said. "You'll see sons and daughters of former football players and former students all around."
"We see faces we haven't seen for years," said Pomroy, the Haddon Heights athletic director. "People who move here tend to stay here for life. Houses get passed on from generation to generation."
Fred Caravelli, 78, owns Caravelli's Barber Shop in Haddonfield, a business he inherited from his father, who had taken over from his uncle. The business, coincidentally, opened in 1902, the year Haddonfield's Bulldogs started their series with the Garnets.
"It all depends on who comes in," said Caravelli, a Haddonfield quarterback who graduated in 1934 with an 8-0 victory over Heights. "We'll have some Haddon Heights people come in after the game, and they'll needle us, or we'll needle them. It all depends on who won. It's all part of the fun."
Likewise on Thanksgiving, Dennis Downs, 26, sees fans from both towns flow through Lindsey's Friendly Food Market in the heart of Haddon Heights.
"We'll get a big crowd coming through for coffee on the way to the game,
because we're sort of in the center of town," said Downs, a 1985 Heights graduate who works the deli counter. "A lot of the older people come in with some great memories. It's interesting to listen to their stories."
"It's the social event of the day," said Tarditi, whose son played football at Haddonfield. "The football game is the drawing card, but it almost becomes incidental to the event itself."
The buildup begins and ends with the students, who organize Spirit Week events for the three days prior to the game. For some, three days isn't enough. Haddon Heights held a pep rally - featuring a class song competition, cheerleading performances and a pie-eating contest, among other activities - on Friday. Six days before the game.
Two years ago, Coach Eastwick recalled, the senior class filled Haddonfield's entire center courtyard with decorations. Despite protests that the courtyard didn't constitute a hallway, the seniors won the contest.
"Sneaking in here in the middle of the night," remembered an admiring Eastwick, "they did a masterful job."
Panhuise, the athletic director, said the schoolwide involvement unites all Haddonfield students, regardless of their interest in football.
"What it does is provide each class with a unifying mechanism," he said. ''Guys, girls, jocks, academics. It really binds them."
Finally, though, after all the school spirit, after all the predictions, after the mayors have decided what deed the loser must perform, and after all the buildup, a game is played. For the participants, it can make or break a season.
"You just want to win it for your own pride," said Haddon Heights senior Sean Skierski, whose team is 1-7. "I don't know if all the students know the history behind it, but we know it's Haddonfield. That gives you a little more incentive."
For Haddonfield senior Sam Robinson, the game will culminate years of expectations.
"When I was a kid, that was the game to go to," said Robinson, whose team is 3-4. "The Friday night games were always past my bedtime, so I always went to Thanksgiving. This is the game."
Here, today, no other games exist other than this one, between two small schools, neither of which has hopes of making the playoffs or being remembered as one of its school's best ever. It doesn't matter.
Robinson summed up the thoughts of most of the residents best.
"What's Thanksgiving," he asked, "without football?"