For many, relief in nonpolitical football

Thanksgiving game pushes all else aside

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 11/24/2000

UINCY - Yesterday, as he has each Thanksgiving since 1943, George Burke sat at the 50-yard line of Veterans Memorial Stadium, shedding his worldly concerns for the blue-and-white of Quincy High School's football squad.

World War II didn't stop him. Neither did the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or Watergate.

So even in the midst of a budding constitutional crisis in Florida, the former Quincy city councilor and Norfolk district attorney did what he always does: cheered.

''I remember the mood at the game after John Kennedy's assassination was very somber, everyone was wearing black armbands, but the game went on,'' said Burke, who helped run Kennedy's South Shore campaigns. ''I think it would take a lot for people to talk politics at the city championship game. To me, and I think to everyone here, today is about Quincy.''

Frightening, frustrating, and entertaining as the Florida presidential vote recount has been, yesterday's holiday break offered the first chance for Americans everywhere to ignore the protracted presidential election in favor of tradition.

Even in Quincy, the City of Presidents, the roiling electoral drama did little to unseat the municipality's preeminent event of the year, the annual football contest between Quincy and North Quincy high schools.

Indeed, many in attendance yesterday agreed: it would take a lot more than a close election to distract Quincy football fans on game day.

''The only presidents we talked about today are the Quincy presidents,'' said Tony Alibrandi, a postal worker and North Quincy graduate, referring to his rival team. ''We have not had one political conversation today.''

Such happy abandon was in keeping with the national mood. Polling data show that most Americans feel the electoral chaos has yet to endanger the democracy. A Gallup poll conducted Sunday showed that only 10 percent of those surveyed view the Florida recount as a constitutional crisis.

By comparison, 44 percent of respondents said that the election debacle is either a minor problem for the nation, or none at all.

In Massachusetts, thousands of parents, students, and nostalgic fans poured into local football stadiums to root for their high school teams, on a day when most squads face their archrivals.

In Quincy, where 4,000 spectators turned out under clear, icy blue skies, many on hand were men and women who have spent their careers in the political arena. But even they abstained from talking politics.

''People are concerned, but they're also sick of it,'' said Robert Keuther, principal of Quincy High School. ''I'd be surprised if people were talking about it today.''

Perhaps more people would be riveted by the election drama, some said, if the participants cut back on the partisan rhetoric and doomsday predictions.

''They could learn a thing or two from us in Florida,'' said Frank McCauley, a Republican who served as Quincy's mayor from 1982 to 1989, as he watched the game. ''We are fierce competitors here, but we go home friends.''

That spirit of amicable competition permeated yesterday's battle between the Presidents and the Red Raiders, on the field and in the bleachers.

The game began at 10 a.m. sharp, as the marching bands of both high schools joined in a solemn rendition of the National Anthem. But if spectators thought North Quincy music director Richard Kenneally chose that arrangement to match the nation's mood, they were incorrect.

''We've used that arrangement the last five years,'' Kenneally said. ''I just like it.''

Joining the bands were the respective homecoming kings and queens of the high schools, students who, some on hand noted, had no trouble winning their fall elections.

''There's definitely a couple jokes going around, like, `At least we can elect somebody,''' said Paul Griffith, a North Quincy senior who bested three other candidates to become king. ''I take politics at school. We've been talking about this constantly, but not today.''

At halftime, many of the political bigwigs and school officials gathered in the stadium's boiler room for coffee and doughnuts, as they have since the stately brick arena was built in the late 1930s.

There, McCauley shook hands with Joe LaRaia, a Democrat who served as Quincy's mayor in 1976 and 1977. ''Today's about memories for me,'' LaRaia said, wishing McCauley a happy holiday.

McCauley, it so happens, was the mayor who brought punchcard ballots to Quincy in 1985. The controversial ballots are at the middle of the maelstrom in Florida's Palm Beach County.

''We had several recounts and there was very little change,'' McCauley recalled. ''But we always did our recounts by hand.''

Such nostalgia, electoral and otherwise, was the essence of the annual Thanksgiving matchup for many at the game.

''I've been following the election pretty close, but today, I'm showing my kid the big game,'' said Jim Ziniti of Attleboro, who played for North Quincy in the early 1970s.

Unlike the contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, the competition for Quincy was destined to end with a clear winner, even if the teams remained tied at the end of regulation time. (Quincy won, 28-13.)

''Both teams get four shots from the 10-yard line to win it,'' Keuther said. ''And there's no recounts.''