It's Not Thanksgiving Without A Brawl

All week, something just hasn't felt right. The calendar says it's time for Thanksgiving — although the music and decorations in the stores indicate it's sometime in mid-December — and all the indicators agree.

The leaves are off the trees, the grocery stores are packed with turkeys and anything they can make in a pumpkin flavor, I checked the television schedule and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will air this morning and my mom's cabinets are stuffed with stuffing mix and pumpkin filling, ready to cook the best meal of the year.

But for some reason, it just hasn't felt like Thanksgiving, and I think I've figured out why.

In 13 out of the last 18 years, Thanksgiving weekend has meant one thing to sports fans in the Mountain State — the Backyard Brawl.

West Virginia and Pitt have met twice on Thanksgiving Day in recent years, in 2004 and 2005, and eight other times since 1994 they've done battle on Black Fridays. Even a traditional Saturday game is special if it comes on Thanksgiving weekend, and that's been the case for the Mountaineers and the Panthers three times over the last two decades.

Thanksgiving is about family first, but for sports fans, football is a close second. I have great memories of cooking up my first Thanksgiving meal on my own for my pregnant wife and two sisters-in-law last year in South Carolina — luckily the Brawl was on Friday last year, because my wife went into labor on Saturday — and countless recollections of Thanksgivings spent with various family and friends at my parents' house over the years.

But many of my most vivid Turkey Day memories involve West Virginia and Pitt.

I remember hopping in my car and driving to Pittsburgh on a cold Black Friday in 2000, because I didn't want to miss Don Nehlen's last regular season game, even if I did almost lose my fingers and toes inside Three Rivers Stadium. I'll never forget making that same trek two years later, this time on a Saturday, to witness WVU clinching a spot in the Continental Tire Bowl by upsetting the Panthers for its fourth-straight win under second-year head coach Rich Rodriguez.

One of my most adventurous, and filling, Thanksgivings came in 2004 when I had an early Thanksgiving lunch with some friends in Morgantown before heading up to Pittsburgh and eating another complete Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimming in the press box at Heinz Field, sitting beside the late Beano Cook. As if two turkey meals weren't enough, I made the drive from Pittsburgh to Lewisburg after the game, arriving at my parents' house just as the sun came up, in plenty of time for my third meal on Friday.

Then there's 2005, when I made the trip to Morgantown for a nighttime Backyard Brawl and ate a Thanksgiving meal at my former college roommate's family tailgate in the Silver Lot. It was so cold that night — a wind chill below zero — that gravy from a steaming pot was cold by the time it hit my mashed potatoes and I managed to handle a fork with my frozen hands.

In 2008, I was trying to watch the game from my couch, while my fiancée was pestering me to get ready for the engagement pictures we were supposed to be taking later that afternoon.

The 2009 game was another memorable one. My wife — yes, we got through the wedding after some arguing about the pictures — and I made the drive from South Carolina to eat at my parents' house before picking up her mom and heading to Morgantown in time to watch Tyler Bitancurt hand Bill Stewart his biggest regular season win in his time with the Mountaineers, an upset of the No. 8 Panthers on a last-second field goal.

In 2010, we were in Georgia at my sister's house, watching as WVU represented the Mountain State in fine fashion, wearing its Nike Pro Combat uniforms to honor the state's coal miners, and last year, as mentioned above, I was eagerly anticipating the birth of my first son as a watched the Mountaineer defense close out another win.

Those are a few of my memories, and I'm sure plenty reading these words have plenty of their own. That's what makes a rivalry special. It produces games you'll never forget, and those contests are intertwined with life experiences you'll always cherish.

I'm sure the turkey and gravy will taste just right — and so will the leftover turkey sandwiches and stuffing on Friday afternoon. And WVU even has a game, when it travels to Iowa State.

But the Mountaineers and the Cyclones just isn't the same. Without the Backyard Brawl, Thanksgiving will never feel quite right.

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