Playing in the Turkey Bowl last Thanksgiving at M&T Bank Stadium gave Loyola defensive end Matt Gillespie a little taste of what the Ravens go through on Sunday afternoons. His Dons and their rivals at Calvert Hall look forward to the chance each year to play in an NFL stadium, something few high school players get to experience.
But with the Ravens playing the Pittsburgh Steelers at home on Thanksgiving night, the 94th annual Turkey Bowl will be played at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium, rather than the NFL facility that has been the game's home more often than not.
It's the second time in three years the game has been moved, the first conflict coming when John Harbaugh's Ravens played Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers in the first "Harbowl" in 2011.
Gillespie played in the 2011 game too, so the senior knows the difference in atmosphere between the two venues. He prefers one over the other, but it's probably not the one most folks would expect.
"I actually prefer Towson over M&T Bank," Gillespie said, "because at Towson, the crowd's a lot more packed in, and at M&T Bank it's like a ghost town. At Towson, the fans are definitely more involved and we hear more on the field. Everything's just closer and there's a lot more noise."
Last year's game drew 9,298 fans to 71,000-seat M&T Bank Stadium. Two years ago, 10,080 fans rocked 11,000-seat Johnny Unitas Stadium.
"Playing at Towson offers its own unique experience," said Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis, who has participated in both previous games played at Towson.
In addition to the 2011 game, the 1993 game had to be relocated, but not because of a professional football game: the movie "Major League II" was being filmed at Memorial Stadium over Thanksgiving weekend in 1993. Because it was a baseball movie, Davis said, the football lines couldn't be drawn on the field even for one day.
Davis played for the Cardinals in 1993 and coached them in 2011.
"You don't get to play in Ravens' stadium, and that's a tough thing for the kids not to have the opportunity to play in the same stadium where [Joe] Flacco and [Haloti] Ngata and [Ray] Lewis play," Davis said. "But at Towson, we fill that stadium. M&T is cavernous, you can put 15,000 people in it and it looks empty. At Towson, we fill the bowl, which is cool. And, the stadium is in the neighborhood. It essentially sits between the two schools and with that location, it becomes a neighborhood-type rivalry game."
The schools are three miles apart and only a mile or two from the stadium, where this will be the rubber game of the series – the parts played at Towson, anyway.
While the Dons lead the all-time series 48-37 with eight ties, the teams have won one game each at Towson. These Cardinals, however, have never lost a Turkey Bowl with Calvert Hall taking the last four.
This fall has been disappointing for the Cardinals (3-7) and the Dons (2-8), but winning the Turkey Bowl would have the feel of capping a championship season.
Gillespie hopes to be celebrating with his family at a relative's house for their annual turkey dinner. Then, he'll head to M&T Bank Stadium, anyway, to watch the Ravens play the Steelers.
Although he's a Ravens' fan, Gillespie is looking forward to seeing Loyola alum Terence Garvin play for the Steelers. Five years ago, Garvin was playing in the Turkey Bowl.
"It's really awesome to know that our program sent a player to the pros," Gillespie said, "and him making the team is just amazing. It shows us anyone can do it."
In the end, the allure of third-oldest football rivalry in Baltimore — behind 125 years of City-Poly and 98 years of Gilman-McDonogh — doesn't depend on the game's location.
"The field is 100 yards long and 53 and 1/3 wide. Let's just play the game," said Loyola coach Brant Hall, who was the Dons' offensive coordinator two years ago.
"Of course it's an experience for the boys to be able to play where the Ravens play. That's a bunch of guys they look up to and to able to play there is something special. It's different at Towson, but it's a great experience. I really liked it there. It's a great rivalry, so anywhere you play is going to be electric."
twitter.com/kdunnsunCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun