On Thanksgiving Day, fifteen years ago in 2000, a teenaged Jon DiDonato stood shivering in an obscure corner of the west end of Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland, under the shadow of Hadlock Field.
Roughly ten thousand people had shown up for that year’s annual Thanksgiving Day football game between storied crosstown rivals Portland High and Deering High. It was the 89th year of the game, which is known to locals as “The Turkey Game,” and is the second oldest high school football rivalry of its kind in the country.
Decades ago, before a playoff system was developed for Maine high school football, the Turkey Game counted in the standings because state champions were decided on win/loss records. Since the 1970’s though, the game has been a post-season exhibition, so it’s all about local pride, bragging rights, and tradition.
The Deering Rams squad was coming off a difficult 1-7 season marred by injury and close calls in the wrong direction, and the Portland Bulldogs team- a preseason favorite for the Class A state championship- was still reeling from a frustrating loss in the playoffs to their other rival, South Portland High.
There’s usually a pretty good turnout for the game, and in 2000 the weather was comparatively mild, but attendance was also boosted that year because it was Quinton Porter’s final game in Bulldog blue.
Porter, the record setting quarterback who would eventually go on to play in the NFL, had accepted a scholarship offer from Boston College, and Portland High fans showed up in droves to bid him farewell.
There was also a huge showing in the Deering student section, a rare sight that season, but they weren’t necessarily there to root on their team- they were there for DiDonato.
For a couple of weeks leading up to the game, DiDonato, then a junior at Deering, had circulated a pledge sheet around school saying that if enough people would commit to paying him three dollars each, he would strip down naked and streak across the field in the middle of the Turkey Game.
At the time, the Deering student body numbered around 1,400 strong, so it didn’t take long for DiDonato to gather several hundred pledges. In fact, many students pledged more than the required three dollar minimum.
The game was much closer than anyone had anticipated, with the underdog Rams coming out of halftime nursing a slight lead. In their regular season meeting, the Bulldogs had won by several touchdowns, so with the score so close the crowd was growing in intensity as the end of the third quarter approached.
The Bulldogs had the ball around midfield, moving towards the Deering Avenue end of the stadium away from Hadlock Field, but the stubborn Rams had forced a third down and long, and were hoping for a chance to get the ball back and extend their unlikely lead.
As the teams broke their huddles and lined up for the momentous play, the crowd on the Deering side, anticipating DiDonato’s stunt, began going wild.
A couple of the Deering defensive players, facing the end of the field that DiDonato was on, began pointing and shouting loudly. The rest of the players stopped and looked around confused as a referee blew his whistle to halt play.
As the Deering crowd continued to cheer louder and louder, the red head and pale, naked body of DiDonato emerged over the short fence that he had been standing behind.
This was one year before Fitzpatrick Stadium, known as “Fitzy” to locals, had artificial turf installed, and the field was a soggy mixture of loose grass and slick mud on that day- a football player’s dream, but less than ideal conditions for someone trying to run barefooted and bare bottomed in front of thousands of people.
By the time he made it across the running track and onto the grass of the end zone, players on the field were falling down laughing at the sight, and the entire stadium had taken notice of the naked kid who would come to be known as “The Turkey Day Streaker”.
DiDonato veered right towards the Portland side as he approached the cluster of bewildered and hysterical players around the fifty yard line. As he ran past the Bulldog bench, the sound from the crowd was deafening on the field.
The referees were gathered together on the Portland sideline, directly in his path as he sprinted towards them. One of them let out a squeal as he dove out of the way, another threw his yellow penalty flag at DiDonato, who let out a hoot and leapt over it, landing in a puddle, mud splashing up onto his backside as he thundered away from the players on the field and towards the east end zone.
The gasp from the crowd was palpable as he approached the chain link fence next to the end zone and- risking it all- hurdled over the spikes of the fence and landed in the ankle deep mud at the bottom of the area of the stadium known as “the hill”.
The hill acts as a vaulted area for watching the game, rising above the east end of the field as bleachers would. DiDonato tried running up the hill towards the exits and porta-potties, but just before getting to the top he slipped and slid all the way back down on his belly.
He tried running up a second time, but again slipped and slid back down to the bottom.
Then, about three minutes into the spectacle, a pink skinned, mud covered DiDonato bear-crawled up the hill with his rear end in the air as ten thousand people roared with laughter.
By the time he was finally able to make it up the hill, most of the onlookers who had been standing there evacuated the area like people running from a wild bear. The mother of one of his childhood friends tried to help, and offered him a blanket, but he refused and continued on towards the porta-potties for refuge.
When he finally saw some police officers, rather than running from them, he ran towards them. In an interview this week, DiDonato remembered the reaction he got from the cops:
“ I looked around trying to figure out where to go as people were offering me blankets, I saw the porta-potties and headed there, then an officer stopped me. He clearly didn’t want to touch me so he led me to a cruiser.”
He continued, “the cops didn’t even charge me that day. They held me by the cruiser, which already had someone in it, for about 10 mins until they advised me to get dressed.”
“People were coming up and offering to pay my bail, but one cop said, ‘it’s Thanksgiving, he’s not going to jail.'”
After things calmed down a bit, DiDonato asked the cops if he could go back into the game, but instead they told him to go home.
He remembers walking away from the stadium on Deering Avenue:
“As I walked away a group of students saw me and started singing, ‘did you ever know that you’re my hero,’ from Bette Midler’s, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ song.”
When he returned to school after Thanksgiving break though, the Deering High administration was not as forgiving as the police officers at the game.
In the end, he received a five day suspension from school, but recounts that the school’s athletic director at the time, Scott Shibles, “couldn’t even stay in the room to punish me because he could not stop laughing.”
In the days and weeks that followed, DiDonato became a bit of a local celebrity:
“I recall just days after the streak being in line at Shaw’s and an elderly couple awkwardly staring at me. When I finally made eye contact they said ‘oh yes, we recognize you.’ Just then a dad who was leaving with his wife and children stopped and yelled from across the crowded store, ‘if we leave now, are we gonna miss anything?'”
Fifteen years later, DiDonato is still remembered for his infamous sprint across Fitzy:
“People do still recognize me as ‘the streaker’. It’s usually the first story people hear about me when I get introduced. I still get asked at least a few times a year if that was me.”
He was also able to collect on most of the pledges from his classmates, “I actually collected about eight hundred bucks.”
As for the outcome of the game?
As DiDonato was being shuffled into the police cruiser, a quick thinking Porter snapped the ball while many of the Deering defenders still had their backs turned to him. He fired a pass downfield, and the receiver was tackled inside the Deering five yard line.
Portland then ran the ball in for the go-ahead touchdown on the ensuing play, and held on in the fourth quarter for the win.
Regardless of the outcome of the game though, the memory of the Turkey Day Streaker left an indelible mark on the colorful history of Portland, a hilarious anecdote to go along with the proud tradition of the annual game, and a searing image on the minds of the roughly ten thousand unsuspecting people who witnessed DiDonato on that chilly Thanksgiving Day.
Every last one of them.
Happy Thanksgiving folks.