November 30, 2022

Thanksgiving Rivalry – A Time Gone By

East Providence - LaSalle. State's Longest Played Football Series. Can it be revived?

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Thanksgiving week 2022 has arrived. November usually means the end of the nice fall weather as the region begins to prepare for the doldrums of winter. It also means football and turkey for many. Thanksgiving is probably more associated with the word "Tradition" than any other major holiday. Christmas shopping has begun in earnest for those who celebrate, summer is long gone and people settle in for a long winter. For many Townies, this week has always been full of tradition and plans for school reunions, family get-togethers and THE football game between old rivals East Providence High School and LaSalle Academy. However, to the disappointment of many, including this writer, traditions have drastically changed. Today, legions of young people may never know what those glory years of that Townie - Ram rivalry was like. They have only heard older family members and friends talk about it. Indeed, the longest standing Thanksgiving Day football series in Rhode Island is between EP and LSA. It was something to behold for fans of tradition and football..

The History:
The series officially began in 1929. Although the two schools started turkey day play in 1927 (EP won 6-0), there was no game in 1928 and the state league officially “started” in 1929 with a LaSalle 19-6 win. November 24, 2022 will mark the 94th game between the two schools. The game was played alternately at each other’s home field. The Townies home field was beautiful Pierce Memorial Stadium while LaSalle played in an old field behind their school on Academy Avenue in Providence, RI. East Providence always has a large fan following and would outdraw LSA at their own field. Most games were standing room only and you had to arrive by 8:30 am for the 10:00 start time if you wanted a good seat. Pierce was often known to house nearly 10,000 spectators during the rivalry’s glory days.

When the mostly wooden stands at LaSalle were closed due to safety concerns in the early eighties, the school was forced to host Thanksgiving at various Providence fields. City Stadium at Mt. Pleasant High and Brown Stadium were used at times. When the cost of renting Brown became too expensive, LSA offered to have all Thanksgiving Day games at Pierce. "It was cheaper for us to rent Pierce and it is a great field," said one LaSalle official. For several years players from both schools only knew playing at Pierce.

LaSalle has since constructed a new football stadium with synthetic turf and the series has returned to an alternating home venue. This years’ game is a home contest for the Townies. EP also has a brand-new stadium with synthetic turf behind the gleaming new EPHS on Pawtucket Avenue. However, with a seating capacity of under 2,000 spectators at EP’s new field, Thanksgiving Day games will remain at Pierce. But how long will the game remain?

A Rivalry to Remember:
The EP-LSA series has seen changing momentum swings. From 1929 through 1940 the series pretty much went back and forth between schools. La Salle dominated the series from 1941 through 1948, winning a state title in 1942. A little back and forth again and then the Townies won from 1960 through 1967 and then again in ’69 and ’70 and ’72 and ’73. EP won state titles in ’66, ’67, ’69 and ’70. LaSalle took over and won the 1974, ’75 and ’76 games while EP bounced back to win from 1977 through 1980 and then again from 1982 through 1984. It was an eight-year run next for LaSalle as they beat EP from 1985 through 1992. La Salle spanked EP in 1992 by a 50-6 score but EP returned the favor with a 41-6 victory the next year.  The 1970 State Champion Townies had 10 All-State players.  And on it went, win one, lose one, until LaSalle has now gained dominance on Turkey Day. Most public schools can no longer compete with the privates who can draw their students from any city or even nearby state locales. The question of high school recruitment of players has also been a discussion by many.

But what a tradition it was. Each school, especially EPHS, would hold massive rallies on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. EP Alumni would return home for the rally and from Wednesday through the Sunday, class reunion parties would pop up all over East Providence. In addition to partying the night before, many Townie alumni and former players would gather for “breakfast” before the big game starting at 6 am at Bovi’s. Alumni would also crowd into Bovi’s the night before the game. Bovi’s Tavern at six-corners on Taunton Avenue was the place to be Thanksgiving week. Bovi’s owner, the late John Bovi (a LSA grad), would host scores of fans from both schools, although it was mostly Townies. After “breakfast” on Thanksgiving morning the group would move on to Pierce Stadium or to Providence and join thousands of other fans. The Thanksgiving game between EP and LSA often determined or had major impact on the state championship. It was the showplace game in Rhode Island, matched by none. And, of course, Thanksgiving dinner couldn’t start until the game was over and it always tasted better after a win. Halftime shows were epic with both schools bringing marching bands to entertain the large crowds. LSA stopped bringing a band to the game many years ago, but EPHS is still carrying on that tradition. The Townie marching band continues to dazzle crowds and is maybe the strongest remaining link to this rivalry. "Football teams are up and down but the band must always perform and sound good," said former band director Jack McNamara. He's right. The band continues to dazzle and performs one of the best halftime shows as well as old-school rah-rah fun in the stands during the game. Current Townie band director Marisa Martinez Silva is continuing that rich tradition.

An Edgy Rivalry?
The game wasn’t always the friendliest as the rivalry reached an intense peak through the early 2000’s. This writer was in the Class of 1972 and has attended just about every Thanksgiving game - home and away – since the mid 1960’s. At the end of the game in 1971 there was a brawl between the two teams. It involved players, coaches and fans who left the stands to join the fray. Extra East Providence police were called in and bedlam ensued for a while. Solid sources have confirmed that EP coaches were warned before the game that trouble was brewing and they would have a tough time during the game.  A referee had an "unkind" comment toward an EP player at the game's end and more words were exchanged as the all-out donneybrook broke out.  A hockey game between the two schools for that Friday night was cancelled and rescheduled to 3:30 pm on the following Monday at the Dudley Richards arena in Rumford.  Both EP and LSA were hockey powers during that era. You might say the rivalry was a smaller scale of Red Sox-Yankees or Ohio State-Michigan. Yes, a smaller scale but just as intense for many.

At one EP football rally during the '80's, a LaSalle banner was introduced during one of the Townie skits and was not treated too nicely. It seems like an overzealous Townie “procured” the banner from LaSalle the day before. The culprit has never been identified! The EP school administration returned the banner to LaSalle with apologies. Making that ’71 game memorable was the coaching situation for both teams. Long time Townie head coach Jim Deffley left teaching and was hired as the new LSA coach. Deffley’s assistant at EP, William “Bill” Stringfellow took over the reigns of the Townie team. Townie fans didn’t love seeing Coach Deffley wearing the LSA colors! Let’s just say that even the coaches got into the “mix” a little that day at Pierce. Coach “Beansie” Stringfellow went on to become a successful Townie legend and the rest is history. Today, Bill’s son Jonathan Stringfellow is the head coach working hard to bring the Townie program back to prominence.

Rivalry on Life Support:
And so, the once storied Townie-Ram rivalry is all but gone as older Townie and Ram alumni remember it. Hendricken had raced ahead with their 17th state championship over LaSalle last year. Hendricken won consecutive state titles from 2010-2016. LSA won their 16th title in 2017 and Hendricken won again from 2018-2021 (no game in 2020 due to Covid) giving them the 17 state titles. In an upset this past Sunday, November 20, 2022, LSA beat Hendricken for its league tying 17th title. LaSalle’s current students feel the Hendricken is their true rival. Most today at LSA don’t understand the EP-LSA history, nor do many young students at EP.

By Thanksgiving Day, the RIIL season is basically over. State champions have already been crowned. The EP-LSA Thanksgiving game is non-league and really has no meaning for most. East Providence players and alumni hold a little bit of the traditional feel and strive to win but the feeling is not generally the same from their former rivals from over the river. In fact, LSA has not always played all its starters for much of the game in recent years. Fear of injury and other factors come into play. And where will Townie alumni gather this week? The long famous Bovi’s Tavern is gone, demolished with an empty lot in its place.

Why is The Game a Non-League Contest?
It should be noted that the move away from regular season games on Thanksgiving Day was not a decision solely of league administrators. The Principal's Committee on Athletics, consisting of school principals were responsible for the 2014 vote to change history. East Providence and LaSalle were the only schools to oppose such a move. EP and LSA Tried to Save the Tradition. "Beginning in 2014 all Thanksgiving Day “league games” must be played during the regular season. As a result, all semifinal games will be played on the Friday before Thanksgiving. The traditional Thanksgiving Day games will be played as in the past, but as “non- league” games. Divisional championship games will be played a minimum of seven days after Thanksgiving," said former RIIL full time director Tom Mezzanotte at that time.

Most high schools in Rhode Island don’t have the extensive rivalry that EP-LSA once knew. Some have even stopped playing on Thanksgiving and play on the Wednesday night. Both LSA and EPHS voted against the playoff change when announced in 2014. "We tried to convince the league to keep Thanksgiving Day as a league game for us," said former East Providence Athletic Director Bob Duarte in 2015 comments. "But the rest of the league's school athletic directors approved. They don't have the tradition that we have. It could mean the end of the LaSalle-EP Thanksgiving Day game as we know it," said Duarte. By the time East Providence and LaSalle play each other this Thanksgiving, a Super Bowl champion has already been crowned and the season is basically over for most. Additionally, the dominance of Hendricken and LaSalle have contributed greatly to the demise of Rhode Island’s oldest football rivalry.

How Long Will It Last?:
Officials from East Providence and LaSalle are hoping to keep the tradition going. "The change in the format certainly had an impact on the Thanksgiving game," said La Salle's Ted Quigley in an interview a couple of years ago. "When I became La Salle's AD in 2000, it was close to the peak of the rivalry. Everything about the game was magnified. In the 1990's. Ken Reall (former EP AD) started the "Good Faith" dinner prior to the game. It was attended by the coaches, captains, and administration from each school. Phil Ricci (former EP AD) and I continued the tradition and expanded it to include all of the seniors on each team. That lasted almost 20 years. The 2001 game was probably the most watched high school football game in Rhode Island in the past 50 years. People were sitting along the grass berm by the main entrance at Pierce because the stands were full. Both teams were undefeated coming into the game and the atmosphere was electric. Each year, if the game wasn't being played to determine a champion, it was played for seeding in the playoffs. Once the game became a non-league game, much of the excitement was lost," added Quigley.

"Because the game is now played after the playoffs are concluded and the championship has been decided, it has lost its competitive luster. It has become, in essence, a glorified exhibition game. This is not the Thanksgiving Day rivalry we all grew up with and enjoyed so very much. We are keeping tradition alive but it is certainly a far cry from the glory years," said East Providence current Athletic Director and soon to be Rhode Island’s next Secretary of State, Gregg Amore. It is still special to many, but it doesn't have the feel of prior years. We're trying," Amore added.

"I would hope that the game would continue, but so much of the enthusiasm for it has waned. Attendance has gone from counting it by the thousands to counting it by the hundreds. However, high school sports are very cyclical. Things have a tendency to come around,” said Quigley. “This is still the longest in-state rivalry in Rhode Island. We are a few years from the anniversary of the first game in 1927. It would be a shame to see it end, but I am also realistic enough to know that not everyone feels that way," Quigley added. Both Amore and Quigley agree that tradition and pride still make it worth it to play the game.

Memories of The Game:
"Some of my fondest memories as the La Salle Athletic Director come from The game. Phil Ricci, Joe Medeiros, and I would have a meeting with Joe Crook in his office early in the week. We would have an entire game plan laid out for the game. We had some funny moments over the years, too. When Ed Cronan retired from EP and came to work at La Salle, he would come to the game and stand right in the middle of the entrance wearing his URI blue and white colors. One year, the game was being televised live by Cox Communications. We had to make an early decision whether to play or not due to rain. At 9:00 am, Joe Medeiros and I sat in his office looking at the radar knowing we were going to get soaked. But it wasn't raining yet and both teams had already showed up, so there was nothing we could do. I think I have a pair of shoes that are still wet 13 years later. Sun, rain, snow, or cold, it was always an event to look forward to." - Ted Quigley, LSA AD.

An East Providence former Co-Captain John Johnson is a 1967 graduate. He remembers his senior Thanksgiving game with great fondness. “We won 57-7 and won the state championship that year,” said an animated Johnson in a recent interview. EP also won the state title in 1966. “A lot of us would hang out at Kelly’s Burgers (Burger King today) on Friday nights across from the high school and talk football,” Johnson recalled. Most high schools played football games on Saturday mornings years ago. “We liked to think that we hated LaSalle,” continued Johnson, “but actually I felt lots of respect on both sides of the line.” Since graduation, Johnson and many other Townies and Ram fans still try to meet up before The game.

Attending the 2017 game at Pierce were Townie father & son scholar/athletes, Phil and Joel Hazard and their family visiting from their Georgia home. "So great to be home for the holiday and at this great game, but we're concerned with the watering down of this great tradition," echoed both Hazards.

Also that day sitting on the Townie side of Pierce was Ken Otis, a 1984 East Providence graduate. Otis was wearing an EP cap but a LaSalle shirt. "I'm an EP grad but I have kids that went to LaSalle," said Otis. Then he pointed to the Ram side and said, "I like to say my money is over there (tuitions) but my heart is over here," to smiles from family and nearby fans.

"It is incredible to see so many friends and Townies here said the 70's all-state football star Mike Whittet. He hasn't missed a game since his state champion years and the list went on. Bobby Good, Matt Lopes, Bill Irons, Dr. Ramos and countless other Townie football alum.

A Passage in Time:
With the near death of the East Providence-LaSalle football rivalry, other notable losses have occurred. Long time EP and LaSalle football icons, Bill Stringfellow and Jim Deffley have died. 2020 saw the passing of John Bovi and his former iconic Bovi’s Tavern closed and razed. The former East Providence High School has been knocked down and a new state of the art campus with its own sports stadium has opened. The new EPHS is a positive for the city represents hope that the city’s promising student-athletes will “stay home” and not opt for a private school. Hope remains eternal. 2027 will make for a memorable 100-year anniversary of this game. Can we do it?

New Tradition Possible?
Townie alumnus and former football standout player John Oliver is trying to start a new tradition for EP alumni to gather for “breakfast” before the game. Oliver is co-owner of a sports bar/restaurant, The Local, at 478 Waterman Avenue in EP. Oliver and some others are trying to start up a new tradition of Townie alumni and friends (even Rams) gathering to reminisce before the game. The game starts at 10 am and supporters are invited to stop by before going to the game. Oliver will have The Local opened at 6:30 am. Stop by!

The traditions have changed a little, but the basics are still hanging in there. It will be the Townies against old rival LaSalle at Pierce this Thanksgiving morning. The reunions will continue throughout the city somewhere. One thing won't change. A lot of turkey will be consumed and the wonderful aroma of turkey, all the fixings and pies will be in the air.

Old EPHS Football Tapes for Sale:
Townie football coach, Jon Stringfellow is following in his famous Dad’s footsteps and has a surprise for fans and former Townie football players. “After my dad passed, I was going through his old desk at home and began to organize years of his files and old reel-to-reel game tapes. The silent type that teams would study after games. Some former players from decades ago have come together to help with converting these old tapes to DVD’s. The quality is surprisingly good and brings back many memories,” said Stringfellow. “Details will be made known very soon and players and fans can purchase a DVD or several,” said the coach.

THANKSGIVING DAY SCORES:

YEAR WINNER
1927- East Providence 6-0
1928- no game
1929- La Salle 19-6
1930- East Providence 8-0
1931- La Salle 50-0
1932- East Providence 13-0
1933- Tied 0-0
1934- La Salle 13-0
1935- La Salle 7-0
1936- La Salle 18-6
1937- East Providence 13-2
1938- La Salle 13-0
1939- East Providence 10-0
1940- Tied
1941- La Salle 12-0
1942- La Salle 12-0
1943- La Salle 19-6
1944- La Salle 13-0
1945- La Salle 13-0
1946- La Salle 18-12
1947- La Salle 24-6
1948- La Salle 19-0
1949- East Providence 19-0
1950- East Providence 13-6
1951- La Salle 7-0
1952- La Salle 34-0
1953- East Providence 13-0
1954- East Providence 13-7
1955- La Salle 26-0
1956- East Providence 7-0
1957- La Salle 24-7
1958- La Salle 26-14
1959- La Salle 19-14
1960- East Providence 25-13
1961- East Providence 21-7
1962- East Providence 16-0
1963- East Providence 27-14
1964- East Providence 16-0
1965- East Providence 14-6
1966- East Providence 57-7
1967- East Providence 27-0
1968- La Salle 27-20
1969- East Providence 17-0
1970- East Providence 13-6
1971- La Salle 14-7
1972- East Providence 34-12
1973- East Providence 28-26
1974- La Salle 12-10
1975- La Salle 29-22
1976- La Salle 20-6
1977- East Providence 13-7
1978- East Providence 17-0
1979- East Providence 29-0
1980- East Providence 39-14
1981- La Salle 20-0
1982- East Providence 20-7
1983- East Providence 30-19
1984- East Providence 28-8
1985- La Salle 34-12
1986- La Salle 30-7
1987- La Salle 26-15
1988- La Salle 26-20
1989- La Salle 20-6
1990- La Salle 45-0
1991- La Salle 44-36
1992- La Salle 50-6
1993- East Providence 41-6
1994- La Salle 28-22
1995- East Providence 8-6
1996- La Salle 34-12
1997- East Providence 34-6
1998- East Providence 31-6
1999- East Providence 33-8
2000- La Salle 14-6
2001- La Salle 35-6
2002- La Salle 21-12
2003- East Providence 28-27 OT
2004- La Salle 26-7
2005- La Salle 15-7
2006- East Providence 12-8
2007- La Salle 21-19
2008- La Salle 54-27
2009- La Salle 48-34
2010- La Salle 14-6
2011- La Salle 34-13
2012- La Salle 34-0
2013- La Salle 30-6
2014- La Salle 24-21
2015- East Providence 41-23
2016- La Salle 35-32
2017- East Providence 41-0
2018- La Salle 21-18
2019- LaSalle 35-14
2020- No Game Covid
2021-LaSalle 34-6
2022-?

(This commentary is not necessarily the view of this paper or any others. It is strictly the view of the writer, Bob Rodericks.  Some article statistics courtesy of RIHSS.) 

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