May 21, 2024

The End of a Tradition? Thanksgiving Day Football: East Providence - LaSalle

State Championships Top Division Titles: Hendricken 18, LaSalle 17, East Providence 15, Cranston East 14, Rogers 11.

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Will the rivalry make its 100 year anniversary in 2027?

THE BIG GAME
Give or take one or two years, I have been at most East Providence vs. LaSalle Thanksgiving Day football games since the 1960's.  It is an intense rivalry which has been on life-support for a few years and may have its plug pulled after November 23, 2023. And so, the once storied Townie-Ram rivalry is all but gone as older Townie and Ram alumni remember it. Hendricken has raced ahead of everybody with their 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. LSA beat Hendricken in the 2022 super bowl for its league tying 17th title and Hendricken just defeated North Kingstown in the 2023 super bowl for its 18th state title. East Providence remains with 15 state championships in the top division. The rivalry has changed for today’s players and fans. LaSalle’s current students feel that Hendricken is their true rival. Most today at LSA don’t understand the EP-LSA history, nor do many young students or fans at EP.

The History - A Rivalry to Remember
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 23, 2023 will mark the 94th game between the two schools (95th if you count 1927). 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, even in 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 will be played at Lasalle at 10:00 am.

Back & Forth
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, ’70 and ’72, ’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, with EP winning back to back state titles in 79, 80. EP then beat LaSalle from 1982 through 1984. Next it was an eight-year run 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 in 1993.

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.  While private schools could always pick students from anywhere, most good public school student-athletes wanted to play for their home town team, back in the day.  The question of high school recruitment of players has also been a discussion by many, with a growing sentiment to have the privates play in their own league like some other states.

Glorious Tradition
Thanksgiving is probably more associated with the word "Tradition" than any other major holiday. For many Townies, Thanksgiving 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. 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 Sunday of Thanksgiving week, class reunion parties would pop up all over East Providence. In addition to partying the night before the game, many Townie & Ram 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 perform 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. 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 on the field.  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 donnybrook 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 (now closed) 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. 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 reins 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.

Who stole the LSA banner??
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 (wink, wink included).

Thanksgiving is a non-league game now
Today, by Thanksgiving, 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, although current players on both teams show up and play their best. Also, the long famous Bovi’s Tavern is gone, demolished with an empty lot in its place. 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 Wednesday night. "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.

Is the big game over?
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 LaSalle's former A.D. Ted Quigley in an interview a few 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 the seniors on each team. That lasted almost 20 years. The 2001 game (LSA won) 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 then Athletic Director and Rhode Island 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 at the time.

"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 tend to come around,” said Quigley. “This is still the longest in-state rivalry in Rhode Island. We are a few years from the 100th 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.

Memories of The Game
The story of Thanksgiving 2014, was a half time ceremony celebrating Pierce Stadium's 75th anniversary and honored players representing both schools from the 1940's through the 2000's. Townie athletic director at the time, Bob Duarte and then Pierce Field Manager Joe Medeiros organized the gala presentation. A Player from each decade was brought out to the field, culminating with the introduction of the Townies Bill Stringfellow and LaSalle's Jim Deffley.  Stringfellow, a Townie legend, and Deffley both had coached East Providence. The two former colleagues turned nemeses, embraced and exchanged memories as the crowd loved it. Townie great Junior Butler brought along a couple of letters that he received in 1967 from his former coach, Jim Deffley. At that time Deffley coached the Townies. They were letters of support sent to Butler when he was serving combat time in Vietnam. "I've saved these all these years," said an appreciative Butler at that 2014 game. "Wow, I can't believe that you still have those letters after all this time," Jim Deffley told Butler.  "Amazing."

"This was very rewarding," said former Townie great QB Jim Rose. "One of the best Thanksgiving games I've attended," he added. Rose like many others have attended more turkey day games than they care to add up.

"Some of my fondest memories as the LaSalle Athletic Director come from the game,” said former A.D. Quigley. “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. We played one game in heavy rain and 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," recalled Ted Quigley.

East Providence former Co-Captain John Johnson is a 1967 graduate. He remembered 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 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, 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, Jim Rose, Matt Lopes, Bill Irons, Dr. Izzy Ramos, Steve Brady, and countless other Townie football alum.

A Passage in Time
As Rhode Island’s oldest Thanksgiving Day football rivalry hangs on by a thread, 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 gleaming sports stadium has opened. The new EPHS is a positive for the city and represents hope that the city’s promising student-athletes will “stay home” and not opt for a private school. 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. Hope remains eternal.  2027 will make for a memorable 100-year anniversary of this game. Will it happen?

THANKSGIVING DAY SCORES LSA 54 wins to EP 37 wins
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-LaSalle 41-36
2023- TBD

(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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