January 25, 2021

Holidays 2020 Style - A Commentary

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The 2020 year will be remembered as the year of the great Pandemic, most likely causing life to change forever.   Things like “social distancing” and mask wearing may become the norm for years to come.  A dangerous virus called Covid 19 or Corona has taken over the world.  In most places people cannot go out to their favorite restaurant, shop often or listen to live music or play team sports.  Small business is struggling.  Basically, we have become prisoners of our homes.  Students are being taught virtually while staying home and small “pods” of students attend some schools.  The general election for President of the United States has been a horror show with over 90 million people already voting to avoid lines on election day.  And what of our beloved holidays?  2020 will see the cancellation of most large gatherings associated with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah and other tradition.

November traditions are usually focused on Thanksgiving, football and early Christmas shopping for many.  Holiday shopping may continue thanks to Amazon and other mail order buying but what of the rest?  East Providence, like many cities and towns, loved Thanksgiving and high school/college football.  In fact, EP is noted for having the longest standing high school football rivalry in Rhode Island.  Every year since 1927, East Providence High and LaSalle Academy played football to thousands.  The series would alternate between Pierce Stadium in EP and LaSalle.  Through the mid 70’s LaSalle hosted their home game behind their high school.  Most years Townie fans would outnumber LaSalle fans in their own house.  “It was like we invaded Providence every other year, filling the streets around Smith and Academy avenues with red and white.”  But Pierce Memorial Stadium was THE venue.  At its peak, some 8 to 10,000 fans would fill Pierce with standing room only.  Vendors sold pennants, horns, shakers, plastic footballs and LaSalle alumni would tailgate in the parking lot.  Townie fans preferred buying snacks from the concession stand (albeit a few flasks were hidden under winter coats).  One needed to arrive at Pierce by 8 AM to get a coveted seat before the sold-out crowd arrived.  The game played on through monsoon rains and snowfalls.  Occasionally a sunlit warm Thanksgiving Day would greet the approving crowds.  Pep rallies were held in the schools the day before and the city was abuzz with holiday fever.  When the stands at LaSalle’s old football field were closed because of safety reasons in the early 80's, LaSalle would host home Thanksgiving games at various venues in Providence. Brown University and City Stadium behind Mount Pleasant High School were used a few times. But the cost and inconveniences caused LaSalle officials to keep all Thanksgiving games at Pierce Stadium. "It was cheaper for us to rent and Pierce is a great field," said one LaSalle official.  The festivities would begin on Wednesday.  Alumni would attend the EPHS rally and many would gather that night, with several getting together to celebrate at Bovi’s Tavern on six corners. The scene would continue as early as 6 AM on gameday at Bovi’s again.  A little morning “refreshment” with alumni from both schools (John Bovi was a LSA grad, but loved by Townies), some bravado predictions and then off to the big game.  And who can forget, rushing home to that great turkey dinner with relatives and friends!  What of that during this pandemic?

Oh yeah, the game!  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 league “started” in 1929 with a LaSalle 19-6 win.  On November 30, 1939 the new Pierce Memorial Stadium opened to the public in time for the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game between East Providence and La Salle Academy. The Townies won, 10 to 0.   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 and ’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. And on it went, win one, lose one, until LaSalle has now gained dominance on Turkey Day.  The game also featured one of the best half time shows around with the Townie Marching Band.  Some would quip on the Townie off years that they went to a band concert and a football game broke out.

The Real Tradition Has Ended.
Sadly, the big game is no more.  It really ended years ago.  Generations of Townie and Ram fans will never know the intensity that once existed.  The RI Interscholastic League (RIIL) Principal’s Committee on Athletics recommended, and most high schools voted to change the state football playoff format.  "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 as “non- league” games. Divisional championship games will be played a minimum of seven days after Thanksgiving," said then RIIL director Tom Mezzanotte.  By the time East Providence and LaSalle play each other on Thanksgiving, a Super Bowl champion will already have been crowned and the season is basically over.  During those competitive years, the game usually had impact on a state championship.  Both teams were often competing for a state title through Thanksgiving.  It was Red-Sox-Yankees, Ohio State-Michigan, at the high school level.  Throw out the standings.  On any given Thanksgiving, both teams had a shot to win.  No more.  The new league format, recruiting and other factors have ended this storied rivalry. 

"The change in the format certainly had an impact on the Thanksgiving game," said La Salle's athletic director  Ted Quigley. "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 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 because the bleachers 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 state 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, Gregg Amore.  “This is the longest in-state rivalry in Rhode Island. We are less than ten 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," added Quigley.  Both Amore and Quigley agree that "tradition and pride still make it worth it to play the game but for how long.”  For some old Townie grads like me (1972), the rivalry will always exist, it’s just not the same.

Noteworthy Statistics:
East Providence won state championships in 1943, 1949, 1950, 1953, 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1979, 1980, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2006.  The Townies handled Hendricken well through the years. The Hawks bested the Townies 26-12 in 1995 but EP then beat the Hawks 26-0 in 1997, 12-6 in OT in 1999 and again 35-12 in 2006 for state championships. The Townies beat LSA in super bowl games in 2002, 35-21, and in 2003, 19-6. LSA won the title over EP in 2001, 26-18.   The last East Providence state football championship was in 2006 when the Townies bopper Hendricken 35-13.  The Townies handled Hendricken well through the years. The Hawks bested EP 26-12 in the 1995 Championship game but EP then beat the Hawks 26-0 for the title in 1997, 12-6 in an OT title win in 1999 and again 35-12 in the 2006 superbowl.

All Things Must End:
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 was razed a couple of years ago.  In a year or so, East Providence High School will be knocked down to make way for a new state of the art campus.  The new EP is a good thing but still represents a sad passage of time.  Adding insult to injury, a global pandemic has canceled all high school football games this holiday season.  Are locusts and fire rainfall next?  October snow?

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