The way Bob Padula remembers, Pilgrim started it. Some of the Patriots spray-painted trash talk on tackling sleds and other equipment at Vets the week before Thanksgiving. The next day, Vets players retaliated by smashing pumpkins on Pilgrim’s equipment.
“The feelings were running high,” Padula said.
It was no surprise. The Thanksgiving Day football game in 1963 may have been the first meeting between Warwick Vets and Pilgrim – but the rivalry certainly didn’t need training wheels.
In 1962, every high school student in Warwick attended Vets. The school day was split into double sessions to accommodate the nearly 5,000 students. Pilgrim opened in 1963, and the student population was cut in half.
So was the football team.
On Thanksgiving, the two halves met. Like brothers with a competitive streak, the teams didn’t have soft spots for each other. It was as natural a rivalry as anyone could hope to create.
“It was a very unique thing,” said Padula, a Vets captain. “It was quite a rivalry, not because we had played each other but because we all knew each other. I think that’s what really started the initial rivalry. We were all so close.”
While the players don’t know each other quite so well now, the rivalry has endured for 50 years, and it remains one of the fiercest and most competitive in the state. It’s the fourth-oldest Thanksgiving rivalry in Rhode Island.
The first game provided the roots. Vets won 33-6 in front of a crowd that packed the bleachers and ringed the field. All-State running back Bill Bjerke scored four touchdowns.
Bjerke still lives in Warwick and has vivid memories of his big game. He was chasing the state scoring title and was neck-and-neck with Rufus Brackley of East Greenwich. Brackley also scored four touchdowns on Thanksgiving, but Bjerke kicked extra points, which put him over the top.
“He thought he had it wrapped up, but I was fortunate to have a great game,” Bjerke said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Bjerke and the Hurricanes ran over a Pilgrim team that was starting young players at some key positions. They led 13-0 at halftime and added three scores after the break. Ray Haerry had the other Vets touchdown. Wayne Wildes had Pilgrim’s only score.
“We had a very good running game,” Bjerke said. “We had a great offensive line, so we were able to run up the middle, and we also ran a lot of end-arounds.”
And on Thanksgiving, with the budding rivalry providing some extra juice, it worked.
“It was tough to line up against a friend and want to tear his head off,” Padula said. “But once you get out there, it’s a game. The butterflies are out and you’re there to win.”
Both Padula and Bjerke still keep in touch with many of their former teammates – and some of the teammates who ended up at Pilgrim. When they get together, talk always turns to football.
“We drop right back to 1963,” Bjerke said.
Sometimes, they talk about what might have been. If the schools had been split a year later, the 1963 Vets team might have been the best in the state.
“I think we would have been state champs,” Padula said.
Instead, they ushered in the birth of a tremendous rivalry – not a bad consolation prize.
“You’re living in the moment and you’re not thinking about the future,” Padula said. “But to see it go on for 50 years is pretty special.”
And those roots still run deep.
“Let’s hope it’s another good year for Warwick,” Bjerke said.