If you flip through old copies of the Warwick Beacon and read about Thanksgiving Day football games between Pilgrim and Warwick Vets, you will see variations of the same cliché year after year, from coach after coach and player after player.
Throw the records out the window.
It’s a cliché because people always say it about rivalry games – it doesn’t matter if one team is bad and one team is good, it’s still going to be a good game.
But people who have been involved in the Pilgrim-Vets series say it because it’s absolutely and uniquely true. You really can throw the records out the window, and that simple clichéd fact has made the annual Warwick battle one of the best Thanksgiving rivalries in the state of Rhode Island.
This year, the rivalry may get its final chapter. A move to two Warwick public high schools is on the horizon, with a recommendation on the table to make Warwick Vets a junior high school. In the sports realm, that would put an end to the Pilgrim-Vets rivalry – and to its premier event, the Thanksgiving Day game.
Whatever you think of the situation, you can say this: it’s been a heck of a run.
The rivalry began in 1963, with the most natural foundation you could ever ask for. Warwick Vets housed every high school student in the city from 1955 to 1962. In 1963, half the students went to a newly-opened Pilgrim – and half the football team did too. A city rivalry would have been enough to spark something special. The fact that the first games involved good friends and former teammates added fuel. They wanted to beat each other the way brothers want to beat each other.
That connection didn’t last long, but its impact did. The rivalry grew, but always with those same roots. Every year built on the one before, and soon enough, Warwick owned one of the state’s greatest Thanksgiving traditions.
When it gets that big, you start viewing it as the biggest day of the season. You see teams coming together for one last time, delivering performances they’ll talk about for 50 years. You watch players stepping up and outside themselves, playing at a different level.
You throw the records out the window.
In the rivalry’s 50 years, there have been streaks for both teams and lopsided games, but those are the outliers. The typical Pilgrim-Vets game is close until the final whistle. Nineteen of 50 meetings have been decided by eight points or less.
The first Pilgrim-Vets game I covered was in 2006. The game had been postponed by a day due to weather. Pilgrim’s buses rolled in late, a little gamesmanship to get the favored ’Canes wondering. The Patriots recovered an onside kick to start the game, marched down the field and scored. They went up 14-0 on a Vets team that had gone 6-1 in league play. Eventually the ’Canes got their footing and won 20-14, but the point had been proven again, for about the 44th time.
The next year, Pilgrim really hammered it home, winning 7-6 in what shaped up as the biggest upset in series history. The Hurricanes had gone 7-0 in league play and Pilgrim had gone 0-7. But on Thanksgiving, it didn’t matter.
Four years later, Vets returned the favor. Pilgrim had put together one of its best seasons in a long while, staying in the playoff race until the final day of the season. Vets was winless. And on Thanksgiving, the ’Canes won 21-14.
Those three wild games were all chapters in a book full of terrific stories. Walk around the field at Vets on Thursday, and I’m sure you’ll hear a few more.
This year, they’ll be tinged with a little bit of sadness. It’s always a shame when something good ends, but Thanksgiving traditions have changed before in Warwick. Sixty years ago, no one wanted the Aldrich-Gorton rivalry to end. Sixty years from now, if more changes happen, no one will want the next rivalry to end.
Time marches, and we make the best of it. If Toll Gate and Pilgrim strike up a Turkey Day rivalry, there’s no reason it won’t turn into another great one.
For now, Warwick’s best rivalry gets one more trip to center stage, maybe its last. Soak it in. Reminisce. Celebrate it.
And don’t forget – one more time – to throw those records out the window.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.