In 1963, the very year that Pilgrim High School opened, a Thanksgiving football tradition was born. Nine years later, Toll Gate High School opened its doors and another tradition began.
Now, five decades after the wheels were set in motion for Warwick’s Thanksgiving Day high school football games, the traditions are likely just days away from their final acts. With a potential high school closure, this year’s games between Warwick Vets and Pilgrim and Hendricken and Toll Gate are in line to be the last ones played, ending two of the longest-running Thanksgiving Day games in Rhode Island history.
Vets and Pilgrim have played every year since Pilgrim was established 1963. Hendricken and Toll Gate have done the same since 1972. Only Westerly-Stonington, Coventry-West Warwick and East Providence-La Salle started before 1963 and are still ongoing. Only those four, plus Middletown-Portsmouth, North Providence-Smithfield and Cumberland-Woonsocket started before 1972.
“It’s a sad thing to see, but it is what it is,” said Emo DiNitto, the former head coach of Hendricken, Toll Gate and Vets who later served as Warwick Schools athletic director. “There’s nothing you can do about population. The older people will remember the games and the rivalry, and the younger kids will see it for what it is and they’ll just know their new rivalries.”
Nothing is set in stone at the moment, but the Long Term Facilities Planning Committee has recommended that Vets be repurposed as a junior high school, with its current students being split between Toll Gate and Pilgrim. That would give Warwick two public high schools, and the schools’ football teams would likely play each other on Thanksgiving. Hendricken would be the odd school out in that scenario, and would have to find another opponent to play for the first time ever.
New rivalries would be born. That gives this year’s games a different feel, as everyone is well aware that this could be the end of an era.
“It’s sad to see it end,” Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor said. “It stayed for 41 years where one team got a four, five game run, but it never got so lopsided that it’s ridiculous. It’s sad if it ends.”
A school closing in Warwick is far from unprecedented, although it’s been quite a while.
Three former high schools – Aldrich, Gorton and Lockwood – all shut down in 1954, with all the students coming together at the newly-formed Warwick Vets.
That transition ended Thanksgiving football traditions of its own. Aldrich and Lockwood played on Thanksgiving from 1935 to 1939. From 1940 to 1947, the two Warwick teams with the best records played on Thanksgiving for the city championship. And from 1948 to 1954, Aldrich and Gorton squared off, with Lockwood playing East Greenwich and then West Warwick.
When Vets came about, it started a brand new Thanksgiving game against what was then called Cranston High School, in 1955. It stayed that way through 1962, until Pilgrim opened the next year.
In 1963, Vets and Pilgrim played for the first of what will end up at 51 consecutive seasons, if this is indeed the final game.
“Being the last game as separate schools, you want to be the one that wins,” Vets head coach Mike Nappa said. “Both teams will play just as hard as they can. Nothing else matters.”
When Toll Gate opened up in 1972, it started its rivalry with Hendricken, which had been in existence since 1959 but hadn’t had an annual Thanksgiving Day rival.
This season, the teams will play for the 42nd consecutive year.
“When I played here, Toll Gate used to be a Division I team so it was a league game for us,” Hendricken head coach Keith Croft said. “We had some battles with them over the years. They always had good athletes. It’s too bad that it’s over.”
DiNitto has seen it all. He coached Vets from 1967-71, taking part in five Thanksgiving games against Pilgrim. In 1972, as the very first head coach of Toll Gate, he started a run of coaching the Titans in 21 straight games against the Hawks.
“When I went up to Toll Gate it was a natural thing to play Hendricken,” DiNitto said. “A lot of kids from the western part of Warwick went to Hendricken, and we always wanted to beat them. Every one of the games was big. It was always a nice opportunity to go out and play football on Thanksgiving morning. It was a special thing.”
Over the years, though, the Toll Gate-Hendricken game has changed. The Hawks have won 21 straight, with Toll Gate’s last victory coming in 1991. Hendricken leads the all-time series 32-8.
In that sense, change might be a good thing.
“If we had more kids, I’d play Hendricken all day long,” Toll Gate head coach Matt Mancuso said. “Of course you want to go out there and compete. Right now, until we can get the program going the right way, we can’t compete against those guys.”
From a Pilgrim-Vets perspective, the series has been much closer and it is one of the most evenly matched Thanksgiving games in the state. Vets leads the overall series 28-21-1, and has won the last two years. Before that, Pilgrim had won three of the previous four.
The game this year was scheduled to be at Pilgrim, but with Vets the odds-on candidate to close, it was decided that the final game between the two schools will be played at Vets.
“I thought that was a very nice gesture,” DiNitto said.
After decades and decades of Thanksgiving Day games, Thursday may be the final time that the four teams take the field for their traditional match-ups. They’ll become a part of history, before turning the page and starting over next season.
It could be a new era for Thanksgiving football in Warwick.
“I don’t think it’s set in stone but it’s a no-brainer that Pilgrim and Toll Gate would play,” DiNitto said. “The rivalry would be a good one – when any of the inter-city schools play, it’s always fun. It’s bragging rights. That will be maintained.”
Both games will be played on Thursday at 10 a.m., with Vets and Toll Gate hosting.
“They’re all great rivalries,” DiNitto said.
They’ll prove it on Thursday, maybe for the final time.