In 1972, Warwick’s Thanksgiving Day football table got a little more crowded. Pilgrim and Warwick Vets had been playing for nine years in a rivalry that was fierce from the beginning. Toll Gate and Bishop Hendricken were new rivals, but when they squeezed into a seat at the table, they made themselves right at home.
With a huge crowd turning out despite freezing conditions, the Titans knocked off Hendricken 14-6 in the first Thanksgiving meeting between the teams.
Emo DiNitto coached Toll Gate and still remembers how happy his players were.
“The kids were ecstatic,” DiNitto said. “It was always a big thing for Toll Gate to play Hendricken.”
That’s been a defining undercurrent throughout the history of the Toll Gate-Hendricken rivalry. Even in 1972, when Hendricken wasn’t yet the athletic power that it is today, the Toll Gate kids always had a chip on their shoulder and always wanted to knock off the Hawks.
The rivalry has been lopsided for the last two decades, but that first year, the Titans got the win they were pushing for.
“It was a big thing for the school,” DiNitto said. “We were very happy about it.”
Toll Gate opened in 1972, and the football team blended players from Pilgrim and Warwick Vets. In its season preview, the Warwick Beacon asked “Can they mold into a team fast enough?”
The Titans had an answer.
“You had a new coach and new kids getting used to a new system,” DiNitto said. “It makes it a little more complicated, but the kids adapted very well. They molded beautifully and they developed a real pride for the new school.”
And on Thanksgiving, the program picked up its first signature win.
Toll Gate didn’t yet have a field so the game was played at Pilgrim. Record cold temperatures froze the field – “It was a hard as a rock,” DiNitto remembers – but it didn’t keep the crowd away. More than 2,000 fans bundled up and braved the cold.
Hendricken took a 6-0 lead when quarterback Greg Collins scored on a 1-yard run moments after a fumbled punt by Toll Gate. But the Titans answered quickly on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Bill Brzozowski to Dave Carlson.
The ensuing point after was the game’s most memorable play. Don Shortman was set to kick the extra point but a high snap ended up going right to him. He ran to his left and then threw a lateral back to his holder, Chuck Lamendola, who fired a pass to the end zone that Frank Vescera caught for a two-point conversion.
“We couldn’t make that play work again if we practiced it all season long,” DiNitto said in a post-game interview.
The Titans stayed in front the rest of the way and added to their lead. Don Scialla returned a punt 48 yards to the Hendricken 6-yard line. Fullback Paul Appolonia scored from there, and the Titans were on their way.
After the win in 1972, Toll Gate dropped the next five games before winning in 1978. Hendricken won seven more in a row until Toll Gate put together its best stretch in the series with six straight wins from 1986 to 1991.
“We had a run,” said DiNitto, who coached until 1993 and later became Athletic Director for Warwick Public Schools.
That was the end of the run. Hendricken has won 20 straight Thanksgiving meetings, but even as the gap has widened in recent years, Toll Gate has gotten close twice in the last seven seasons, most recently in 2008.
There’s still the dream of an upset, the same one that carried the Titans 41 years ago.
“Any time we beat them,” DiNitto said. “It was special.”