For the first time since 1987, your humble scribe will not be heading out to cover a football game on Thanksgiving.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down football, effectively wiping Thanksgiving Day games from the 2020 calendar.
As a result, there will be no braving the nasty weather elements to see Bill Maradei coach in his last game. Nor will I be heading north to Danvers where I saw two of my top Thanksgiving Day games (sorry Xaverian).
All I’m left with this Thanksgiving are memories of covering 33 straight Turkey Day games. Thanks to a brilliant idea from loyal Twitterati John Deschenes, I’m going to take a trip down memory lane and look back at some contests I’ll never forget covering.
1997: St. John’s Prep 15, Xaverian 14
The buildup began in August as these two opened the season as the top teams in the state and held up their end of the bargain for nine weeks leading up to the eagerly anticipated showdown.
ESPN sent a camera crew and truck to the game. So did all the local television stations. St. John’s Prep coach Jim O’Leary arrived at the field the morning of the game at 6:30 a.m. and said some fans were already waiting to get tickets.
“The buildup for the game was like the way it is in Texas,” O’Leary said. “It clearly was the best two teams, there were so many Division 1 athletes on the field out there. It turned out to be a really good high school game.”
Xaverian had been the top dog in the Catholic Conference, having won three straight Super Bowls. Despite all of that, St. John’s Prep entered the game with a quiet confidence that it had the goods to dethrone the Hawks.
By game time, a crowd estimated at 10,000 (O’Leary said the paid gate alone was 8,800) watched the megapowers do battle for the Catholic Conference title, a berth in the Super Bowl and eternal bragging rights.
St. John’s Prep took an early 7-0 lead on a touchdown run by Brian Lentz, who was immense with 159 yards and a score on 33 carries against a stout Xaverian defense. The Hawks would take a 14-7 lead in the fourth quarter on an 18-yard TD run by quarterback Brian Mann, who was playing his first game since injuring his thumb against Brockton early in the season.
St. John’s Prep quarterback Brian St. Pierre had dealt with enough Thanksgiving Day angst at the hands of his rivals from Westwood and took matters into his own hands. He rolled out and used his legs to run 43 yards for a touchdown to narrow the deficit to 14-13.
Given the Catholic Conference tiebreaker at the time, St. John’s Prep could have kicked the PAT and if the game ended in a 14-14 tie, the Eagles were going bowling. O’Leary wasn’t in the mood to settle for a potential deadlock.
He went to a full-house backfield, putting his two best linemen, Wayne Lucier and Zack Magliaro in front of Lentz. Everyone knew who was getting the ball, but it made little difference as Lentz plowed into the end zone for the deciding points.
2001: St. John’s Prep 20, Xaverian 14
Four years after The Game, St. John’s Prep and Xaverian turned in another classic.
With the score tied at 14 and three seconds left in regulation, St. John’s Prep had the ball on its own 46-yard line. The decision came down to this: take a knee and roll the dice on overtime or aim for the end zone.
“That’s not my style,” said O’Leary. “We just told every one to block, Lonnie (Hill) run deep and Danny throw the ball to him. Everyone knew it, but he still made the play.”
Quarterback Dan Ross rolled out to his right, buying himself some time. He then delivered the perfect Hail Mary pass, an aerial with a lot of air under it, giving the 6-foot-4 Hill ample time to get there and take advantage of his size and athletic ability.
“I remember the coaches saying Lonnie, get down there and we’ll throw it to you,” Hill said after the game. “I just went up there and caught it.”
Those who watched the first half wouldn’t have imagined the game coming down to a Hail Mary pass.
Xaverian moved the ball up and down the field at will, amassing 255 yards of total offense in the first half. While the Hawks scored twice, they failed to cash in on three other trips in the red zone, settling for a 14-7 lead at the half.
The Eagles deadlocked the score on a 15-yard touchdown from Ross to Hill, setting the stage for their final-second heroics.
THE DREADED COIN TOSS
1999: Wakefield 14, Melrose 14
(Full disclosure, former Herald columnist Michael Gee covered the game, I handled the aftermath.)
The Middlesex League title and a berth in the Div. 2 Super Bowl was on the line when these two powers met.
Melrose came into the game as the favorite and controlled the game for the better part of three quarters behind the hard running of George LeBlanc (129 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries). The Red Raiders took a 14-0 lead into the fourth quarter and appeared to be in the driver’s seat as the rain turned the field into a quagmire.
But Wakefield was a team of destiny and wasn’t going quietly into the night. A short touchdown run by William Morrison, followed by 20-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Irons to Robert Caira with 25 seconds left, tied the score, leaving fans wondering what next.
There was no overtime and the league rules stipulated if all avenues failed in determining a league champion, the title would be settled by a coin flip. Ironically, earlier in the year, the league looked into changing the format but never did.
The following morning, coaches, principals and captains met at Melrose High. The coin flip would take place behind closed doors, leaving a host of reporters and media in the lobby breathlessly awaiting the outcome.
“It was a tough Friday morning having to wait 24 hours,” Wakefield football coach Mike Boyages said. “I remember my former basketball coach Sonny Lane (at that time he was the AD at Melrose), telling us not to get too emotional after the flip. There were two envelopes and we were fortunate to pick the right one.”
An interesting side note to the coin flip. Former Boston Herald editor-in-chief Joe Sciacca was filling in for David Brudnoy on his extremely popular weeknight radio show on WBZ. He asked me to come into the studio to do a quick five-minute spot on the game and the ensuing coin flip.
That five minutes turned into an hour-long session as the phones lit up with people expressing their displeasure over a coin flip deciding a Super Bowl berth. Some were a little more colorful than others.
Wakefield went on to defeat Acton-Boxboro, 12-7, to win the Super Bowl.
FOOTBALL AT FENWAY
2015: Xaverian 14, St. John’s Prep 0
It had been 80 years since a high school football game was played at historic Fenway Park.
Catholic Conference rivals Xaverian and St. John’s Prep were designated to be the first of four games played over a two-day stretch at the famed ballpark. With the league title on the line, the Hawks did all the scoring late in the first half and went on to defeat the Eagles, 14-0, in front of a crowd estimated at 10,000.
“It’s awesome, like I told our team this week, I said we have 303 teams started playing football in August, only one’s playing at both Fenway and Gillette,” said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson, whose team would win a Super Bowl title a week later at the home of the Patriots. “No other team in Xaverian history has had the opportunity to play here at Fenway Park, so I’m really glad that we were able to get the win for the great tradition that we have.”
Xaverian’s defense was brilliant all season long and this game would be no different. Two plays after Cody Tippett hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass from Michael Pina, Colin Lama picked off a pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to essentially seal the deal.
“That was the whole game today,” Stevenson said. “You could boil the game down to two minutes.”
2008: BC High 17, Catholic Memorial 7
There was a massive line forming around a white van just beyond the end zone at BC High.
They were there to greet legendary former BC High football coach ad athletic director Jim Cotter. His body ravaged by ALS at the time, the 71-year-old Cotter was confined to a wheelchair, but his spirit was far from beaten. He’d accepted his fate and enjoyed each day to its fullest, preferring to focus on positive events.
“It’s a beautiful day for football and I’m so happy to see Jon Bartlett coaching BC High football,” said Cotter, who was on hand to watch his beloved Eagles clinch a Catholic Conference title with a 17-7 win over Catholic Memorial. “This has always been a special day and I have so many wonderful memories of Thanksgiving Day football.
“I still remember the 1977 game with Catholic Memorial where we kept Paul Heinsohn (son of the late Tommy Heinsohn) inbounds on the final play of the game. If he got out of bounds and stopped the clock, they could have a kicked a game-winning field and we wouldn’t have gone to the Super Bowl.”
Cotter attended BC High from 1951-1955 and would later return as the school’s football coach. Cotter coached his beloved Eagles from 1964-2004, amassing an overall record of 236-145-17.
The game itself was fueled by BC High’s impressive ground game. Billy Kiley and Kyle Ewanouski ran for touchdowns, while Tyler Horan lugged the ball 21 times for 122 yards.
2018: Austin Prep 14, Shawsheen 8
The temperature barely cracked double digits, but Austin Prep coach Bill Maradei was in no hurry to leave the field.
The legendary coach just defeated Shawsheen, 14-8, for his 270th and final victory in a storied 40-year career. As former and current players came up to him, many with tears in their eyes, Maradei smiled as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” was playing in the background.
“Like the song, I guess I’m old school, I always did things my way,” Maradei said. “I’ve been very lucky to coach at Dom Savio and Austin Prep, was very lucky to win a Super Bowl coaching my two sons (Billy and Mark). That’s the ultimate, you can’t ask for any more than that.”
The final game was a Maradei special. A proponent of smashmouth football, the Cougars ran for 280 yards. Lucas Gebolys led the way with 116 yards on 16 carries. As soon as the game ended, he spoke eloquently of Maradei and the impact he had on Gebolys’ career.
“I’ve played for him for four years and he’s the best coach I’ve ever had,” an emotional Gebolys said. “He pushed us to our limits to make us the best possible players we could be. We’re just so happy that we could win this last game for him.”
1988: Westwood 31, Holliston 10
Westwood came into this game looking to even the score with Holliston, while maintaining its undefeated season.
This time, the Wolverines came fully armed.
Greg Warren put together a season quarterbacks dream of. He entered the game with 28 touchdown passes, an impressive number given the fact that few teams aired it out as much as they do today and Warren rarely saw the playing field in the fourth quarter given his team’s dominance.
Warren got off to a slow start, but picked it up in the second half. He threw three touchdown passes to Brett Jacobson to tie Tommy Colombo’s state record at the time. The record-setter came late in the fourth quarter when Warren fired a touchdown to Tommy Bean to account for the final points in the game.
PAYING A PRICE FOR VICTORY
2013: Xaverian 28, St. John’s Prep 22
One of the biggest arguments against the current MIAA football tournament structure revolves around Thanksgiving Day. Several teams who have already cemented spots in the Super Bowl have chosen to rest starters.
Those who decided to take knees pointed to Xaverian as to why.
The Hawks had already clinched a berth in the Div. 1 Super Bowl when it traveled to Danvers to face St. John’s Prep. Xaverian went on to win a hard-fought game, 28-22, but paid a big price, The starting backfield tandem of Shayne Kaminski and Kenny Kern went down with ankle injuries in the first half. John Dean and Mike Vozzella later joined Kaminski and Kern among the wounded.
None of them would play in the Super Bowl, a game Xaverian wound up losing, 34-17, to Central Catholic.
“Football is football, you have to play in order to get better, you have to practice in order to get better,” Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson said after the game. “I’m disappointed that they got injuries. I don’t know what their status is right now. I’m hoping it’s not that bad, but we have to play with the players we have right now.”
St. John’s Prep, which was playing for at least a share of the league title, gave the favored Hawks all they could handle. Jack Lambert caught a 6-yard TD pass from Mike Geaslen to give the hosts a 22-20 lead with 2:11 left. The drive was spearheaded by a 44-yard run by Cody Harwood (25 carries, 200 yards) to move the ball inside the Xaverian 7.
From his own 34, Xaverian quarterback Jake Farrell marched the team downfield. showing some real moxie on the game-winning drive. The junior quarterback completed all five passes on the march, the final three going to the sure-handed A.J. King, including the game-winning 23-yarder with 24 seconds left.
The game would turn out to be the final one in the coaching career of St. John’s Prep’s Jim O’Leary.
BROTHERS IN ARMS
1999: Austin Prep 22, Savio Prep 21
The coaches stood in the bowels of East Boston Stadium, one consoling the other after a hard-fought Thansgiving Day battle.
Looking at the reaction of Austin Prep’s Bill Maradei and Savio Prep’s Gavin Monagle, the casual observer would have never known who won the game. Maradei’s side was the victor, but he took no great pride in getting to a Super Bowl at the expense of his former player and close friend.
“I love to win, but I never enjoyed beating Savio,” Maradei said. “I loved that place and I would never have left there, but they decided to close the doors (the school was closed for a short period of time, but alumni banded together and reopened as a co-ed school) and I wound up at Austin Prep, which was a great move for me.
“Gavin is a dear friend of mine. I still help him out at Masconomet (where he is the head coach) from time to time. But Savio was always a special place for me, especially being an Eastie kid.”
The winner-take-all showdown lived up to the hype. A back-and-forth effort where both sides traded scores. Derek Mazza’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave Austin Prep a 22-15 lead, but the host Spartans would not back down.
They marched downfield and Mike Pagliuca capped off the drive with a 7-yard touchdown run in the waning seconds. Savio Prep went for the win, but came up short. Austin Prep recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock to cap off an emotional morning.
“I can still remember as soon as we recovered the onside kick yelling that we were going to the Super Bowl,” said Maradei, whose team went on to defeat West Bridgewater, 24-0, in the Super Bowl. “It was a great, great game. Another 18 inches on the 2-point run and they win the game.”
2016: Brighton 28, Latin Academy 20
Jerrod Clark shouldn’t even been anywhere near the playing field.
A large cast on his left hand protected torn ligaments, making pass-catching nearly impossible. We say “nearly” because the future Coastal Carolina lineman saved Thanksgiving Day for Brighton.
With the score at 20 with 32 seconds left, Brighton decided to go for broke and wanted to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Nate Hall floated a pass toward the corner of the end zone and the 6-foot-4 tight end fought off a defender to catch the game-winning 32-yard touchdown pass from Nate Hall with 32 seconds remaining as Brighton rallied with two late scores to defeat Latin Academy, 28-20.
The play was all the more impressive give the fact Clark tipped the ball away from the defender, then balanced himself in time to corral it for the game-winner to cap off a 10-win season for the Div. 7 North champions.
“I had to really focus on the play,” Clark said. “I only have one good hand, so I tried to get my dominant hand on the ball and I was able to make the play and help us win.”
INCHES AWAY FROM GLORY
1987: Holliston 12, Westwood 9
My first Thanksgiving Day game took me to Holliston where undefeated Westwood was looking to clinch a Super Bowl berth against a dangerous underdog. The Panthers were expected to be a contender for the Tri-Valley League title, but suffered a slew of injuries, including one to quarterback Chris Grier (now the general manager of the Miami Dolphins).
Replacing Grier at quarterback was Bob Bicknell, the son of then-Boston College football coach Jack Bicknell. A tight end by trade, Bicknell stepped in to a new position and etched his name into Holliston football folklore.
The game was played in monsoon-like conditions. Navigating through the mud proved to be an exercise in futility for most of the game.
Westwood took an early 7-0 lead on a 10-yard TD run by Quentin Scott and held on to a precarious 7-6 edge until the fourth quarter when Bicknell made his run to infamy.
On a first down from his own 27, Bicknell dropped back to pass. Seeing no one open, he took off and ran 73 yards for what proved to be the winning score, though there were some scary moments at the end.
After a safety sliced the deficit to 12-9 with 1:14 left, the Wolverines moved the ball downfield. They reached the Holliston 1 with just enough time for one more play, but Lance Bacigalupo and a host of Panthers’ defenders engulfed the Westwood running back short of the goal line on the final play.
“This was our Super Bowl,” said Holliston coach Bob Bradford, whose team ended the season at 6-4. “We were the best team in the league in the second half of the season and we ended (the season) off right.”
(2010: St. John’s Prep 21, Xaverian 12)
The story of this game happened in the moments leading up to the contest. St. John’s Prep’s Jared Coppola, who suffered an injury to his vertebra in a preseason contest a year earlier which left him paralyzed, walked out to midfield at the Hawk Bowl with the use of a walker, along with his brothers Tyler and Brandon for the pregame coin toss.
A motivated Eagles’ squad rode the back of Tyler Coppola to the tune of 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the visitors from Danvers dethroned the defending Catholic Conference champions, 21-12. The win created a three-way tie for the league title with Xaverian, St. John’s Prep, and BC High, but the Eagles earned the tiebreaker.
A sky-high St. John’s Prep team continued its late-season surge into the postseason, defeating New Bedford, 35-7, in a Div. 1 state semifinal behind another 200-yard plus effort from Coppola. The storybook run ended at Gillette Stadium where St. John’s Prep fell to state power, 31-7, in the Div. 1 Super Bowl.
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