For Pat Rice and many other Augustans, Thanksgiving Day used to be more than just a time for sitting around eating turkey and cranberry sauce.
In the 1940s and 1950s, families would have the traditional holiday meal for lunch. Then in the afternoon, thousands of people – standing-room only crowds – would watch Aquinas and Richmond Academy square off on the gridiron.
“Dad took me to that game growing up,” said Rice, a former punter, safety and split end for the Irish from 1956-58. “It was something I looked forward to.”
For the first time in more than a half century, the Aquinas faithful are looking forward to attending another football game on Thanksgiving Week, albeit one day after the holiday. The Irish, making their deepest postseason run in school history, play host to Landmark Christian in the Class A quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Aquinas, which practices today at 8 a.m., is the first Richmond County team to play at home in the state quarterfinals since Laney in 2002. The Irish are one of three local teams remaining in the Georgia High School Football Association playoffs – Burke County is at home Friday night, while Lincoln County is on the road.
Aquinas personnel have been busy this week. School officials are adding additional bleachers, concession stands and portable bathrooms for Friday’s contest. Irish coach Matt LeZotte said his team attracts a crowd of more than 1,000 fans for an average game. He expects that number to easily more than triple, with many people returning to Augusta to celebrate Thanksgiving with family.
“It’s not only the excitement of Aquinas making a deep run, but a local team is playing at home,” he said. “This is a chance for us to showcase our style of football. We’re really excited about it.”
Aquinas playing football this week brings back happy memories of younger days for men like Joe Sheehan. A former Irish quarterback, Sheehan scored the game-winning touchdown on a short sneak up the middle in an Aquinas 9-6 win over Richmond Academy in 1957 in the teams’ annual “Turkey Day” game.
“There was nothing like it,” Sheehan said. “That was the social event of the year. The stadium was filled up.”
Boys Catholic, which later became Aquinas, began playing Richmond Academy in 1944. Two years later, Denny Leonard began his 21-year coaching career with the Irish, and the teams moved their rivalry to Thanksgiving. Despite having a little more than 100 students in its school, Boys Catholic played in the same region with the Musketeers, who had a student population 10 times larger.
Richmond Academy dominated the series, winning the initial contest, 59-6. The Musketeers claimed the first 11 games in the rivalry (they played twice one season) until Aquinas broke through for a 14-13 win in 1954. Two years later, the teams tied in a scoreless game. The Musketeers went on to win the state’s Class AAA title the following month.
“That was really significant,” Rice said of the tie. “We celebrated that one.”
The teams played their final Thanksgiving Day game in 1960. For thousands, it meant the end of an era. Now, 51 years later, Aquinas is bringing back the tradition in a way.
Three of Leonard’s grandchildren will be participating in Friday night’s game. James Leonard, who grew up hearing about the Thanksgiving Day games, is a 24-year-old wide receivers coach, while Christopher and Hank Leonard each are on the Irish roster.
“It’s not Thanksgiving, but it’s close enough,” James Leonard said. “It’s kind of cool to follow in (my grandfather’s) coaching footsteps. I know he’d be proud to know how far we’ve come as a program.”
For Denny Leonard’s former players, Aquinas pride is running strong as ever this week. While the current squad prepares for Landmark Christian, the Irish alumni will sit down today, eat Thanksgiving dinner and remember their past holiday glory.
“It kind of brings back some nostalgia,” Rice said. “It makes you think of those Thanksgiving Day games. That was our state championship.”