VERDIGRIS — It’s been 45 years, but Ed Crone remembers it like it was yesterday.
The crisp autumn air. The hurrying rustle of leaves blowing across the landscape. The genuine camaraderie of teammates spending time with their family away from home.
These are only a few characteristics one might experience when participating in high school football’s biggest holiday—Practice On Thanksgiving Day—also known as POTD.
Crone experienced the sensation of the event firsthand in 1974 with Stroud High School.
“It is a great day to practice on Thanksgiving,” Crone said. “It still gives me chills to think about it.”
The Tigers went on to cruise past Sperry, 50-19, in the semifinals before claiming the Class A state championship over Millwood in a 28-0 decision a week later.
Stroud has taken part in the festivities 12 times since then, and though Crone still keeps up with his alma mater, he now lives in Verdigris.
His nostalgic memories come from a time long ago, but it has been even longer than 45 years for the people of Verdigris.
The Cardinals have never been to the semifinals.
Not until this week, that is.
Verdigris defeated No. 4 Perkins-Tryon, 42-28, in the Class 3A quarterfinals last week to earn its first semifinals berth in school history.
Along with that comes the honor of practicing on Thanksgiving.
Of the nearly 400 high school football teams in Oklahoma that opened the season in late August and early September, only 44 remain standing.
For some perennial powers like Jenks (6A-I), Bixby (6A-II), Carl Albert (5A), Heritage Hall (3A), Shattuck (B) and Tipton (C), Thanksgiving practice has become commonplace.
However, Verdigris coach Travis East has spent the past 10 seasons away from the football field on Thanksgiving.
His last POTD came in 2008 as an assistant coach at Midwest City.
It has been far too long, and East isn’t taking this opportunity for granted.
He is taking an unorthodox approach to POTD, though.
Teams normally practice in the mornings, allowing players a full afternoon and evening of family time and overindulgence of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and other Thanksgiving treats.
For the Cardinals, it will be the other way around.
Players will have most of the day to celebrate the holiday before returning to Cardinal Stadium for a 7 p.m. practice.
Although unusual by typical standards, East has a logical explanation for the late practice, and it stems back to his time with the Bombers.
“I was fortunate enough to be on a coaching staff where we played a couple of years on Thanksgiving in a row,” East said. “We did one practice in the morning, and everyone cleared out and went about their day. The next year, we did it at night. I just remember the excitement of the night practice, coming out under the lights. The kids coming in after eating Thanksgiving dinner, brining their grandma’s best pie ever or candied yams. I just remember the excitement that came along with it.
“It might’ve been raining or whatever, but the families got to come out with them. We considered the whole team and their families one big family.”
A time of fellowship among players and their families is set to follow a quick and easy walkthrough practice.
East views POTD as more of a privilege than an obligation, and parents seem to share that idea.
He has yet to receive a complaint.
Everyone in the small town of Verdigris is embracing everything that comes along with a deep playoff run.
“When you’re the head coach, everything is based around your decisions for the team,” East said. “Whether you practice in the morning or practice in the evening, it’s going to mess with somebody’s schedule. But it’s one of those things where you get to practice on Thanksgiving while a majority of the state is sitting at home, eating turkey and not even worrying about football.
“We get to play another game, and we’re blessed to be able to do that.”
Star receiver Toby Willis’ family is one of the groups on board with the late practice.
“They’re excited,” Willis said. “My parents are, at least. I think it’s cool to practice under the lights on Thanksgiving Night.”
Many of the players feel the same way. They understand this is an opportunity to further cement their legacy within the program lore.
For the 13 seniors, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Regardless of how Friday’s game against No. 3 Plainview turns out for the Cardinals, Crone said one thing is guaranteed about this week.
“The young men will remember it forever,” he said.