NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 26, 2013

Make or break a day of thanks

Amesbury coach knows every side of holiday rivalry

By Dan Guttenplan
Sports Editor

---- — AMESBURY — Thom Connors wouldn’t invite himself to Thanksgiving dinner following a loss to Newburyport.

The Amesbury football coach has logged a 5-6 record on Thanksgiving against a team coached by his former mentor, Ed Gaudiano. Between serving as an assistant at Amesbury for five seasons in the 1980s, serving as an assistant another eight years at Newburyport in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then serving as the head coach at Amesbury since 2003, Connors has seen every side of the Thanksgiving rivalry.

“I think my wife and family will say — I don’t want to say I ruined Thanksgiving — but I was very quiet after some of the disappointing losses,” Connors said. “I try not to let it affect the rest of the day, but I can honestly say there have been years where maybe I came home later than my family expected because I was lingering in the locker room or my office.”

Connors has also coached Amesbury to a few Thanksgiving Day victories that kicked off his most memorable holidays for positive reasons. In 2007, 2008 and last season, Amesbury beat Newburyport on Thanksgiving with Cape Ann League Small titles on the line, earning trips to the playoffs. The Indians went on to win the Super Bowl in 2008.

“Those are the ones that probably stick out,” Connors said. “The games that had league titles on the line are the ones you remember. And then, of course, last year I had my son (Tommy) as a senior, so that was a great memory.”

Amesbury snapped a three-game Thanksgiving Day losing streak against Newburyport last season with a 13-10 victory. The Indians will look to collect their second consecutive Thanksgiving Day victory Thursday for the first time since the 2007 and 2008 stretch that culminated in a Super Bowl.

The Indians (4-6) will not be playing for any postseason stakes this season, nor will Newburyport. Amesbury did not qualify for the Division 4 playoffs in the first year of the new system. Newburyport qualified, but fell in the first round to eventual Division 4 champion Bedford.

Amesbury was 1-2 in its final three games this season after learning it fell short of the playoffs with a 3-4 record.

“We were obviously disappointed that we didn’t make it to the playoffs,” Connors said. “We’re in a situation now where we lost a couple of games down the stretch, and we’re looking to turn it around.”

In looking for motivation for this year’s team, Connors has referenced his 2003 team, which completed a losing season with the team’s first Thanksgiving Day victory since 1996. That victory started an era of marked success for the Indians on Thanksgiving Day. From 2003 to 2008, they won four of six holiday rivalry games.

“It had been so long since we won on Thanksgiving, so that 2003 game is a positive memory,” Connors said. “If you win, it’s always a great day. That’s what I tell the seniors. If you win as a senior on Thanksgiving, then you win for the rest of your life. Nobody can take that away from you because, most likely, it’s the last game you’ll play.”

If one theme has emerged in the Amesbury-Newburyport rivalry during the Connors coaching era, it’s that each team seems to save a trick play for the holiday game. Connors said he started the tradition as an assistant on Gaudiano’s staff.

“It started as more of a fun thing to give the players a break with the extra week of preparation,” Connors said. “It gave them something new to think about. One year, we lined up in the Georgetown spread, with our entire offense spread across the field. I used to tell the coaches when I was on (Gaudiano’s) staff that I had a trick play to call at some point in the game. That’s continued, but it’s probably not as much as people think. Sometimes, you get it in, and sometimes you don’t.”