There’s no place like home.
For Aquinas High School athletes, that sentiment took on new meaning in 1977 when after 20 years of being without a stadium, the football team finally had a place to call home.
“This stadium is special,” said Richard Leonard, who graduated in 1979 and was part of that squad to first play in the stadium, which will soon be razed to make way for a new athletic complex on the school’s campus.
The Fightin’ Irish played their last match at the stadium Aug. 18 defeating Jefferson County 49-20.
Members of that 1977 team were recognized during the game.
Never having a field to call its own meant the Irish never had that homefield edge when it came to games with crosstown rivals, Leonard said. But once they had that advantage, he said they could beat teams like Richmond and Laney, and they did. That’s the reason the stadium was special and perhaps, magical.
That 1977 season was also memorable to Leonard, who is the son of famed coach Denny Leonard and uncle of the current coach James Leonard. It gave him the opportunity of his high school career — taking the field after Pat Douglas broke his leg during a game against Hephzibah High School.
Leonard played the rest of the season in Douglas’s stead. Douglas would go on to being inducted into the Georgia Southern Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Pat was the lifeblood of the team,” Leonard said, remembering how Douglas cheered them from the sidelines the rest of the season.
Friday had a similar feeling to the first game played at the stadium, according to Douglas who also attended.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Douglas said.
The Aug. 18 match-up was more than a game; however, it was a celebration beginning with a catered barbecue dinner and tailgating for many of the Irish faithful who started gathering more than two hours before game time.
By kickoff, a sea of Kelly green had flooded the area. Fans packed onto the Aquinas side of the bleachers and overflowed to end zone area where they sat in folding chairs. Other fans stood, lining the fence separating the field from the bleachers.
Throughout the evening, Aquinas officials recognized other groups of people who played into Aquinas’s tradition. In addition to the 1977 team, members of the 2013 state champions also took the field for a few moments. Senior athletes from all sports were introduced on the field prior to the game.
Patrick McCormack, who graduated from Aquinas in 1987, accompanied his son, Andrew, who plays football, on the field before the game.
Attending football games is a longtime tradition in the McCormack household, and he enjoys being part of the community surrounding the games.
“It’s great to come back. You see friends,” said McCormack, who played basketball during his Aquinas years.
And on Friday night, the Fightin’ Irish felt that community, that school spirit and didn’t let the Shamrock faithful down, drawing first blood with 6:58 left in the first quarter as Jim Franklin scored on a two-yard run. A few minutes later, Clark Jackson broke free for a 46-yard touchdown run.
The team never looked back.
Aquinas will continue a weekend of celebrations with its Letterman’s Dinner Aug. 19.
The new complex is slated for a 2024 opening. A $12 million fundraising campaign earmarks more than $8 million for an update to the stadium, new baseball field, practice football field and athletic training room. The other funds are for the school’s endowment.
Aquinas principal Maureen Lewis, who graduated from the school in 1984, said the project is an exciting one, and she’s looking forward to what it will mean for the school’s future.
As for Leonard, while he might have waxed nostalgic over that first stadium, he knows that a new complex will only make Aquinas a better place that will attract more students.
“Not even the big Catholic schools in Atlanta have anything like this,” he said.
Aquinas will play its remaining home games at Greenbrier High School. The Irish take on the Westside Patriots at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25 at Westside.
Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for the newsletter here.
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