Fracassa's Final Season: The Last Practice

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - It's 10 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, and the sky is dark. The falling snow and frigid temperatures are setting the scene for a picturesque day at Brother Rice High School.

For Al Fracassa, this day is something he could have never drawn up.

He knows when his last game will be. That's Friday at Ford Field. That also means he knows when his last practice will be. That's on Thanksgiving, and that's today.

"We're gonna be playing a good team. They're gonna want revenge," Fracassa says, as a light snow falls on the field with his name on it.

The focus Thursday morning is on Muskegon, sure, but it's equally centered on tradition. Hundreds upon hundreds of alumni have gathered on the sideline, bundling up to pay tribute to their coach.

"I never knew if this day would actually ever come, Coach Fracassa's last day. It's going to be an emotional day for him, and for all of us," 2006 graduate John Goebel explains.

The longtime coach admits he forgets a few names, but recognizes the faces. He has a story for every player. One of his favorites, K.C. Ryan, is one of the first to the field.

"I talked to him just before he got out of his car," Ryan recalls. "He said, 'This is it, K.C. This is it.'"

In metro Detroit, there are usual traditions on Thanksgiving. There's the parade, turkey, and the Lions. At Brother Rice, winning has brought the good fortune of having an additional ritual.

The last practice before the state championship is always emotional, but Fracassa's retirement has inflated the jocks' tear ducts.

"I'll never forget today. I wish I could have a movie made of all this," Fracassa says.

The practice runs for about an hour. The 81 year old tells his assistant coaches his players are showing off a bit too much for the gathered crowd.

He blows his whistle. It's the last time he'll ever do that, so he blows it a couple more times. As the current team sprints to gather around Fracassa, he doesn't need to say anything. All of his players, dating back 45 years at Brother Rice, know what to do.

The sidelines empties. Young and old, everyone in attendance crowds around their coach.

"He just pours out everything he has for us. He always has. We feel it," senior captain Sage Baltrusaitis says.

Fracassa's message is simple. They'll leave for Ford Field two hours before kickoff. Be focused, and be ready.

"Coach is a great man. Words can't describe what he's done for me and for so many guys on this team," senior captain Chris Carter says.

Once the coach is done addressing the group, it's time for a time-honored huddle. Underclassmen line up on one side, with the seniors collecting in a pack nearby. They pass by each other, as the younger players thank their leaders, one by one.

Moments later, all of the current players shuffle into a similar pattern, this time, to meet the alumni. The lineup is impressive, stretching the width of the field, and turning down the sideline.

"It's just a five, six second 'good luck,' and handshake. It's very emotional," Ryan says.

Fracassa stands nearby with a smile. This collision of generations was his idea, started decades ago. High fives, tears, hugs, and messages are all given to the players. They slowly circle back, checking in with their coach to reminisce and share stories.

His time at the field is limited, though. He has to pick up his daughter from the airport before dinner.

"It's just been wonderful to see all the old guys. It's really wonderful just to be a part of all this," Fracassa says.

This is what Fracassa has created: an alumni base, united and coming back to school for 45 years. They have come back for one common reason.

Their coach.

Brad Galli is a Sports Reporter for WXYZ Detroit. Follow Brad on Twitter @BradGalli

Throughout the 2013 high school football season, Brad will be documenting the final days of Al Fracassa on the Brother Rice sideline. Visit WXYZ.com for news, stories, and videos from the season.

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