Al Fracassa's 44-year early morning tradition at Brother Rice ends

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. - At 6 a.m. on a frigid cold Thursday morning, Brother Rice's football field sits unoccupied in the dark.

A short distance away in the school's basketball gym, the pitter-patter of feet, a collection of 75 grunting teenagers, and the sound of a 44-year old tradition lives on.

All of it -- for a chocolate bunny?

"The chocolate bunny means a lot. It shows that you worked hard, that you put the work in to achieve something a lot of people can't ," junior cornerback Chris Carter explains.

Three days a week, for four weeks in the spring, longtime head coach Al Fracassa opens up the gym two hours before classes for Agility Drills.

"If our kids make every single one, they get a reward, and that's gonna be a chocolate bunny rabbit. It's about two ounces," Fracassa explains.

After recently announcing the upcoming season would be his last, the 80-year old coach will inevitably embark on a farewell tour this fall. Before then, a tradition within Brother Rice's walls comes to an end, and with it goes the rite of passage in the school's football program.

"It is tradition, coming to these Agility Drills. It's something special that other schools don't do," graduating senior and Michigan State signee Jon Reschke says.

For some players, driving in for the 6 a.m. start time requires setting an alarm as early as 4:30 a.m. The early wake-up call, the strenuous workout, and the two ounces of chocolate (hand-tied by Fracassa with black and orange ribbons) come with a price.

"We definitely are a little crazy to come up here. It's something you get used to, but it's something you don't like to get used to," center Sage Baltusaitis says of the early start.

The prize is given to a select few. Only 30 players receive a chocolate bunny this year. Fracassa recognizes them individually in front of the entire group. The magnitude of playing for the coach in his final season isn't lost on the Warriors.

"He comes out here with such enthusiasm. Just his presence is really cool to be around, and we cherish it because it's his last year," Baltrusaitis explains.

Certain points in the workout bring a tear to Fracassa's eye. He watches with a careful gaze, intently pushing his team, with his wise demeanor driving the morning's tempo.

He realizes there will be so many moments from now until the season's end where he'll become emotional. A year full of "last's" will be the story of Fracassa's 2013.

"There's a time where you say, I have to let it go now. I'm trying to accept that, and I'm glad everyone knows this is going to be my last year of coaching. And it's not so far," he says with a smile.

Each of the players who takes a chocolate memento walks away discussing what they'll do with the bunny. A few say they'll eat it at lunch, but most of them admit they'll never take a bite.

"I still have mine in my freezer from all three years," Baltrusaitis says.

Asked what he'll do with it, Carter says the choice is easy. He, too, will be putting this one in the freezer.

Over the past four-plus decades in Bloomfield Hills, Fracassa has established countless traditions. The Agility Drills are far from the easiest of them all, but the 80-year old says when he talks to former players, the morning workouts always come in as the favorite memory.

All you have to do is check their freezer to find a chocolate bunny for proof.

Brad Galli is a Sports Reporter for WXYZ in Detroit. You can follow Brad on Twitter @BradGalli, and you can find one chocolate bunny on the top shelf of his freezer.

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