Past is Prologue for St. Thomas Aquinas

The storied program at St Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) has won six state championships. Kynon Codrington /ESPNHS

You go, we go.

That’s become the mantra for the St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) football team over the years. If everyone plays their part, the team succeeds above and beyond any individual accomplishments.

It can also characterize the passing of the torch from one team to the next, which is especially relevant for the Raiders this year.

On Friday night, Aquinas plays host to De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) in a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the POWERADE FAB 50 rankings. St. Thomas has been crowned the high school football national champion by ESPN in two of the past four years.

To a man, the Raiders will say that the only reason they have the opportunity to play one of the nation’s top teams live on ESPN2 is because of the success of their predecessors. The 5,000 spectators, the television cameras, the pack of journalists, the scouts and college coaches — the entire atmosphere at Brian Piccolo Stadium on Friday night, really, will all be the result of those who have come before them. The Raiders teams that won 27 district titles and six state championships. The scores of players that went on to play college ball. The eight that currently suit up for NFL squads — the most pros of any high school program in the country.

“They are playing De La Salle because of the teams in the past,” said George Smith, the St. Thomas Aquinas athletic director. “That’s their challenge and they accept that. We are basically fueled by the past, and it’s their job now to continue that past and make it the present.”

The current players are saddled not only with carrying on tradition, then, but also providing opportunities for the next batch of Aquinas players. It’s a challenge they embrace.

“It’s a blessing just to be out here with guys that work so hard and are so passionate about what they’re doing,” said Dami Ayoola, a senior running back with offers from Notre Dame, Auburn and Wisconsin, among others. “We have a bunch of guys that are focused on one goal and that’s to win. I’m taking the challenge to uphold the legacy that’s been here so many years.”

You go, we go.

This notion of passing the torch even applies to the coaching staff this year. Smith was the coach for 34 years before handing over the reigns to Rocco Casullo this season. It’s a new era, but past is prologue.

“Coach Smith really did set the bar high, but I think coach Roc and the new regime, we collectively feel like we can go even higher,” said Cris Carter, the former Minnesota Vikings great and current ESPN analyst who moonlights as an Aquinas coach. Carter’s son, Duron, is a junior wide receiver at Alabama and was part of the Aquinas team that won the first FAB 50 national championship in 2008-09.

In De La Salle (2-0), the Raiders face another opponent steeped in tradition. From 1992-2004, De La Salle didn’t lose a game. The Spartans have also produced scores of college and pro players, and this year’s team is loaded with Division I prospects.

For both teams, playing top out-of-state competition on national television has become a tradition of its own.

“This is a big challenge, but our kids enjoy the challenge,” said Casullo. “We take pride in that. We will be ready.”

“Our whole season is not dependent upon it, but we do have certain dates targeted on the schedule and this is one of them,” added Carter. “It’s one of the reasons why kids come to St. Thomas, to play in games like this.”

Casullo and his staff sweat the small stuff. They value tradition. Each player has a job to do.

You go, we go.