Thursday, November 16, 2006

Memories of "The Rivalry"

"The Rivalry" means different things to different fans. To some, it's an extension of the high school rivalries between Bethlehem and Easton. To others, it's a fun party and a way to blow off steam after a tough semester at Lehigh or Lafayette: the last big blowout before Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays. To others it's being a part of history: something that has been here long before us.

Everyone can agree that "The Rivalry" is simply something that trancends a mere football game.

Lehigh and Lafayette are only separated by 13 miles along historic Route 22, which means that the fans, students and alumni of both schools don't have to travel far to see the game. If you're a student, you can leave your fraternity in the morning, get to the game, and be back in time to celebrate on Saturday night.

More than other rivalries, the Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton communities are also flush with "The Rivalry" as well. It transcends "Lehigh" and "Lafayette" and becomes "Bethlehem" versus "Easton" as well. Folks who live locally yet don't have any connection to Lehigh or Lafayette still go to identify with the communities they represent. Easton residents root for Lafayette and Bethlehem residents root for Lehigh - the same way it's been done since 1884.

It's the most-played rivalry in football history. This year it will be the 142nd meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette, with "the bad guys" holding a slight 62-74-5 edge.

It's been the subject of a book (Todd Davidson's and Bob Donchez' "Legends of Lehigh/Lafayette"), a TV documentary, and was recently ranked #8 on ESPN's Greatest Football Rivalries. Sports Illustrated called it "something you have to do once in your life", and once featured one of Lafayette's QB on it's cover. By staying true to what it is, and staying grounded in its roots in the Lehigh Valley, it's become not only a historic, emotional game - it's also become a real American story rooted in northeastern Pennsylvania.

History
"The Rivalry" has thrilled Lehigh and Lafayette fans alike with great individual performances, classic games, and strange stories.

In 1977 "Rieker-to-Kreider" led the way to a 35-17 victory over Lafayette on the way to Lehigh's Division II championship. In 1987, the last-ever game was played at Taylor Stadium as the fans started tearing up old Taylor Stadium early in the 4th quarter. (Lehigh would win, 17-10).

In 1988, Lafayette beat Lehigh 52-45 in a shootout featuring Lafayette's Sports Illustrated cover boy, QB Frank Baur. 1994 was Lafayette RB Erik Marsh's swan song as he rewrote the Leopard record books as they crushed Lehigh 54-20. In 1995, Lehigh fans at Goodman saw a thrilling 37-30 OT victory with WR Brian Klingerman catching the game-winning pass with one hand in the corner of the end zone.

As the Patriot League started to have an autoqualifier into the I-AA playoffs, another bit of fissile material was heaped onto an already-nuclear rivalry. Now, the games started to mean I-AA playoff berths were also on the line. In 2004, Lafayette needed to beat us to get into the I-AA playoffs, and did so, beating us 24-10. And just last year, RB Jonathan Hurt got "The Catch" which gave Lafayette a 23-19 victory, denying Lehigh a Patriot League championship and allowing Lafayette to sneak in the I-AA Playoff field.

My Experiences
My first "Rivalry" was back in 1988, my freshman year. Back then, not having the I-AA playoffs to play for, the goal of the game was twofold: 1) for Lehigh to win, and 2) to storm the field to get souvenirs from the game, such as the end zone markers and bits of the goalposts. This postgame riot was considered a "tradition" of Lehigh/Lafayette. In anticipation of the amount of people who would be storming the field, security had been beefed up, and the metal goalposts were replaced by wooden ones to make for easier tearing-down. Even though security was tightened, there were always fights between fans, and ultimately there were scores of arrests.

That day in 1988, it seemed like every time the offense touched the ball either Lafayette or Lehigh scored. Ultimately Lafayette prevailed 52-45, although Lehigh never really took the lead as much as they kept the game close. Lafayette won the Patriot championship that year, and after storming the field with my buddies, I managed to get one of the end-zone markers. (Which was stolen from me by some girl, but that's a story for another time.) It was exhilirating: fraternities scored large chunks of the goalposts, and hung them proudly in their living quarters. Stories on the way home involved how many Lafayette fans were punched out, and how you managed to grab that elusive piece of the goalpost, and - oh yeah, we'll get 'em next year. All of us generally froze our tails off in an all-day and all-night party.

In 1990, I hitched a ride to Fisher Field with a few friends in a VW Bus. Yes, a VW Bus. I don't know at this time how we got to the game alive and in one piece, but we got to the game early, sang the song "Magic Bus", loaded up on other people's hotdogs and hamburgers, had lots of "Natty Bo's" (National Bohemian, the cheapest brew on the market at that time), and saw Lehigh dominate the Leopards 35-14. This game was my first Lehigh victory, and during the postgame melee I got a "piece" of the goalpost. I say "piece", for my goalpost shard couldn't have been more than 3 inches long - as 2 fraternities were fighting over a huge piece, a little shard came off in my hands. Triumphantly, I headed back to campus on a much safer bus, my souvenir tucked away in my coat pocket.

The Lehigh/Lafayette game during my senior year in 1991 could be considered the final days of this "riot" era. In that game, in defiance of the "traditions" of the wooden goalposts, Lehigh erected metal goalposts, and got the local authorities involved in keeping order. (No Patriot League title was on the line since Holy Cross had the championship wrapped up.) Even though students and fans were repeatedly warned not to storm the field (in which Lehigh dominated, 36-18), many fans still did storm the field (me and my friends not being among them). The fans on the field, frustrated at not being able to rip down the goalposts, picked up hunks of turf and started to throw them at the cops trying to restore order on the field. Not surprisingly, the cops went out and beat up a lot of the "fans" on the field that day, in front of many horrified students and alumni. Not a banner day for "the Rivalry".

Every year, my friends and I reunite for an annual "reunion" of sorts for Lehigh/Lafayette. It's always a lot of fun to see "the old gang" tailgating at the game and afterwards, even though those days of drinking beers at 9 in the morning and choking down burgers that tasted like hockey pucks are a distant memory. At our tailgate, the food and drinks have gotten better, there are now kids at the tailgates, and it's a time to catch up with everyone - to see pictures of that new house, talk about the family, the new babies, and to talk about Lehigh football too.

It's something I look forward to every year. And today, only 43 hours before the rivalry, the excitement is yet again at a fever pitch.

1 comment:

C. J. Klos said...

The 1991 game was the only game that I got to attend with my late father, Jim Klos, a veteran and 1949 grad. My daughter was interviewing on campus as a high school senior on the day before and he was able to obtain tickets to The Rivalry. (Touring the old and new buildings together is a great way to spend an afternoon.) The impressive victory appeared well in hand early in the fourth quarter while grey skies (and many "inspired" students) gathered ominously near the end zones. A practical desire to get ahead of the traffic (and out of the mud) led us to leave a few minutes early and miss the goal post melee. The local radio reports provided a vivid description, allowing us to remember the weekend perhaps more positively than if we had held out to the bitter end. Your thoughts?