Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Rivalry - My Book, and My Story

A hundred and thirty-one years ago, a college in Easton approached a bunch of students in South Bethlehem and challenged their newly-founded "foot-ball" team to a game.

Such are the simple origins of the football Rivalry between Lehigh University and Lafayette College.

The Rivalry is a big deal in the way that only a game contested one hundred and fifty other times can be.  It's inspired teams quitting in the middle of the game over issues of emotion and fairness.  It's involved postgame brawls, institutional needling, scientific raids of each other's campuses, pajama marches to serenade Moravian girls, pep rallies filled with smoke, and along the way was an integral part of the formation of the sport of college football, from the days of stocking caps to the days of leather helmets to facemasks to artificial turf.

It also inspires fanatical, crazy alumni like me to write books about it.

My book, The Rivalry, takes a look at the early days of the Lehigh/Lafayette football rivalry, and how Lafayette College and Lehigh University were founded, how their athletic departments were created, and (of course) how the football Rivalry got to be as emotionally and fiercely contested as it is.

It's available on Amazon and in the Lehigh Bookstore, and it's great reading for folks who want to know more about Asa Packer, Ario Pardee, the founding of both schools, and the origins of athletics at both schools, as well as the beginnings of the football Rivalry, which were as intense and fiercely fought as any Rivalry game in the modern age.


As you might imagine, I've attended a whole lot of Lehigh football games, not all of them Rivalry games against Lafayette.  I'm a diehard, the type of guy who will go to a game where Lehigh is facing off against Holy Cross in a driving rainstorm with puddles on the sidelines where players are slipping and sliding.

The attraction of the Rivalry, though, never gets old.

No other game in in the sports repertoire brings the peculiar energy that makes a Lehigh football game against Lafayette so intense and so big-time.  No other game could inspire me to write more than 1,000 words - in a losing effort.  I'm sure it's a heck of a lot harder to write 1,000 words about, say, UMass football games.

That's because Lehigh is blessed with this Rivalry, this Rivalry with a school that's around eighteen miles from South Bethlehem and shares a passion for football to go with academics that look schools like Brown, Columbia, and Princeton squarely in the eye.

The Rivalry wouldn't work if Lehigh were a big state school with so-so academics and Lafayette were some elite liberal arts college that only housed English majors.  (Not that there's anything wrong with English majors.)  The Rivalry works because, as schools, they are elite.  By design, it is not easy to get into Lafayette or Lehigh.  There isn't a really easy path academically.  There is no course in XBox.

In fact, I'd say it's that academic intensity what makes The Rivalry so intense and so great.  If life were one big party at Lehigh or Lafayette, it might be considered just another game.  Instead, Lehigh/Lafayette comes after months of academic pressure, 4'O Clocks, tests, papers, and tons of high-stakes studying.  Lehigh/Lafayette week is a week where the pressure has a chance for release, a chance to party hard after a semester of pressure.  As any physicist will tell you, if you build pressure, eventually it will need to be released.  That's The Rivalry.

In the beginning, The Rivalry wasn't that.  In fact, most years before 1905, Lehigh and Lafayette faced off against each other more than once a year.  In a world where you had to travel by rail to leave town, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, largely owned by the Packer family, was critical in the development of the sport at both schools, and also allowed the pressure buildup of two schools to expend themselves in the same field.  It would eventually spur both schools to build stadiums - Fisher Field in Easton, and Taylor Stadium in Bethlehem.

My book is a deep dive into those early years of the Rivalry, and how it sprung from an athletics rivalry between both schools.  It was a real thrill to be able to research all those early accounts of all the games, being able to pluck hitherto unknown details from those games and to make them alive once again, to talk about the heroes, and the impacts of their decisions.

And yet this weekend, I'm excited to be able to take in another chapter of the living Rivalry, the 151st meeting of the contest and the chance for this year's Lehigh football seniors to go out the right way, putting the Mountain Hawks program in a better place than when they found it.

When you go, there will be no other college football game in the country.  There will simply be the the intensity of Lehigh and Lafayette.  There will be the extensive tailgates, the swings of emotion, and Murray Goodman will be the center of the Universe for three and a half hours.

It's what keeps me coming back.

My first Rivalry was back in 1988, my freshman year at Lehigh. 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, 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.)

Back in my college time, to most fans the "Game" (it was still considered "The Game" back then) was not as important as tailgating and storming the field. Most fans didn't bother studying QB Mark McGowan's passing statistics or LB Bryant Appling's tackles for the year (like me) - they were there because, well, you just had to be there.

Fraternities scored large chunks of the goalposts, and hung them proudly in their living quarters. Large amounts of "liquid refreshment" were consumed by all.  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. It was exhilarating, and I'd never seen or been part of anything like that in my life.

In 1990, I hitched a ride to Fisher Field with a few friends in a VW Bus. Yes, a VW Bus. To this day I don't know whose VW bus it was - it was not mine, nor my friends'.  It was unclear if it was a loaner to some sixth-degree-of-separation friend, or what, but all I know is we somehow got to the game alive and in one piece.

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 different bus, the official Lehigh university transportation, 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 the "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 the). 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. The cops used tear gas to try to restore order, where some of the gas hit Lehigh president Peter Likins as he was going to award the MVP trophy.

Not exactly a banner day for the Rivalry, but a memorable one nonetheless.

As the years go by, I never really let go of that fun and exhilaration I experienced in those first few Rivalry games.  It eventually morphed into some crazy idea about documenting the Lehigh football program, and "whatever else I damn well please," which morphed into whatever this blog is today.

If you look at the book I wrote, either the Amazon page or the print version in the bookstore, you might notice the words "Volume 1" on there.  That's because the full story of The Rivalry is not completely written.  I'm hoping to continue my deep dive into the games of the Rivalry very soon.  That's what the Rivalry can do to a person.

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