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Poll; A Historical Rivalry; My Lehigh/Lafayette Memories

The picture above is of a Lehigh/Lafayette game at around the turn of the 19th century. The source year is not given (courtesy of Yale Digital Images, Walter Camp collection), but my guess would sometime between 1907 and 1911, a stretch where Lafayette won four of five games, including two shutouts.

It's easy to focus on the modern rivalry, with Patriot League titles on the line and I-AA playoff berths, but it's worthwhile to go over the great history of the rivalry on the run-up to Saturday.

Lehigh/Lafayette Through the Years
In 1884, football coaches Theodore L. Welles of Lafayette and Richard Harding Davis of Lehigh organized the first-ever match between the two teams. Lehigh and Lafayette, both being young colleges playing the newfangled "sport" of American football, seemed a natural to play each other since their campuses were a mere 21 miles apart. Football back then scarcely resembled the game of today. Back then, it was more of a mixture of rugby and soccer, and the rules were constantly changing. Lafayette's bigger and more experienced team had three seasons under their belts, while this would be Lehigh's first-ever football season.

They arranged for one game in Bethlehem that year, and one game in Easton. The inexperienced Lehigh team got crushed both times, by a combined score of 84-4. It's that year where Lehigh players and students must have started their visceral dislike for all things Leopard.

Lehigh finally was able to turn the tables in 1887 by a score of 10-4. After the game, Lehigh freshmen set fire to their own decrepit stands because it "was an eyesore and a disgrace to the Athletic Grounds". It's great that nowadays, we can fire off a stern email to the Athletic Department if we're unhappy with our facilities, but it shows you that even back then, Lehigh fans were psychotically fanatical about their football team.

Overall, Lehigh is 62-73-5 against the Leopards. The longest Lehigh losing streak was from 1937-1949, where the Engineers went 0-11-1 against hated Lafayette during that span. The longest consecutive Lehigh winning streak? Fast forward to 1995-2001, where Lehigh had won seven straight against the Leopards.

"The Game" 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 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. There's also 2003, where Lehigh RB Jermaine Pugh had 265 all-purpose yards, including a big punt return for a TD, in a 30-10 victory.

My Experiences With "The Game"
My first "Game" 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, 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" was not as important as tailgating and storming the field. Most fans didn't bother studying Mark McGowan's passing statistics or 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 exhilirating.

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 Game" unites Lehigh and Lafayette fans of all ages, coming back to experience the release of a semester's worth of pent-up frustrations. Back then, the postgame riot, rightly or wrongly, was the way to express that release. Now, a lusty "Lafayette Sucks!" in the stands would do the trick nicely - and much more safely, too.

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.

In the years that followed, my friends and I all got jobs or went to graduate school. But every year, we would have our yearly reunion to see Lehigh play Lafayette. Slowly the game stopped being about beer, riots, and a release of pent-up energy. Instead, it was about elaborate tailgates, meeting old friends, announcing engagements, and collecting in the spirit of beating the hated Leopards. Yankee fans stand side-by-side with Red Sox fans. Giant fans and Eagle fans stand toe to toe. Republicans and Democrats cheer in unison, united for one day only in fandom.
The tailgates have gone from hockey-puck burgers and charred hot dogs to gourmet buffalo wings, chips, dips, cakes and desserts. Ultimately they would also involve news of marriage, divorce, children, and catching up with friends. With the craziness of kids fighting in Iraq, the unsettling news of White House indictments, fears about job security, and the uncertainties of daily family life, on this day Lehigh/Lafayette takes on more importance. It's a comforting distraction to life's tidal wave. Politics and life's challenges can wait. It's Lehigh/Lafayette.

This year, it's going to be early to Goodman, and my 2 year old son will be at his first Lehigh/Lafayette tailgate. I couldn't be more excited.

My Best and Worst Lehigh/Lafayette games
Worst game: Last year, Lafayette beating Lehigh 24-10 and snatching a Patriot League co-championship and I-AA playoff berth out of the deal. I thought Lehigh had lost it all that day - a beautiful season brought to a quick, premature halt. Fortunately, we were picked - to everyone's surprise - to host James Madison in the first round of the I-AA playoffs the following week.

Second worst game: 1994 at Fisher Field, where Erik Marsh ran roughshod over the Lehigh defense and blew the Engineers out for the Leopards' third Patriot League title. It's the only game where I felt physically ill afterwards (and no, it's not because of the beer).

Best game: Easily 1995, where Lehigh won the Patriot title, 37-30 in overtime (the first overtime Lehigh/Lafayette game). Brian Klingerman caught a one-handed grab just after night fell in Murray Goodman to give Lehigh the win, after Lehigh came back from a 16 point fourth-quarter deficit. It seemed like if a third overtime period were needed, it was debatable if there would have been enough light to play the game! (Murray Goodman doesn't have lights.)

Second Best: 1993, Lehigh dominating the Leopards, 35-19, for their first-ever Patriot championship, on a bitter cold day. It also was the end of the Hank Small era at Lehigh.

What's yours?


Anonymous said…
Great piece Chuck. Its about time this game/rivalry is back where it ought to be.
Number one Lehigh Fan said…
Rieker- Kreider and the National Championship was in 1977, not 1987. How time flies!
Anonymous said…
Who can forget the Ice Bowl of 1987? It was the last game at Taylor Stadium.
Growing up on the South Side I was a hugh fan who went to all games in old Taylor Stadium. My favorite memory of a Lehigh vs. Layayette game was when Jack Rizzo scored 25 points (kicked a pat) and Kim McQuilken shredded the Lafayette secondary enrout to scoring 56 or so points. I also remember the bonfire in 1963, lit early because of the JFK asasination earlier in the day. Is there anyplace I can see the scores year by year for the entire series. The old Bethlehem Globe Times use to publish this on the eve of every game.

While still a Lehigh fan who looks to the newspapers each time the team plays, I am now an Auburn fan as my two sons attend that University. Our big game is with Alabama each year, and talk about FANatics - this is for bragging rights the entire year.

Good luck to Lehigh and War Damn Eagle for Auburn.
Jeff S. said…
I'm with you, 1995, which was my first grad school year. My seat was behind the north goalpost, and I almost caught the overtime extra point.

Enjoy the tailgate, I know we will. GO ENGINEERS!!!
Anonymous said…
This is what life is all about!!!
Anonymous said…
I had the opportunity to play in the 1987 Ice Bowl (I still haven't thawed), the 1988 Game of the Century and the 1st Lehigh/Lafayette game at the new stadium. Loved them all. Oh the memories.
-Leopard QB

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