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The Rivalry

The yearly struggle between Harvard and Yale, in a contest otherwise known as "The Game", might be older.

The annual tilt between Ohio State and Michigan, pushed incessantly on ESPN, might be better known to the casual college football fan.

And the "Civil War" between Army and Navy every December might have its own special day on the calendar.

But nothing touches "The Rivalry" to end all rivalries between Lehigh and Lafayette.

No two schools have played each other more often. 

No rivalry (with a small "r") can touch the sheer intensity of the fans on both sides, at once infused with an unmistakable eastern Pennsylvania flavor, yet also representative of two private institutions of higher learning where academics rule the roost.

Others have their "Game". Others have rivalries, with a lower case "r".

But Lehigh and Lafayette have "The Rivalry", the one which all others are measured against.

In the past, I've tended to take time during the run-up to "The Rivalry" to go over some of the history of both teams.

Lehigh and Lafayette will be facing off for the 147th time this Saturday, and there's a lot of history to go through.

But much of that history is now permanently a part of the Wikipedia page for "The Rivalry"- a page, I'm pleased to mention, that I've contributed to over the years (including this year).

How did the whole thing get started?

In 1882, with the finding that the "interest in foot ball increasing", according to Lafayette's student newspaper, the students of Lafayette, the college from Easton that almost folded after the Civil War and struggled mightily to stay afloat in its first forty years, started an intercollegiate football squad to play local schools like Rutgers (who played in the first-ever football game vs. Princeton), and Penn.

"There are a number of strong players among the new men," the paper reported in October of 1882. "These combined with the old men will doubtless make one of the strongest teams ever in college."

Football, a brand-new sport that was exploding in popularity, and with Princeton nearby, Lafayette rightfully wanted a piece of the action.

So did an institution to the west of Lafayette, founded not twenty years hence.

Two years after Lafayette started up their squad, Lafayette manager Theodore L. Welles approached Lehigh and offered to play them - if they could start a football team.

At Lehigh, "New Journalism" pioneer Richard Harding Davis, a student at Lehigh at the time, enthusiastically took Mr. Welles up on his offer - after using his many charms to convince Lehigh's administration to pay the $52 for eleven brown and white striped jerseys.

Just to put this in perspective, this fateful meeting happened in 1884, the same year when, that summer, the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid down on Beldoe's Island.

It was the heart of what was considered "The Gilded Age" - an era of lack of leadership (just twenty years after the presidency of Abraham Lincoln), congressional gridlock, and big business filling the void in the form of railway companies.  Then as now, the big brains went into business, not government.

Just to put in perspective how long ago this actually was, Mark Twain, in a house just outside Hartford, Connecticut, penned Huckleberry Finn in that same year.

The president at that time was an ailing Chester Arthur, who was ending his term as the 21st president of the United States as he was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment.

A couple of weeks before the first-ever meeting of Lehigh and Lafayette, Grover Cleveland defeated Arthur's secretary of state, James Blaine, in a presidential campaign that was filled with mud-slinging.

Lafayette and Lehigh would play twice in that year - both losses for the Brown and White - but it was a natural, both cities being connected by the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  Unlike many games, many of the students from the opposing school were able to make the short train trip to watch their team travel on the road very easily.

The New York Times described the first game in that year: "The first inning was very interesting, as Lehigh frequently got the ball dangerously near Lafayette's goal line, but each time was beaten back, the point being made by the home team."

Much later, reflecting on that game, a Lehigh fan recounted in an alumni magazine that "We did not win... but we did give Lafayette the worst lickin' she ever had and many, many a sore head went back to Easton that night."  He wasn't a player: he was a fan, describing the fighting amongst the the members of the two schools.

The next game went no better for Lehigh, but Davis was very encouraged by the fact that they had actually scored in the second game, which Lehigh lost 34 to 4.

Who scored that first-ever touchdown for Lehigh? None other than Davis himself, the driving force behind the founding of the team.

"He often declared that he took keener satisfaction in making that first touchdown for Lehigh than in all the short stories and verses he ever wrote," a friend recalled in letters many years later.

Davis would leave the following year to start his journalism career - where he would trot the globe, reinvent the job of foreign correspondent, and, in effect define what a reporter actually does.

But the team which he founded, and took great satisfaction in his entire life, would play Lafayette again. A lot.


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