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25 Years Ago, My First Lehigh/Lafayette Game

(Photo Credit: Morning Call File Photo)

Twenty-five years ago, I went to my first Lehigh/Lafayette game and almost saw a record held by Sean Payton fall.

As a part of Eastern Illinois' high-powered passing offense, Payton owned a I-AA record for most passing yards in a half.

Lehigh QB Jim Harris came - incredibly - one yard short of the record of passing yards in a single half, 372 yards.

And while the potent battle of great Engineer and Leopard offenses (or, perhaps, the struggle of two subpar Engineer and Leopard defenses) would end up in a 52-45 win for Lafayette in Easton, it served as my first-ever view of The Rivalry as an undergrad.

You could say it's the reason why I'm doing this today.


College is a transition, a stopover between being a child and being a grownup.  I came to South Bethlehem by way of Paris, France, where I went to high school.

While I had spent some time in America enjoying high school football - early on - my dad's transfer to Paris for a four year work assignment meant giving up something.

It meant I gave up going to football games, trying out for the football team.  My high school in Paris didn't have a football team, either to play for or cheer for.

As great as my experience in Paris was, it was impossible to rally behind the school in terms of rugby or soccer games, though I tried.  Basketball came the closest, but my efforts to make the team didn't amount to much.  I ended up playing volleyball instead.

But heading to Lehigh meant, to me, filling in something that was missing in my years in Paris.

And the Rivalry filled that void completely.

Even during freshman orientation you'd hear about "Lehigh/Lafayette" week from the seniors - and some of the excesses, especially from the last game in Taylor Stadium, which had just been demolished the previous year.

The entire freshman year, actually, had been a kind of slow build to Lehigh/Lafayette week, as the classes grew more challenging as the semester went on and it finally dawned on all of us that we weren't kids anymore.

The girlfriends from home suddenly stopped coming to visit, and new girls stopped by the dorm - sometimes just for one night.  Some kids aced their studies; others struggled.  I was in the middle.

And there was the football games, games that I eagerly wanted to attend with some of my other sports-loving friends.

The first game I attended was a game vs. Towson, a fun break from the study week and a good prelude to whatever craziness we were able to pull together during the weekend.

As the semester went on, and the stresses of real studies and real life started to take over, the growing-up process started.  Somewhere along the line, I found out that my work that would have gotten me 100s in high school were not getting me 100s in college.  There was more stress in college than there was in high school.  All-nighters to study were a new thing.

It is in this environment of stress that Lehigh/Lafayette took center stage, stress with a need for an outlet, a day where everyone, whether football fans or not, would be able to cut loose just a little.

In 1988, Lehigh was but two years in the Colonial League, the precursor to the Patriot League.  There were no playoffs, no National Championships.  Just a season to prepare for the Bowl Game against Lafayette.

There was word of Lafayette QB Frank Baur being one of the best quarterbacks in I-AA, or whatever level of football we played at - we knew it wasn't Notre Dame - and QB Jim Harris being a pretty good player in his own right.  But it might as well have been a one-game season.  Win, and Lehigh's season would be a success.  Lose, and a winter of gloom lied ahead.

Lehigh/Lafayette weekend was a good weekend.  There were great friends to spend time with.  There were girls to impress.  And it was a week where the pedal was taken off the accelerator from the teachers, just a little, it allow the memories to happen.

*****

Lehigh was 6-4 heading into that game, and Lafayette was 7-2-1, making it a very even overall matchup between fairly good teams.  And in our corner of the visiting stands of Fisher Field, we saw seven consecutive touchdowns from both teams.  In a half.

"In a game that saw many records fall," the Brown and White said at the time, "the pace resembled that of a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game."  While the Engineer offense wasn't known as Air Lehigh until a few years later, you could see Air Lehigh in this game.

Harris was responsible for an amazing 23-for-29 first half performance, in which all of us in the stands were wondering if the first team to punt would lose the game.  One of his favorite targets was RB Erick Torain, who ripped up the Lafayette offense in the first half.

Baur, though, was equal to Harris' challenge for best quarterback honors on the afternoon.  Already established as one of the great quarterbacks in the subdivision, he would finish an efficient 21-of-26 throwing for 309 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His favorite target, WR Phillip Ng, had a great day as well, with 127 yards receiving and 2 TDs.

With the adrenalin from the Rivalry, it was an exhilarating first half, at least for the hardcore football fans like myself and some of my friends.  We were calculating if the final score could top 150 points, with the score reading Lehigh 35, Lafayette 30.

But Lafayette was able to adjust to Lehigh's offense in the second half - or maybe it was because head coach Hank Small wanted to slow down the pace of the game, running twice and punting early in the second half the first punt of the game for either side.  We knew at that time: Lehigh wouldn't have enough in the tank to put this away.  The first team to punt will lose the game.

But in continued to be a battle, with both teams wearing down after the passing fireworks from the first half.  Perhaps by necessity, Lafayette's consistency ground down Lehigh's defense, finally going up 52-38 as myself, and a lot of other Lehigh undergrads, started to mass down on the field level.

I didn't know what to expect.  I had heard that the fights for pieces of the goalpost were legendary, and sometimes involved blood and broken noses.  I took a different tack, an overall plan devised by some member of my freshman hall posse: Everyone would go for the goalposts.  We would go for the end-zone pylons.

Lehigh would score a touchdown, as we got into place, waiting for the final seconds to tick off.  When they did, the wire fence came apart at Fisher, and I, and a host of other Lehigh and Lafayette people, stormed the field.

I can see that pylon as if it were yesterday.  I juked one person, and went around another, seeing one person trying to tackle the pylon ahead of me and flying past it.  Another tried to grab it, but missed.  I stopped, planted, used both hands (my gloves were off; I wanted to make sure to get it), and I got it.

I put it in my coat, and left the chaos around me, the fighting, the grab for the pieces of goalpost.  It turned out our fantastic planning had not only yielded one goalpost pylon, it yielded two.

For a week we showed off the pylons to visitors to our residence hall, our initiation to what was the most-played rivalry in all of college football.  Our little part of history, our bit of broken-out stress, was on display.  Not quite gone from childhood, not quite in the land of being grown up, we reveled.

And little did I know it would be the start of twenty-five years of obsessing about Lehigh football.

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