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This Week, The Rivalry Can Be The First Healing Step

In a world that is rocked by the division of ugly elections and the blowing up of the political order, the business of beating Lafayette in the 152nd meeting of The Rivalry offers a rare sliver of personal unity among the people of Lehigh in an otherwise divided country.

The short version of the tale of the football Rivalry between Lehigh and Lafyette is simple: It's the most-played college football Rivalry in the world.  It's united fans of Brown and Maroon through a grand total of 34 Presidential elections, some of them bitterly divisive, others not.

The current tally of games sits at 151, and the game this weekend, the 152nd, will be played in Easton.  It's been waged every year, with only one interruption since 1884.

And the two schools, in competition in pretty much everything since the founding of Lafayette (1826) and Lehigh (1865), eventually coalesced around football as the main driver of The Rivalry between them.

I've spent a good portion of my adult life being around The Rivalry.  I've studied it, blogged about it, and even written a book about it.  It's something you ought to see once in your life, if you can, because it's unique, it exudes its own special energy, and it has an emotion and spectacle that many bowl games would dream to have.

The world has changed, and football has changed, a lot since 1884.  What hasn't changed, I think, is the weird and particular chemistry that seems to happen when these two teams get together for a football game.  To call it a big tailgate party doesn't really describe it.  To call it schoolyard intensity doesn't do it justice.  To call it a "bowl game" doesn't really capture it either.  It's just The Rivalry.  It's all of those things, and more.

Once you've gone to a Rivalry game, or gone on the campuses in the run-up to the game, you experience the energy.

Even for those not immersed in the Xs and Os of the game itself, the energy starts in the first classes of the week and eventually takes over the campus.  It comes near one of the pressure points of the semester, the end of classes right before Thanksgiving break, and the virtual end of what generally is a tough, challenging semester in school.

Students don't come to Lafayette and Lehigh to hit golf balls into a river during their time at school; they go to challenge themselves and to work hard in the classroom.  Attending one of these schools is not easy.  Monday through Friday consists of all-nighters, intense study, and stress.

But during Lehigh/Lafayette week, the pressure lifts, a chance to finally cut loose and to spend the week partying.

Events start to take over the Lehigh campus - the traditional bed races, the Turkey Trot.  Classes take place, but they're interrupted by the Marching 97 barging in and playing the Lehigh fight song.  Casual drinking during the week, often impractical due to the rigors of the academic schedules, enters the scene.

Alumni and booster groups sponsor luncheons.  The regular ebb and flow of the universities are interrupted with things like "Smack The Lehigh Car" at Lafayette, Bed Races at Lehigh, and a slew of other activities that are planned or unplanned.

It's always been crazy, and has always been nuts.  The rituals and the activities have changed over the years, but it's also united the student bodies and alumni and allowed them to put other divisions aside, just for a weekend, and cut loose.

I think at this point and time in history especially it offers a great opportunity for people to unite behind another common goal.  It will take a lot of hard work and dedication to heal the nation's wounds as it comes to the world of politics.  But for a week - this week - the 152nd version of The Rivalry allows both Lafayette and Lehigh's fan communities to set all that aside, as they have through the last 34 national presidential elections.

We have 51 other weeks of the year to worry about whether America will fall off a cliff.  For this week, though, it's time to call a truce in the political world.  And truces are good things, I think.  Truces allow a pause for reflection, and in fact, such a truce comes at the perfect time at least in terms of the Lehigh and Lafayette communities.

It actually offers us a chance to see that in the end, we're really not all that different.  There are certain traits of the human condition that unite us all - and yes, school pride and a sporting event can be that uniting fact.

Whether you voted for Hillary Clinton of Donald Trump, all I know is that we all have to live together, and more things unite us than we think.  We may not agree on everything, but maybe, at a game like the one this weekend, we can sit next to each other and realize that people voting for Hillary Clinton supporters are not actively trying to destroy the country, and we can sit next to each other and know that many people who voted for Donald Trump are not white supremacists.

Maybe this truce, this week off from the bitterness of the last nine months, can be the first step in healing the country, or at least the first step in healing Eastern Pennsylvania, the area of the country which may have been rocked the most by this bitter Presidential election.  Less than 67,000 votes separated the two Presidential candidates, and if there is one thing that unites everyone it's that the nation needs to heal.  It seems unlikely that our nation's leaders are going to help in that regard, so we're going to have to do it ourselves.

To put this into a little perspective, Rivalry-style: During the year of 1884, when Lehigh and Lafayette met for the first time on the football field, Grover Cleveland and David Blaine were enmeshed in a presidential campaign where both sides dragged the other into the muck.

Blaine, accused of making secret deals with railroad companies, was tarnished by the discovery of letters of him peddling his influence to make beneficial land deals for the railroad trusts, with the line written on the bottom of them, "Burn This Letter."  As for Grover Cleveland, who would win the election, character was front and center: Republicans accused him of fathering a child out of wedlock, and though Cleveland admitted to an "illicit connection" with the mother of the child, he claimed he was only doing the noble thing in giving the child his surname, while Republicans taunted Cleveland on the campaign trail with "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?"

In the end, the country did ultimately get over that divisive election.  The country tossed and turned over the next twelve years, in part due to an economic crisis caused by the highly protectionist McKinley tarriff imposed by president Benjamin Harrison.  But the country, as ever, survived these crises and the terms of these presidents, none of whom ended up with their likenesses on Mount Rushmore.

The Rivalry was born in this political environment, and has thrived through it all, something that should be remembered.

After this week, there will be plenty of time to talk about the state of the country.  But for this week, as Lehigh and Lafayette people have done for more than 100 years, there's a truce.  We unite as human beings, and celebrate a historic football game.  We smack our Lehigh cars, and hit our Lafayette pinatas.  And it's not just silly tradition - it's important for all of our collective sanity.


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