The Nation’s Oldest High-School Football Rivalry

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by Geoff Serra FALL 2009

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A photograph in the Norwich Free Academy archives offers insight into the nation’s longest-standing high-school football rivalry (a distinction verified by the National Football League). Fourteen members of the NFA’s 1898 football team dressed in quilted knicker-like pants, heavyweight knitted knee socks, and leather shoes pose for the camera, some wearing solid-colored turtleneck sweaters, others wearing stripes. In the front, reclining on his side, a tall lad touches a leather “head harness” that lies next to him on the floor. Merrill nose masks hang from the necks of the two in striped jerseys. The ball held by the lad in the center is the round rugby-style football used in the game’s early days. The boys’ faces exude pride, confidence, and youthful bravado.

The Norwich Free Academy team in 1898.

The Norwich Free Academy team in 1898.

The Norwich Free Academy football squad of 1898 defeated its rival from New London in a game the Norwich Bulletin lauded as a “duplicate on a small scale of the Yale-Harvard game.” Within 14 minutes of the 3:45 p.m. kickoff, NFA scored a touchdown and then held New London scoreless to the end for a 6-0 victory. The game lasted well beyond sunset, and the newspaper says the second half “was played in the dark and one could only see the forms of the players.”

The Norwich Free Academy incorporated in 1854 and opened in 1856. By 1898, when the photograph was taken, the NFA vs. New London football rivalry was already 23 years old. It began as a matchup between NFA and the Bulkeley School for Boys in New London. In 1951, Bulkeley merged with New London’s Chapman Tech to become New London High School. The Bulkeley Tigers then became the New London Whalers, and school colors shifted from orange and black to green and gold. But the rivalry with the NFA Wildcats, the red and white, survived those changes and continues to thrive today. According to Gary Makowicki, NFA’s current athletic director, the current tally for the rivalry (as near as can be determined, as records are scarce) gives Norwich Free Academy 74 wins and New London 61 wins; 11 games have ended in ties.

The first game took place on May 12, 1875—just six years after the first collegiate American football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869. Bulkeley School for Boys had opened two years earlier, in 1873. The rivalry-fueled games quickly became an area attraction. According to the November 1, 1883 New London Telegram, 50-cent round-trip tickets were available on the New London Northern Railroad for people who wished to attend the game at Williams Park in Norwich, where “a large assembly is expected” and where “a large number from New London are expected to attend.”

The 134-year-old rivalry has since become an institution in southeastern Connecticut, and its history has been dotted with events spurred by a blend of good-natured and intense competition. In 1886, for instance, NFA officials discovered that a star player in the opposing team’s lineup was in fact a member of the Bulkeley faculty—a not uncommon occurrence in the early days of high school football.

One story, passed on by Frederic H. Cranston (a graduate with the class of 1891 and a member of the NFA faculty from 1898 to 1943) to Paul Bradlaw, an NFA faculty member for 47 years (1918-1965), has become legend. On a grey, overcast November day in 1898, the match took place on a field adjacent to the harbor in New London near Admiral Billard Academy. In mid-game an intense snow squall hit, and when an Academy player sent the ball flying on a high punt, it disappeared into the snow. The game ended then, as there was no ball to replace the lost one. Since then, rumors occasionally surface about the whereabouts of that lost ball; just three years ago, the new head of school was offered a “lead” concerning the location of the missing ball.

In 1902, with the annual game’s score already 130-0 in NFA’s favor, Bulkeley conceded a few minutes into the second half. In 1909, the NFA time-keeper accidentally allowed play to extend 13 minutes, during which time NFA scored a touchdown to tie the game. (The roles of time-keeper and referee, along with many rules and details of how the game is played, have evolved over the years.) Though, as with much of the rivalry’s history, little is documented, it is said that the official ran for his life when the error was discovered.

Bulkeley alumni had to play in the 1910 game; without them, there wouldn’t have been enough players for the school to field a team. (In the sport’s early days, baseball attracted more attention and participants.) That alumni assistance helped propel the team to the school’s first win against Norwich. 2

In the 1911 match, Bulkeley won again with an 11-5 victory, but NFA disputed the outcome and protested to top football expert Walter Camp. Camp, a New Haven native and Yale graduate, had a tremendous influence in shaping the game of football in America and is often referred to as “the father of American football.” The disputed play involved a punt, a fumble, and a recovery at the goal line. NFA claimed it was a touchdown, but the referee did not agree. At the time, a touchdown was worth five points, and the Academy claimed that had the touchdown been called, and had the extra point been secured, NFA would have tied the score. Camp agreed the play was a touchdown, and ultimately gave NFA the tie. NFA’s 1912 yearbook called the game “the finest exhibition of football ever seen in this city.”

Over the years, the rivalry has spawned elaborate rituals, many of which continue today. Spirited school rallies precede the matches, sometimes with evening bonfires and boisterous displays of school colors. These often have given way to pranks, both funny and ill advised. In the 1930s and 1940s, policemen stood guard the night before the game because enthusiastic fans would try to splash their colors on the rivals’ campus. Just before the 1948 game, Bulkeley fans were apprehended as they displayed their spirit—in orange and black paint— on the NFA campus. Their punishment was to return to campus while school was in session to clean up their mess while enduring the taunts and jibes of students passing between buildings to class. For a period during World War I, the rivalry was suspended because of the war, and again in the 1950s because the rivalry was felt to have become a bit too intense. (It’s not clear who called the games off or how the public responded.) Harold Arkava, a 1944 Bulkeley graduate and president of the Bulkeley Alumni Association, speaks fondly of the rivalry, noting the entire atmosphere of the school changed before “the annual blowout,” when “nothing else mattered. …Everyone got pumped up, but it was the spirit of the thing that mattered. It was the spirit of good fun; it was a healthy rivalry.” Arkava, an intense sports enthusiast, claims that a lot of the hoopla in his day resulted from the knowledge on both sides that the competition had taken on national significance once The New York Times covered it in 1933.

On November 26, 2009, 134 years after their initial encounter, the two teams will once again square off on NFA turf in a spirit of good fun and healthy rivalry.

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