After 125 years, the rivalry still resonates.

There’s still the energy, still the buzz. When the Cony High School and Gardiner Area High School football teams meet, pride is at stake. And members from both communities, from the recent graduates to settled-in old-timers, check in to see if their side will have the upper hand.

“It’s just fun. You can feel it in practice all week,” Cony coach B.L. Lippert said. “You get text messages throughout the week from former teammates, former players that played for my dad, saying, ‘If you’re going to win one, win this one.’ We’ve won some other ones, by the way. They don’t really care. This is the one they care about.”

Cony-Gardiner is still special, but it’s hardly alone.

The state’s longest-running rivalry reigns in Maine but gets in line on the national scale. A series that dates to 1892 has an abundance of history — but so do the games throughout New England, some of which have the Rams and Tigers beat by over 15 years. Cony-Gardiner draws the interest of the rivaling communities and student bodies — but so do the games in the most frothing-at-the-mouth, football-crazed reaches of the country, which pack 10,000-seat fields with standing-room crowds. Student body pride runs deep at Cony and Gardiner, but it pales when compared to the weeks of activities that schools across the nation stage to get ready for their annual showdowns.

The games command the attention of everyone involved, from players to coaches to the townspeople — and often end up defining the seasons in which they’re played.


“If we get knocked out of playoffs early and we’re not playing for a championship, this is good,” said athletic director Jerry Collins of Webster Groves High School in Missouri, whose team faces rival Kirkwood each Thanksgiving. “It’s like a bowl game in college.”


A sense of the antique and quaint is everywhere in New England. Between the stone walls that cross through the woods and fields of the rural towns, the old churches and the ancient brick buildings, it’s hard to drive or walk through the region without getting a feel for the past, dating back to the very roots of the country.

Everything in New England, it seems, is old — including the football.

Nowhere is it older than in the neighboring cities of Norwich and New London, Connecticut, where football has been played between Norwich Free Academy and New London High School since 1875. It’s the oldest rivalry in the country at 142 years, and according to those associated with it, it’s still going strong.

“The old saying, the cliche about throwing the records out the window? All that stuff is true,” New London coach Juan Roman said. “It means something to the towns; they want to win. We always kind of know what the other guy is doing. You never want to see them win, even when they’re not playing you.”


The game got a boost in 2000, when it was moved from the middle of the season to Thanksgiving Day. Since then, the game has become the center for holiday homecomings, with letterman jackets and NFA’s red and white and New London’s green and gold dotting the landscape.

The schools have kept the enthusiasm going. There are pep rallies at New London every year, flag football games at NFA each season, and it becomes harder to stroll through either community without getting reminded of the game, which routinely will draw 3,000 to 4,000 fans, and sometimes up to 7,000 and 8,000.

“You walk around, if you’re wearing NFA stuff and guys recognize it, they tell you ‘Make sure you beat them,’ ” said NFA coach Jason Bakoulis, a former New London assistant. “I would say actually that it has ramped up more.”

The oldest public school rivalry, dating to 1882, is between Wellesley and Needham high schools in Massachusetts. The series has been nearly dead even, at 61-59-9 in favor of Wellesley, and has stayed lively enough that it was played at Fenway Park in 2014 in front of 12,000 fans.

“We get good crowds every year,” Wellesley athletic director John Brown said. “People that played in the game are still in the area. That’s one good thing about Massachusetts; not a lot of people leave. They’re deep-rooted.”

It doesn’t take much to get the student bodies and communities engaged when the schools meet — in any sport.


“We have it in every sport we play,” Brown said. “We swam against Needham (Tuesday) night and sold out the Babson (College) pool.”

The intensity kicks up a notch, however, when the football teams meet on Thanksgiving. The schools hold bonfires and the teams hold a dinner together the night before the game, then meet for the latest chapter in the storied series.

“The kids look forward to it. The schools look forward to it,” Brown said. “People talk about it forever.”

Cony quarterback Taylor Heath throws a pass against Gardiner during their rivalry game last season.


Gardiner coach Joe White remembers when Cony-Gardiner wasn’t just a game, but a celebration.

“When I was in high school, one of the things I remember is having rallies, and we paraded through town,” he said. “We were on flatbed trucks and sat on these hay bales, and the band would lead this entourage through town.”


The celebrations are more muted these days, but the pomp and circumstance are still alive and well at many rivalries throughout the country. According to ESPN, matchups between Garfield and Roosevelt high schools in Los Angeles have drawn up to 25,000 fans. Pahokee’s game with Glades Central in Florida, termed the Muck Bowl, has sent dozens of players on to the NFL. Jenks and Union High Schools in Oklahoma, termed the “Backyard Brawl,” drew over 40,000 fans when it was a state championship game matchup in 1999.

And in football-mad Texas, when Nederland High School and Port Neches-Groves meet in the “Mid-County Madness” game, it’s all that matters in the two cities separated by railroad tracks.

“You’re talking about two ghost towns now,” Nederland coach and athletic director Monte Barrow said. “They line up as early as 72 hours outside before (tickets) go on sale. … A lot of them are doing this knowing they may be out when they get up there.”

Former NFL coach Bum Phillips coached both sides in the rivalry, which called the best in the state. It’s achieved that status despite being largely devoid of scheduled ceremony; rather, the students govern themselves leading up to the game. And by the time the crowds of 12,000 to 13,500 show up, they’re ready.

“For that one week, the battle lines are drawn,” Barrow said. “You go to a football game and a school, their band may play a certain part of their fight song whenever they score. But at this game, it cranks up every time you get a 5-yard gain, or another team calls time out. Everything is heightened 10-fold.”

It’s a different story in Kentucky, where Louisville powerhouses Trinity and Saint Xavier, with over 30 state titles between them, meet every year in September. The schools hold Pride Week before the game, during which all of the Trinity and Saint Xavier fall teams play each other, leading up to a dress-down day when the students are allowed to shed their shirts and ties for school apparel.


Then it’s time for the game at the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, where crowds approaching 25,000 turn out to watch the archrivals play, led by rambunctious student sections of 400 to 500.

“A lot of those people stay out in the parking lots and probably don’t even come into the game. So it’s sort of home week,” Trinity AD Rob Saxton said. “We don’t have any pro teams here. … The high schools and the colleges take on this huge import in terms of rivalry.”

So big, in fact, that other public schools will play the night before so they’re not competing with the state’s most intense matchup.

“There’s a lot of pride in that kind of thing,” Saxton said. “You’ll see Saint X stickers on cars all over town. You’ll see Trinity decals on cars all over town.


The winner of the annual Cony-Gardiner football game gets to keep this boot for a year.

Trophies can be the anchor of a hot-blooded rivalry, with both teams dedicating themselves to bringing a prize to their school halls for the year.


The Cony-Gardiner victor keeps a boot, which has scores in the series inscribed on it.

Some are conventional, such as a plaque detailing the winners. And some are creative, as is the case with the Rancho-Las Vegas rivalry in Nevada, where the schools play for a cow bone cast in bronze. The prize is called “Sir Herkimer’s Bone.” It was started in 1958 when the father of one of the players, who worked as a butcher, designed and dedicated the unique reward.

“That’s all kids talk about, is the Bone Game,” said Las Vegas athletic director Art Plunkett, who played as an offensive lineman with the New England Patriots in 1985 and ’86. “We stress to our kids and instill in them that there’s nothing worse than losing the Bone, because you’ll end up running into one of these guys that you played against and they’re going to sit there and give you a hard time because they got the Bone and you didn’t.”

Las Vegas hasn’t had much to worry about. The Wildcats have won 21 straight times in Nevada’s oldest rivalry, though that hasn’t done much to diminish the fire between the teams — evidenced by a brawl that broke out on the field in 2015.

“It’s like the Super Bowl for each school,” Plunkett said. “The bone is on display only for this week, because if we don’t lock it up, it disappears. … Wherever it’s at, we’ve got video cameras and people going in and out. We know what’s going on.”

There are other odd prizes. Minnesota’s Wayzata and Minnetonka high schools play for the Bay Bell Trophy, a square trophy with a golden bell on top. Trinity and Saint Xavier in Kentucky play for a shillelagh, a nod to their Catholic ties. And in Missouri, Webster Groves and Kirkwood have played for the Frisco Bell, a heavy bell hanging from a cast-ron rack.


“When you do see the signs, they usually reference the bell,” Webster Groves athletic director Jerry Collins said. “A lot of times, the T-shirts for any given year will reference the bell or ‘Bring the bell back’ or ‘Ring that bell.’ The bell is a big part of it.”

The Frisco Bell will stay on the previous game’s winner’s sideline for three quarters, then go behind an end zone for the final quarter of a game that often draws 4,000 to 5,000 fans and follows a week of chili cookings, dances and team breakfasts.

It’s all about engaging the community — which, in the end, is something Cony-Gardiner has done along with its company throughout the country.

“It’s always exciting,” Gardiner’s White said. “It’s hard to explain sometimes what it means, everything from the preparations to the final play. … You never know what can happen in a Cony-Gardiner game.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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