On Saturday, crosstown rivals Lafayette College and Lehigh University will meet for the 150th time on a football field. They first played in 1884—one year after standardized football rules were introduced; while Mark Twain was finishing up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; while the Washington Monument was being erected. And they have played every year since 1896.
"It wasn't played then because there was a dispute over a player's eligibility, so the rivalry was still very much alive and well more than a century ago," said Lafayette coach Frank Tavani.
Indeed, the Lafayette and Lehigh rivalry, the most played in college football history, is so old that it predates trophies. The winning team simply receives the game ball. And the rivalry is referred to as a proper noun: The Rivalry. The Rivalry has its own folklore, its own tall tales.
In 1896, George Barclay was a senior at Lafayette College. Barclay was so self-conscious about his appearance that he invented the football helmet to prevent players from developing unsightly cauliflower ears. Helmets, despite being re-engineered and amended often, are now a mandate at every level of the game.
It's rumored that in 1918, Lehigh halfback Raymond B. "Snooks" Dowd ran 115 yards for a touchdown. He ran 115 because he began the play by running toward his end zone. He then circled both goalposts, and traversed the entire length of the field for the score.
In 1924, Lafayette head coach Herb McCracken invented the huddle after discovering that Penn players had deciphered the meaning of his hand-signaled plays. He told his players to meet prior to the snap and whisper plays to one another. The idea stuck.
From 1943-1947, while World War II limited travel by collegiate football teams, Lafayette outscored Lehigh 232-7.
In 1987, at the last game played in Lehigh's former home, Taylor Stadium, the wind chill dropped below zero. Many fans left at halftime, but most of them stayed until the end—a 17-10 Lehigh victory. "They tore the stadium apart, taking pieces of anything they could get their hands on as memorabilia," recalled Tavani.
These days, Lehigh and Lafayette are part of the Football Championship Series, playing in the Patriot League. For all the history, they are not exactly football powerhouses. Both schools have losing records this year. The fact that Saturday's sesquicentennial installment of The Rivalry will be played at Yankee Stadium, which can seat more than 48,000 for football—nearly double the capacity of both schools' stadiums combined, has more to do with the past than the present. Still, don't bother looking for tickets. The game sold out back in June.
But there is something to be said for the throwback nature of it all: a couple of small, FCS schools with a combined enrollment of fewer than 10,000 students—less than one fifth of the University of Texas-Austin's—own football's most-played rivalry. Two college football teams that have nothing to do with a power conference or a major media market are playing at Yankee Stadium on national TV.
Of course, The Rivalry itself is a throwback. It dates back to a time before football—all the way to Lehigh's founding in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Lehigh's founder, the judge and railroad mogul Asa Packer, was approached by Lafayette College, to help with the addition of an engineering school. But when Packer, an Episcopalian, learned that Lafayette was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, his interest soured. Rather than accept the offer, he founded Lehigh University in 1865.
The schools are about a 20 minute drive apart: Lehigh in Bethlehem, Lafayette in Easton. Both are at the heart of life in the blue collar Lehigh Valley, which is about sixty miles north of Philadelphia. And so is The Rivalry. Rosters are heavily local. Players have called the experience overwhelming, tragic and exhilarating.
High school teammates, even siblings line up against one another. When Lafayette graduate John Breidinger's son chose to play for Lehigh, his son gave him a Mountain Hawk T-shirt. Breidinger used it to wash his car.
Saturday's game in the Bronx will be only the second the schools have played outside of Pennsylvania. As the balance of power in college football concentrates more and more in power conferences and big names, Lehigh and Lafayette will square off in a football tradition far removed from the SEC and Pac-12, but no less meaningful.
"The tradition of the game honors the hard working people who built the steel that made our country grow," said Lehigh coach Andy Coen. "Everyone comes, some as old as 90, even. As long as the game of football is played, there will be Lehigh vs. Lafayette."