ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JOE KLEINSASSER
Once upon a time there were two high school football teams engaged in a bitter rivalry. Some say it was so bitter that a lemon would taste sweet by comparison.
These two teams played each other every October for bragging rights.
Because both teams were usually good, often there was more than bragging rights on the line. Sometimes the winner also won the conference championship and a post-season playoff berth.
No one remembers how the rivalry started. Maybe it was simply the proximity of the two towns. Maybe it was the time a player was injured on a late hit. Or perhaps it was the time one team ran up the score in a rare lopsided win.
There is one thing about which both sides would agree-the game was the biggest of the season for the coaches and players involved. The winner got to gloat and bask in glory for the next 364 days, while the loser was subjected to disappointment, ridicule and scorn.
Not surprisingly, the game cost more than a few coaches their jobs.
Never mind that they would only lose one or two games in a season. If they lost too many times to the archrival, they might as well start dusting off the resume.
Some say the fans were so rabid that when new calendars were purchased, the first date they marked was the scheduled game date between these two teams. Then they would mark other, less important dates, like holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, etc.
The game required extra police security to protect the officials and to keep the fans away from each other.
As the annual “Game of the Year” approached, the head coaches of the respective teams had an idea. It was an idea so outrageous that no one would have believed it. To this day, no one knows how, but the coaches managed to convince their players that it was an idea worth pursuing. And no one knows how they got the players to agree to keep it a secret until the final gun sounded.
The big day arrived and the players ran onto the field as the crowd roared. Fans cheered for Big Red. Fans cheered for Big Blue. Blue fans booed the red, and red fans booed the blue.
The teams battled long and hard. The game was close. Some fans thought it was a little odd to see the players helping up players from the other team, but no one doubted for an instant that the young men were playing as hard as they could to win the game.
When time ran out, the red team was victorious, 21-20. The red team fans roared their approval. And then, when the players took off their helmets to shake hands, there was a collective gasp. For the first time in the history of the rivalry, everyone was speechless.
The two teams had switched uniforms, so in effect, the blue team won the game wearing the red team’s uniforms. That also meant that the coach of the blue team had coached the red team and vice versa.
The fans had spent an entire evening unknowingly cheering for the other team’s players and booing their own kids.
Some fans were angry. Others were shocked. Some even chuckled. Still others were ashamed. But no one left unchanged.
They say the rivalry was never the same. Oh, to be sure, the two teams still played hard and played to win every year, but the bitterness and the anger was replaced by respect and good sportsmanship.
A few diehards were not happy with the new rivalry. Some wished things would have stayed the same. But most of the fans liked the new rivalry, and they lived happily ever after.