In Poly-City rivalry, voices from the past still speak today


IT'S LITERALLY BEEN another lifetime since Elmer Wingate donned a Poly football jersey. In the interim, Wingate has gone to college, served his country in the Korean War, played professional football, raised a family and become a successful businessman.

The current Poly site, at Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road, wasn't even the building where Wingate wore the school colors and the mandatory ties. But after schools have physically moved and lives have been lived, there are some things that stay in the bloodstream. Things like brotherhood.

So last night, Wingate and his lifelong pal, Wayne Ballard, each still wearing their Poly neckties, delivered 55 pizzas and a sense of continuity to the current Engineer football team at the school cafeteria.

"We talked about this for a while," said Ballard, who worked at Bethlehem Steel before retiring. "We owe this school so much for what it has given to us. It's the least we can do."

The pizzas were a little late arriving from Strapazza in Towson, thanks to rush-hour traffic, slowed by the rain. But rare, indeed, is the high school football player who turns down a free pizza, even if it's a little tardy. The boxes rolled in and the contents were devoured.

This wasn't the first time Wingate had given to the Engineers. Last month, at the invitation of current coach Anthony Knox, Wingate gave the pre-game pep talk to the Poly team before the annual meeting with City.

Of course, Wingate, who went on after Poly to play football and lacrosse at Maryland, could have talked strategy or technique, but that would have been useless.

Instead, Wingate, who spent a season with the Baltimore Colts, invoked the most enduring of images, that of togetherness.

"I asked all of the seniors to stand up," said Wingate. "I said, 'Now look one another in the eye.' They said, 'Why?' to themselves. I said, 'Because this is the last game you'll be playing with each other.' The place got silent."

The silence was of a group of young men, bound by their school and football, meeting reality head on.

"A lot of emotions were running through my head," said Melvin Rice, a senior who plays nose guard and offensive guard. "I was thinking about how I am going to be moving on to a higher level next year and I'm really not going to see anyone that I've been playing with for four years. It almost brought tears to my eyes."

Knox said he wasn't sure what his kids would get when he called Wingate to speak to them.

"Our kids nowadays think anything in the past is ancient history. I didn't know how receptive they were going to be to a class of [1947] person talking to them," said Knox. "As it turns out, they were very receptive and they were very positive, coming out into the game with a renewed confidence."

For all of the kids who don't go on to play in college or even professionally, the last game of the high school schedule is not only the last time they will suit up with their teammates, but the final time they will ever play in an organized competition.

If they're lucky, that last time will come against a fierce rival, and in Baltimore city schools - heck, maybe the entire state, for that matter - there is no more intense rivalry than Poly and City, the local equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox.

Among the alums for both schools runs a current of thought that the Poly-City game, played for years at Memorial Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, along with the Loyola-Calvert Hall game, should be returned to the holiday, rather than in early November where it was moved when the two public schools joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

"All the alumni care about is that game," said Leonard Martin, a senior running back. "You can lose every game that year, but if you win that game you're straight for the whole year."

After a slow start, the Engineers roared back with 18 unanswered second-half points to break a 6-6 halftime tie and win the 116th meeting between the schools, 24-6.

Wingate followed the school bus down to M&T; Bank Stadium that day for the game, earning an honorary seat on the bench.

"They [the players] were so focused on what the coach had to say and what they were trying to get done," said Wingate. "I was just sitting on a sideline. It was a nice, sunny day and I was just taking it all in."

Wingate's presence, more than 50 years after his last game as an Engineer, served as a living reminder that the fire doesn't fade after the jersey goes into storage.

It's also proof that each school's athletes are keepers of that flame. They carry the torch for a time, then pass it and the knowledge they've gained on to the next class.

"They saw the passion in what he was saying to them, talking about the last time they would be next to each other, how the Poly-City rivalry was such a great rivalry and not just for them, because it was their last year, but for all of the years that they were associated with Poly," said Knox. "They were playing for everyone who had gone there."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad