High School sports

Gilman and McDonogh set for 95th meeting

Gilman's Jim Cross almost gets his hands on a punt by McDonogh's Van Strakes.

On Saturday afternoon, Tom Booker plans to pull on his flannel Gilman cap, put his son (a Gilman student) in the family car with the Gilman bumper sticker, and head to Gilman to see his alma mater play arch-rival McDonogh in football for the 95th time. There, before yelling himself hoarse, Booker will share with his 10-year-old the facts of life.

"Tom," the former tight end will say, "You will do many great things in the years ahead, but what will stick with you is whether you beat McDonogh in your senior year. That will be the measure of your life."

Young Tom will nod in assent. The message is old hat. The fifth-grader has worn "Beat McDonogh" T-shirts since kindergarten.

Booker graduated in 1979, having never lost to McDonogh in four years.

"It made me feel bullish about my prospects in life," he said. "When I walked across the stage, at graduation, I shook the headmaster's hand and said, 'Reddy, we did not lose to McDonogh.' "

Redmond Finney smiled.

"Tom," the headmaster said, "There will be bigger things in life."

Booker didn't buy it, then or now. Thirty-one years later, the successful business executive from Ellicott City said that defeating McDonogh was "one of the touchstones by which you mark your time. So many of the games are struggles like you read about in Greek tragedies.

"It's the friendliest rivalry I've ever known," Booker said, "but it's also the most heartfelt."

Already this week, in a longstanding tradition, both student bodies heard from the opposing team's captains. Gilman held "Empathy Day," when students dressed in McDonogh colors (orange and black). Following the game, after each side whales the tar out of the other, both teams will gather at midfield and do what they've done for years.

"We get into one big huddle, say a prayer and listen to both coaches speak," Gilman quarterback Darius Jennings said.

Then a three-foot metal trophy, given since 1948 in honor of graduates of both schools who served in World War II, is handed to the winner.

"There's nothing like it," Jennings said. "Former players say it all sticks with you."

Addressing Gilman students Wednesday, McDonogh captain E.J. Conway tried to put the game in perspective.

"It's not just about winning or losing," Conway told them. "Yes, we feel like we have the weight of the entire McDonogh community riding on our backs. But this game is really about relationships, bonds and the memories you take from it."

Ask those who have been there.

Having lost to Gilman in 1962, McDonogh's John (Tank) Urban, a rugged 220-pound guard, strode into the winners' locker room and spoke his mind.

"I congratulated them on a great game," Urban said. "Later in life, I have been told by several of the Gilman players, who have become good friends, that they appreciated my gesture.

"I was just doing what McDonogh had taught me all along. Honor your adversary ... give your best ... (and be) gracious in defeat."

Little Farmers and Roland Parkers

The schools are 12 miles apart. It'll seem less, Saturday.

"This rivalry is the glue that holds two communities together," said Gilman headmaster John E. Schmick, himself an alumnus of the school. "Getting older, though, you realize the game is even more important to alumni than to students. This week, there are bets going on in board rooms all over the city."

Ninth-ranked McDonogh (6-3) is set; ditto, No. 3 Gilman (6-2). At Friday's practice, as he has done for the past 13 years, Gilman coach Biff Poggi dressed in his customary pre-game garb – McDonogh shorts, multi-colored socks and a huge chicken head.


"It's the closest thing I could find to an Eagle costume," he said.

Whatever it takes to put Gilman over the top, he said. Last year, three skydivers wearing Gilman jerseys parachuted into the school's pep rally, to the delight of players and fans. Gilman won, giving it a 56-33 lead in the series, with 5 ties.

"I love this game, it's my favorite one of the year," Poggi said. "There's a feel, an atmosphere about it that breathes respect. Sounds hokey, but it's true. Think about it — after 95 years, these teams are still playing, and on the same fields. (Saturday) you'll see 5-year-olds and 85-year-olds there, and every age in between."

The series trails only City-Poly (122 years) in longevity in Maryland. Gilman and McDonogh have gone at it since Oct. 9, 1914, when Gilman thrashed the Little Farmers, as McDonogh was then known, 35-0.

"It was a splendid start for our boys, who began the season auspiciously by literally playing their opponents off their feet," declared The Blue and The Gray, Gilman's student publication.

McDonogh would not score a point against Gilman for five years, nor defeat the Roland Parkers (Gilman's early nickname) until 1927. That game, a tackle named John Joh recovered a fumble and rumbled into the end zone for the day's only score. The game ball, now deflated, rests in McDonogh's archives on the Owings Mills campus.

Thunderstruck, Gilman roared back the following year to win, 45-0.

"The (winners) tore gaps in the opposing line big enough to drive a loaded hay wagon through," The Sun wrote in 1928. Gilman showed no mercy. When McDonogh marched to the one-foot line, late in the game, Gilman stopped the Little Farmers on four straight plunges.

The rivalry was heating up. In 1929, on the eve of the game, McDonogh students wearing night shirts did a serpentine "snake dance" around a huge bonfire, and burned "Old Man Gilman" in effigy before scattering his ashes derisively. Gilman won the game anyway.

By 1932, the contest between the private schools was drawing crowds of 5,000 or more.

"The stands, as well as the line surrounding the field, were thickly populated," The Sun wrote. "On the east side, the Cadets (McDonogh's new moniker), in their gray-blue uniforms, howled and their band rattled its drums, while the Blue and Gray answered from the West."

McDonogh won, 14-7 as quarterback Ernie De Moss "went up the field like a rabbit through a pack of beagles."

Each year, the game seemed to gain in stature.

"The McDonogh clash has grown from an insignificant contest to the most important game of the schedule," The Gilman News surmised in 1939. The student paper quoted team captain Jack Clemmitt:

"I wish McDonogh all the luck in the world, but they'll have to scrap mighty hard to take home the bacon."

Take it home, they did. McDonogh won, 20-0.

Each side sought to outdo the other in pre-game festivities. There were pep rallies, parades and even poetry readings

"Everybody thought the bonfire this year was pretty big," wrote The Week, McDonogh's newspaper, in 1942. "It was too big, in fact. Those who stayed to guard it had to use 80 gallons of water to put it out."

At Gilman, an English teacher, Reg Tickner, penned a poem immortalizing the rivalry. Many an alum remembers the verse, which was recited for years before the game:

"McDonogh, McDonogh, beware of the day when the greyhound shall meet thee in battle array ..."

You didn't have to be a star to get the jitters before playing Gilman, said Ray Faby, 80, who played for McDonogh in the 1940s.

A second-string fullback as a sophomore, Faby said he was so caught up in the moment that "I threw up all over my uniform, in the locker room, as we were filing out to the field. A teammate looked at me and said, 'Why are you worried? We're not starters.'

"That's how pumped up I was," said Faby, now a federal judge from Lutherville.

From the start, Gilman has needled its rivals, calling them farmers. (Until the mid-1950s, McDonogh's equipment bags were simply burlap sacks).

"We had a Latin teacher named Ed Russell who, before the game, would gather all the students in the auditorium and pretend to read from the Hagerstown Almanac," said Tom Beck, Gilman's captain in 1963. "He'd look up the day's date and say, 'The almanac says it's going to be a bad day for farmers."

"That (nickname) used to tick our kids off," said Dick Working, McDonogh's coach from 1954-74. "They didn't want to tackle the Gilman boys, they wanted to kill them. It was difficult to get them to play within themselves."

The hype spilled over to the rest of the students. Working remembers a time when "Every dormitory (at McDonogh) hung a bed sheet out the window with something about the game printed on it. One of the dorms hung a pillowcase that said, 'Gilman isn't worth a sheet.' The kids were pretty imaginative."

McDonogh's most dramatic victory came in 1963, when it won, 8-7 on a two-point conversion pass from Andy Beath to Jimmy Bunsa, who made a circus catch.

"There was not a lot of celebration," said Beath, who went on to play for Green Bay Packers. Unbeknownst to the players, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated that afternoon. The coaches heard the news at halftime, said Finney, then Gilman's coach.

"Jointly, we decided it was best to go on," Finney said. "The feeling was that to have the game abruptly stopped would create even more turmoil."

A game you take with you

By that time, The Game had grown to almost mythic proportions.

"We could have gone winless all season, then beaten McDonogh — and the year would have been complete," Beck said.

In 1974, Bob Ehrlich, Gilman tackle and co-captain, wrote an open letter to The Gilman News, imploring female students from nearby Bryn Mawr to attend the game "to watch the mighty Greyhound machine meet the McDonogh Eagles (the school's current nickname). We promise to provide quite a show."

Gilman eked out a 26-20 victory, one of its eight straight wins in the 1970s. By 1979, McDonogh decided it had had enough.

"We got new uniforms for the game," McDonogh's Richard Bosley said. "And the night before, one of our students climbed our water tower on campus and hung a sign that read, 'The Streak Stops Here.'"

McDonogh won, 21-0.

"This rivalry is the crescendo of the season," said Finney, 81. Once, he included his own dog, a flighty greyhound named Sugar, in the pre-game festivities. But Sugar got spooked by the bedlam, pulled out of her collar and scurried back to Finney's home on campus.

Both sides play to the hilt. McDonogh tackle Paul Meurer recalled being knocked woozy in the fourth quarter of a tie game in 1981. Lying there, on the turf, Meurer heard his brother shout, "Get up, you wimp, it's the Gilman game!"

McDonogh prevailed, in overtime.

Gilman's greatest win came in 1994, when it erased a 10-point deficit in the last 4-1/2 minutes to best McDonogh and its star quarterback, Bobby Sabelhaus. That 38-35 victory — the highest-scoring game in the series — broke a three-year drought for Gilman.

A laminated copy of The Sun's game story the following day lays in his basement, said Sherm Bristow, then Gilman's coach.

"I'm not the kind of guy who'd display it," Bristow said. "But I know where to find it."

Players on both sides feel the reverberations from the game for the rest of their lives. Alex Sotir, former Gilman coach, played on that theme to fire up his team as it took 7 of 8 games from McDonogh in the 1970s.

"You don't have to win this game, you just can't lose," Sotir would tell his Greyhounds. "You'll leave Gilman and go to college, where your roommate might be a McDonogh kid. And when you get married, your father-in-law might be a McDonogh grad.

"You'll see these guys in business and on the golf course, and if you win today, down the road, you'll never say, 'I beat you.' You've got too much class for that. But if you win today, you know he's never going to say, 'I beat you.' "

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.

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