Over more than a century and a quarter of their football rivalry, City and Poly have sometimes played for league championships or higher playoff seeds. Other years, like this one, none of that is on the line.
Don't think that makes Saturday's 128th City-Poly game less important than any of the first 127.
The Knights and the Engineers are still playing for the most important prize of all: bragging rights for the next year. For the seniors, those bragging rights will last a lot longer.
“It would be something that would live on forever,” said Poly senior Barry Amos Jr., whose Engineers are looking for their first win over City in five years. “As a senior going on to college, as a grown-up — I can say I beat City. I can talk to some City players about what happened, talk to my teammates about what happened, talk to my family about what happened. It's just something that would live on forever.”
City coach Daryl Wade played at Dunbar, but he knows that's true.
“I know grown men who are still bragging about it,” he said.
It's not just the former players who revel in the glory days. Wade, who had his first win in the rivalry as head coach last fall, has heard about it at his office at the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
“I was at a meeting [Monday] morning, and a young lady who went to Poly, before the meeting started, she yelled ‘Go Poly' across the table to me,” Wade said with a smile. “She doesn't even work in the school system, but she knows I coach City.”
Poly coach Dwayne Green, also a Dunbar graduate, said opinions about the City-Poly game even come up at his church and at his son's youth football game.
“A couple active alumni from City are a part of that [youth football] organization and this season, they say, ‘Hey, don't come over hear with that stuff,' because I come over after practice. ‘You can't wear that shirt here,' but it's a fun atmosphere.”
As if they needed any more pumping up, both schools' students and staff are celebrating spirit week leading up to Saturday's noon game at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I enjoy the tradition,” Amos said. “I enjoy alumni coming back talking to us. I enjoy the pep rally, the fans, everybody supporting us, so the outsiders and our fans and the school traditions means the most.”
The City-Poly game is believed to be the second oldest continuous public school football rivalry in the country. City won last year, 42-6, but Poly leads the series 62-59-6.
“Growing up in Baltimore as a kid, that's what you hear about. Poly-City. City-Poly. There's always an argument which one comes first,” Green said. “I worked in the school for two years before I started coaching here and so I got a feel for the environment and the intensity of the game, the energy in the building during the week. It's a good atmosphere and, of course, now with social media, you see a lot of conversations, a lot of hype.”
For the players, all the hype can make it hard to focus on the game.
Both teams go into the game 5-4 and want only to punctuate their seasons with what they will say is the most important win of the year, even in years when they make the playoffs.
“At this time of the year, that's all you hear about. You feel it,” City senior Mark Burnham said. “Last year was my first time being up City. I didn't know how big it was. I heard it on the radio. I see it on Twitter, on Facebook. I see it everywhere.”
Amos said, “It's kind of mind-blowing, 128 years.”
It's tough to pick a favorite this fall. Against their seven common opponents in Baltimore City's Division I, where both are 4-3, Poly scored 27 more points than the Knights while City allowed 51 fewer than the Engineers.
Both lost to division champion Mervo, but their other two losses were against different teams. City surged late in the season to beat Dunbar and Edmondson, teams the Engineers lost to, but they fell last week, 8-6, to Douglass, a team Poly beat. Poly fell to Mervo, 25-14, last week. Before those losses, each had a chance to win a share of the division title.
To Wade, one of the most important aspects of Saturday's game is not to be complacent after four straight wins over Poly. He said his young team will have to find a way to handle the Engineers' explosiveness.
Green said he believes his more experienced team has underachieved and that one of their major challenges is to counter City's size.
For the players, however, it's just the best time of the year.
Burnham said it's “like a dream” to be able to play on the Ravens' field. City senior Melvin Scott III enjoys carrying on a family legacy.
“I have family members, uncles, cousins,” Scott said, “they've gone to City College and played football and worn that black and orange and played against Poly in the City-Poly game, so that's something to think about when you're on the field, like just to give you another boost when you're out there.”
Amos' father and sister went to City, so he's aiming for bragging rights at home, too.
There's “a lot of tension, a lot of family competition” in his household this week, he said with a smile.
On Saturday, all the hype and social media bantering will end on the field. They players say it won't be hard to focus then, because there's only one way to finish this season.
“Every Poly-City game is personal,” Amos said. “Every Poly-City game means something. We could go 0-9. As long as we beat City, it's a great feeling, so the playoffs are good, but sometimes, beating City's better.”
“We still have to beat Poly to make this a good season,” Burnham said. “To end it well, we've got to beat Poly. That's like a must.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that City was leading the overall series. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.