Bragging Rights

The annual football game between Episcopal High School and Woodberry Forest School is the South’s oldest continuous high school football rivalry.

In November 2007 Senator John McCain took time out from his presidential campaign in New Hampshire to make an important phone call. It wasn’t to a political donor or newspaper editor, however. It was to Episcopal High School’s football team on the day of their annual game with Woodberry Forest School. Both McCain, a 1954 Episcopal alumnus, and the school’s football team were underdogs at the time.

Hunter deButts, a member of that team and 2010 Episcopal graduate, remembers McCain’s call. The senator told the team that he “wouldn’t be able to make the game because he was campaigning,” says deButts, but made clear “how much the rivalry meant to him—and how much he wanted us to kick their butts. It was great just to have him talk about the importance of the game.”

Perhaps stoked by McCain’s pep talk, Episcopal went out and won the game, 14-13. Two months later, McCain won the New Hampshire primary. McCain brushes aside any credit given to him for inspiring Episcopal’s victory. “I gave them my standard motivational comments,” he says. “I told them that after I left high school, I had to overcome some odds from time to time, and I knew they could, too.”

To bystanders, the annual gridiron matchup between Episcopal High School and Woodberry Forest School is just another game, but to students and alumni of the two Virginia boarding schools, it’s practically the only game. And it’s easy to see why. The annual season-ending contest between the two schools is the oldest consecutive high school football rivalry in the South, dating back to 1901. The series has continued through world wars, catastrophic events and financial depressions. Massie Meredith, a 1975 Woodberry graduate and former defensive back on the football team, fairly reflects the fervor with which alums of the two schools view the game. He has not missed one for 39 years. “When you arrive at the school as a new boy,” he says, “you hear about the game your first week. It’s almost a mystical experience. Everybody buys into it. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. For the team that wins, it’s something you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

McCain likewise realized the importance of the November rivalry the first day of his freshman year. “It was impressed upon me,” he says with a laugh. “As rats, as we were then called, we were urged to be the most enthusiastic and cheering students.” The Naval Academy grad compares the charged atmosphere to the Army/Navy rivalry. “The intensity at the Episcopal vs. Woodberry game equaled that.”

Richard Barnhardt, an alumnus and member of the faculty at Woodberry Forest, has done research on the origin of the rivalry. Turns out that the catalyst was a young man named Charles Talbott who was more interested in baseball than football. Talbott started high school at Episcopal, but in 1895, after a nasty baseball injury sent him home to recuperate, he transferred to Woodberry Forest. The following year, the young player challenged Episcopal to a friendly game of baseball. Woodberry won the game 9-4, says Barnhardt, and Episcopal “vowed revenge.”

Five years later in 1901, the two teams squared off on the football field at Episcopal in Alexandria. Woodberry team members traveled to the train station in horse-drawn vehicles and then continued to Alexandria by rail. The end result of the journey for Woodberry was a humiliating 54-0 defeat. Woodberry didn’t record its first win until 1904, when it beat Episcopal 6-5. Since then, it has gained the upper hand, winning 53 times compared to 48 for Episcopal, with eight ties.

McCain, who played junior varsity football for two years, recalls that the Episcopal team was undefeated his senior year. “Some of my closest friends were on the playing field,” he says. “That made the game special.” McCain and his schoolmates stood the entire two hours. “The thought of sitting down never came into our minds,” he says. “We were very consumed by the game, the sportsmanship and how long the rivalry had been going on.”

One of the game’s most active followers is 70-year-old Ed Rice, former head coach and current assistant coach for Episcopal. He has been present at every game except one since 1969. “It’s a very special moment,” he says. “At a time when some traditions are fading, this has sustained. People take pride in it. It’s like a relay race. You take the baton and pass it on to someone else who will carry it forward.” The real reward for students and alumni, adds Rice, is “bragging rights.” A win for either team sets the tone for the school year. “If you didn’t have a great season, that win made up for [it]. If you won the season but lost the game, it put a damper on the entire season.”

The rivalry is so intense for some alumni that they start calling the coaches well before the season begins. “They want to know what the team looks like,” says Clint Alexander, head football coach and assistant athletic director at Woodberry Forest, located in Woodberry Forest, Virginia. “They are so invested.”

The much-anticipated game is always played the second weekend of November. This year’s game is November 13. At Woodberry, the buildup starts the week before with pep rallies and a huge bonfire. “Every boy in school has a three-and-a-half-foot lit torch that [he carries] to the bonfire,” Alexander says. “Before it is lit, the bonfire is stacked about two stories high.”

On the day of the game, always a Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., students and alumni crowd the stadium and jockey for the best seats. “We treat it like a bowl game,” Alexander says. Alumni of both schools, many of whom went on to become close friends in college, are divided for those two hours, rooting for their alma maters. “It’s very different from any of the other games,” says Rice. “You look around and there is a crowd of people who have deep emotional ties to one of the two schools.”

Blair Gammon, a 1944 graduate of Woodberry, refers to the rivalry as “fierce but friendly and respectful.” Still, he remembers one less than gentlemanly incident, the night before the 50th game in 1950. That’s when Episcopal students burned the letters EHS into the grass on Woodberry’s field. Going in, each team had won 23 games (the others ending in ties). And after that anniversary struggle, the two teams were still even: A snowstorm arrived the day of the game, and the teams slogged to a 14-14 tie.

Over the decades each team has had its winning streaks. Episcoppal dominated the series during the 1930s, winning eight out of 10 games. The November 1930 game was recounted in Woodberry’s yearbook, the Fir Tree. “Excitement grew. Tier after tier of automobiles were neatly formed on the baseball field. Crowds covered the hillside. Special stands were thickly filled and overflowed [with nearly] four thousand spectators . . . then the inevitable end [Episcopal 12, Woodberry 7] with ovations of joy on one side and a hush of disappointment on the other.”

Woodberry Forest bounced back, however, and took the edge during the mid-to-late 1960s. During that decade it won six games in a row—and then continued its success in the 1970s, winning eight out of 10 games. Harry Byrd III, a 1961 graduate of Woodberry whose father was a U.S. Senator from Virginia, helped lead the football team to the Prep League Championship. The championship, he says, was never the real focus for the team. “If you won the championship and lost to Episcopal, you didn’t have a successful season. [Winning that game] is what you talk about and what you work for. [It was] the thing that everybody hung his hat on.”

The passionate on-field battle has produced several football luminaries at each school. At Woodberry Forest, the man most remembered is 31-season head coach, Harry “Red” Caughron, a 2009 inductee of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. Caughron passed away earlier this year. During his time at Woodberry, Caughron had 217 wins, 56 losses and seven ties. He led the team to one of its most surprising comebacks. In November of 1985, Episcopal was beating Woodberry 16-0 at halftime. “They had totally dominated the first half,” Massie Meredith recalls. “One thing that Red would do every week before the game was to put in one new, special play.” In this game, it was a reverse to the slotback. That play resulted in two long touchdowns in the second half, and Woodberry rallied to win the game, 19-16. “The people from Episcopal were stunned at the outcome,” Meredith says.

Episcopal’s celebrated players include Tim Hightower, now a running back for the Arizona Cardinals in the National Football League. Mark Gowin, Episcopal’s head football coach for 22 years, says Hightower has never gotten over the fact that the team lost to Woodberry his senior year. “He still talks about that as being one of the disappointments of his career,” Gowin says.

One of Gowin’s most memorable moments was the 100th game between the two teams in 2000. The game, played at Woodberry, attracted an estimated 15,000 fans—more than double the normal attendance. “You couldn’t help but feel the electricity,” the coach says. Episcopal was considered the underdog that year, and it lost to Woodberry 24-13.

Gowin also remembers the 1996 game, when sophomore Bryson Spinner quarterbacked the Episcopal team. “We weren’t supposed to beat them but we won 28-27,” Gowin says. “It’s one of the best games we had been involved with.” Spinner, now offensive coordinator at Episcopal, was surprised by the hype associated with the game his first year at the school. “You could feel it on the field,” he says. “Your body was tingling you were so ready to play.”

The 1996 matchup was the game of his life. Spinner scored the tying touchdown on a busted play. The extra point sealed the victory. “It was supposed to be a pass and I saw an opening and took off. The next thing I knew I broke a couple of tackles and I was in the end zone.”

Who will get into the end zone and win the game for his school this year? It’s too early to say, of course. Coach Alexander of Woodberry predicts this year’s matchup will be a close one. “Last year was a tough win for us,” he says, adding that Episcopal has a lot of starters coming back. “We are going to be young.” No matter who wins, he says, each game is just a small—but important—chapter in a long-running and pride-filled tradition.

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