Bumptious: Bleeding Hearts

Browsing the Internet the other day, I came upon a remarkable historical event: shortly after World War I, UC-Berkeley (Cal) was faced with the possibility of having to cut its men’s crew program. The University of Washington, worried that without bitter rival Cal to compete against its own crew program would face demise, sent its assistant coach down to Berkeley to revive the program.

That coach, Ky Ebright, went on to win a few gold medals with the Golden Bears, and today, the rivalry between the two perennial powerhouses is as strong as ever.

That would be akin to Williams sending a member of its coaching staff to go help the Lord Jeffs revive their football program, so that we could perpetuate the rivalry. It would be as if George Steinbrenner sent Don Zimmerman to the Red Sox so as to continue the manifestation of that storied hatred. Imagine Duke sending its assistant to North Carolina, Texas its line coach to A&M, Harvard its coach to Yale. It seems farfetched, but such are the things rivalries are made of.

It’s hard to imagine, but without rivalries, sports lack the momentum to keep us interested. Do we honestly think Williams would continue to win at everything if it didn’t have Amherst to drive its athletes to victory? The looming Lord Jeffs light more fires under Ephs’ posteriors than we care to imagine.

The football team trains as hard as it does only because in that last game of the season, each player wants to be able to say he brought his best. Most of the season is pre-season for the last game of the year; there is little else to fight for without NCAAs or a national playoff system. It rarely matters when both teams – or even just one – are managing to demonstrate new depths of futility. When the Ephs go to Amherst, or when the defectors return to their old stomping grounds, the teams step up and bring something beyond game-face: it’s Amherst-face.

In case you hadn’t picked up on the stench of rarely-showered jerseys, it was Amherst week for the Williams’ ruggers. Their particular, odiferous tradition of donning their rugby jerseys for the entirety of the week, merely in the hopes that if they do have to sacrifice their jerseys to the Amherst players each “gift” will at least reek of Eph, is just one of hundreds of bizarre traditions surrounding rivalry games across this grand nation of sports.

In case you were wondering, the men’s rugby team took its revenge on Amherst, taking their jerseys down on the pitch on Saturday and eradicating the humiliation they suffered on the Jeffs’ pitch this past fall.

It’s something awesome to see the pain in a player’s eyes when he or she has to sacrifice the shirt he or she has worn on his or her back for the entirety of a competition played with such blood and sweat as to draw tears out of those pained sockets. In those tears run the spirit of rivalry, that fuel of sport, which makes the fan in us all tremble at the thought of Ephs-Jeffs, Aggies-Longhorns, UNC-Duke, Harvard-Yale and Yankees-Red Sox.

With the pressure of hundreds of years of victors and losers looking down on the field, pitch, court, course, pool or gridiron, the real athletes step up and bring that victory-face. With the jeers and the taunts from the sidelines or grandstands, with the fans drooling with rage and hatred, with the air heavy with desperation, the eventual champions relish the history of the moment.

Rivalries matter for some teams as much as that national title, as much as that number-one ranking, as much as that gold medal. They try all year here to beat one school, and when they do – it’s awesome.