A rivalry unlike any other

Originally Published: November 21, 2006
By Henry Gola

EASTON, Pa. -- Tuesday at Easton Area High School, local manufacturers will dump truckloads of kindling for the annual bonfire built to celebrate the Thanksgiving Day game against rival Phillipsburg.

"I can't describe it; it's huge," said Steve Shiffert, who is in his 14th year as head coach of the Easton Red Rovers. "It's the biggest thing I've seen."

Less than five miles away, across the Delaware River over what locals call "the toll bridge," New Jersey's Phillipsburg High had a problem.

100th game of
rivalry on ESPN2
Catch all the action of one of the best rivalries in high school sports, as Easton (Pa.) takes on Phillipsburg (N.J.) live on ESPN2, Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.

"New Jersey passed a law about what the size of an outdoor fire can be," says Tom Fisher, himself an Easton High grad and now the athletic director at Phillipsburg. "Ours was so small, it was pathetic."

So Phillipsburg came up with an alternate plan.

"Now we do a fireworks display," Fisher said. "Not the kind that shoots up ... it just lights up the whole field. It's really something."

Yes, Easton and Phillipsburg even battle over pregame festivities, and for this year's historic 100th meeting, they'll be sure to pull out all the stops.

"If the river wasn't there, everything would be the same on both sides," says Shiffert. "But that's what makes the game so great."

Phillipsburg bridge
Henry Gola/ESPN.comThe "toll bridge" connects Easton to Phillipsburg on US-22. Locals prefer the "free bridge" further down the river.
The two towns, perched on rolling hillsides astride the Delaware, were born from the foundry industry, with companies like Ingersoll-Rand employing as many as 7,000 people on the New Jersey side. Both are blue-collar to the core, even if much of the industry is now gone and replaced by small businesses and commuters who don't mind the long drive to Philadelphia, New York City or North Jersey.

"We're a football town," said Dominic Fiminano, a retired maintenance worker and part of Easton's Class of '44.

Carl Cuvo, also Easton Class of '44, was equipment manager at Easton for years. "I like Phillipsburg," Cuvo said, "except when they play Easton. I call 'em 'dirty red and white.'"

The coach of "dirty red and white," or the Stateliners, as they prefer to be called, is Bob Stem, who is undefeated since returning to Phillipsburg last season for his second stint as head coach.

He's the kind of guy you wouldn't want to wander away from at a party for fear of missing another great story. While holding court on a conference call with the ESPN crew preparing to broadcast Thursday's game, one of the producers interrupted and abruptly asked if the crew could shoot the Delaware Forks Trophy, given to the winner of the game.

1960 game
courtesy of The Morning CallP'burg QB Herb Bagley launches a pass in the 1960 game. P'burg won 7-6, defeating an unbeaten (with one tie) Easton team.
"I'll talk to my AD [Tom]," Stem said without missing a beat and with a smile at Fisher, who was standing nearby. "It'll probably be up in the box, but he loves to run up and down the bleachers. He can run it up and down from the field for you."

Stem got his sense of humor growing up in a poor part of Phillipsburg, raised by his late sister, Martha, after both his parents died. The next to last of nine brothers and sisters, he lived in a part of town known as "Dishwater Hill," so named because there was no running water, and the water they did have was dumped out on the street.

"Phillipsburg raised Bob Stem," Fisher said.

A Phillipsburg grad in the Class of '58, Stem played in the 50th Easton-P'burg game before going on to Syracuse, where he played center on the 1959 national championship team. He eventually returned home to coach in the 75th game and now will coach in the 100th game.

Go Easton!
Henry Gola/ESPN.comEven the Center for the Arts in downtown Easton has football fever.
"It's an honor to coach against him," Shiffert said of Stem. "He's an absolute legend."

Phillipsburg (10-0) will play in the New Jersey Group 4 state final against Elizabeth on Dec. 1, and Easton (11-1) will begin state sectional play against Bethlehem-Liberty on Saturday, just two days after the Phillipsburg game.

There's no doubt for either side, though, over which game is more important.

"No question, it's the Easton game," Stem said.

"That's a no-brainer," said Shiffert. "The game against Phillipsburg is."

For many years, Phillipsburg even went so far as to forfeit eligibility in the New Jersey state tournament so it could play the Thanksgiving Day game.

Beat Easton!
Henry Gola/ESPN.comA banner perched atop Phillipsburg High School shows the game is on everyone's mind.
Easton began playing football in 1891 and found success almost immediately. An article in the 1896 edition of "The Junto," the Easton High school paper, said "The Easton High football team finished the season as the interscholastic champions of the Lehigh Valley, an honor it has held for three years."

Phillipsburg began playing in 1905, and soon the rivalry was born, and a century of stories has followed.

"I didn't have a quarter to get into the 1931 game," remembers Thomas Iacone, Easton class of '38. "So I went up on a hill and watched through a fence. We won 7-6 when Chisesi threw an extra-point pass play to La Rosa."

"You're too excited to remember anything," said Cuvo, who does remember that his Easton squad won the 1943 game, his senior year. "It was ingrained in our heads. We had a volunteer assistant and amateur trainer named 'Gouge' Andrews. For days, all he would say was, 'Beat P'burg, beat P'burg.' "

Bob Rute
courtesy of The Morning CallBob Rute, the legendary Easton coach, is shown playing in 1939. Rute is the only person to play and coach on an undefeated Easton team.
In 1954 and '55, the rivals ended each other's dream seasons. In '54, Easton knocked off an undefeated Phillipsburg team. In '55, an undefeated Easton team fell to Phillipsburg.

"In the '50s, everyone knew who the players were," remembers Stem. "If 10 guys didn't stop you while you were walking down the street and tell you to beat Easton, something was wrong."

Then there was 1988, the first nationally televised high school football game, broadcast on ESPN. Phillipsburg was trailing when its starting quarterback got hurt. Backup John Troxell entered and led a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.

"It's always there," said Troxell, now the head coach at Franklin & Marshall, of the rivalry. "Guys who play and have played in this game, both for P'Burg and Easton, become like family."

Easton holds a 55-40-5 edge in the series, and a crowd upwards of 20,000 is expected at Fisher Field at Lafayette College. Stores close for the holiday, and Phillipsburg faithful march across the bridge for the game, effectively shutting down the towns.

"It's a long, long winter if you lose this football game," Shiffert said. "People don't let you forget what you did on that day. There's no doubt that the barometer on which you are judged as a coach in these communities is what you do on Thanksgiving Day."

"You get older, and if you lose, it lasts longer," Stem said. "Young kids, they lose, they're out to the dance later on."

Neither coach has prepared a pre-game talk. "No words are necessary for this game," Shiffert said.

Appropriately, both teams will wear throwback jerseys and helmets. Phillipsburg's jerseys will even be without numbers on the front, a nightmare for officials and announcers, but a joy for the fans.

Even Shiffert will get into the act and wear an old-time coach's outfit, donning green corduroy pants with a tweed jacket donated by The London Shop, a high-class men's clothing store in downtown Easton.

"I told Steve if he loses the game, we're going to de-pants him and take the coat right off his back," laughed store owner Mike Cusano, Easton High Class of '58.

Or use it in the bonfire.

Henry Gola is the recruiting editor for ESPN.com. Special thanks to The Morning Call for the old photos.