Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, you are taught at a very young age about what side of a rivalry you take.
It was instilled in my formidable years at Veterans Stadium while cheering for the Phillies that the Mets are “losers.” My trips to the old Spectrum informed me that the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers were a bunch of bums and above all, Sundays were for the Eagles and that the Cowboys, to be polite, stunk.
It’s been an enjoyable respite to read this week’s series on rivalries in this sports section.
It has given me time to reflect on those Philadelphia rivalries while growing up or moving to the Pittsburgh area for college and learning about “the Backyard Brawl” of the Panthers and Mountaineers along with the disdain between the Steelers and Browns.
My 15 years in Virginia introduced me to some legendary battles between VCU and Old Dominion two, maybe three, times a season. Memories of Shaka Smart and Blaine Taylor’s teams while the infamous “VCU Pav” Chris Crowley put on an award-winning fan performance by dressing up like the Monarchs’ coach.
There have been Capital City Classics with the Rams and Richmond on the court and the Dukes and Spiders on the gridiron. Last but certainly not least after seeing Virginia Tech spend 15 years of being the Lucy Van Pelt to the Virginia Cavaliers, Charlie Brown finally kicked the ball this past November when the Wahoos snatched back the Commonwealth Cup for the first time in more than a decade.
My travels have introduced me to “Roll Tide” and “War Eagle,” the Yankees and Red Sox, and the meanest look my Tennessee Volunteer bride has ever given me was the day I jokingly busted out the Florida Gators chomp.
Above all, there is no greater rivalry game then Army-Navy. “Everyone on this field is willing to die for everyone watching this game.” Those were the words said by West Point Chaplin Col. Matthew Pawlikowski in his prayer prior to the 2018 game, the first one I ever attended.
Years ago, the Hall of Fame sports broadcaster Dan Patrick told me “that if you do this job long enough, it will take the fan out of you.”
While I didn’t understand it early on, Patrick proved to be correct. To do this job right, you need to check allegiances at the door. However, this job can make you a fan of people and their stories including that of one of my favorite rivalries.
On a Saturday night in May 2002, Pop and I sat watching two boxers slugging each other mercilessly.
It was the first of what would be three Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti fights. The first meeting nicknamed “Fight of the Century” featured arguably the most thrilling round in the sport’s history when the two squared off in the ninth.
Go “You Tube” it.
What started that night in the ring grew into respect and quickly a friendship rather than hatred.
“They were beaten to a pulp. Both were waiting for testing and getting stitched up,” Hall of Fame boxing promoter Lou DiBella told me in a radio interview. “They were both getting CAT scans to make sure neither one sustained permanent injury, and they are sitting on adjoining hospital beds in a hallway waiting to be tested, chatting it up, laughing, literally you could see the mutual respect. They knew what they’d just done. They knew they just had one of the greatest fights in the history of boxing, and there was nothing in that corridor of that ER but respect and admiration from one to the other. It was one of the most amazing things that I ever saw. It was also amazing that they [both] sent someone out to an all-night package store who came back with a case of beer, that they were sitting drinking while waiting to get head tests in an ER hallway.”
That rivalry continued for two more fights, both won by Gatti. However so did the friendship, including the day in 2009 when Ward served as one of six pallbearers at Gatti’s funeral.
Rivalries for fans are about passion for your team or school, a storied history, and the most intense pride you feel with a victory and the gut-wrenching disgust you experience with a loss to that foe.
Yet, what we don’t want to realize as fans is we need our rivals. They complete us. There’s a scene in “The Dark Knight” in which Batman asks The Joker: “Why do you want to kill me?” He responds, “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you; what would I do without you?”
Just as that crazy clown needed The Caped Crusader, so do the Red Sox need the Yankees, the Rams need the Spiders, the Hokies need the ‘Hoos, and Irish Mickey Ward needed Arturo Gatti.