As Doug Yates was shopping at his local supermarket in Charleston, South Carolina, he stumbled across a copy of Lindy’s 2020 College Football Preview and decided to pick it up.
It wasn’t something he did often, but Yates, ’96, a former Lehigh football offensive lineman, wanted to check in on the college football world.
Yates expected the magazine to be dedicated to the biggest schools, as they often are. However, when he found a feature on the “20 Best Rivalries for 2020,” he noticed a familiar matchup.
Looking past rivalries like Army versus Navy and Michigan versus Ohio State, Yates found “Lafayette, Lehigh” at No. 20 on the list, just making the cut.
As Yates read “The Rivalry’s” description in the magazine, it made him proud. Unlike some of the games listed, there was no big fanfare, no big trophy, no big national implications. The winner just got the game ball.
“Yeah, that’s about right,” Yates thought as he read the blurb. And yet — for the modesty of the way the game is conducted — it matters in the Lehigh and Lafayette communities, Yates said. For some, it matters a lot.
Embedded with tradition and old-fashioned sportsmanship, Yates said the Lehigh-Lafayette football game may not carry the same national implications as some football powerhouses, but it is a large part of the student experience at both schools.
Le-Laf, the most played and longest uninterrupted college football game in history, has been played through two world wars and the 1918 flu pandemic. The Rivalry’s only stoppage, which was in 1896, came because of a dispute over the eligibility of Lafayette halfback George Barclay — the man later credited with inventing the football helmet.
Through all the world’s events of the last 124 years, The Rivalry persisted.
In 2020 — it stops.
Yates said if anything, The Rivalry’s stoppage underscores the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, which has put normal life on hold in the United States the last several months. But as he read that description, over 700 miles from Lehigh’s campus, it dawned on him what it must be like to be a senior right now missing out on playing that game.
“Particularly if you’re a senior, (Le-Laf) is your opportunity to contribute to this legacy,” Yates said. “And with that gone, I think there’s real cause for sadness and disappointment.”
For head coach Tom Gilmore and the rest of Lehigh’s football team, uncertainty remains over when the Le-Laf game, and the season, will be played.
When Gilmore found out about the season’s cancellation, he scrambled to put a message out to his players. Questions came about when they could play again, but there weren’t — and still aren’t — many answers.
Gilmore said his heart goes out to his players, especially the seniors, who don’t know when or if they will be able to play the season and the Le-Laf game.
Senior middle linebacker Pete Haffner said he was still hoping to be able to play the Le-Laf game, even in an abbreviated schedule, but the Patriot League’s cancellation of fall sports in July effectively ended that hope. For Haffner and the rest of his teammates, not having The Rivalry in 2020 is a big blow.
“It means a lot, and I can speak for my teammates in that it means a lot to all of us,” said senior wide receiver Jorge Portorreal. “We’re being recruited at Lehigh, one of the tools used is tradition, the history behind it. It’s the longest football rivalry to date. So to everyone on our team, it’s under winning a Patriot League Championship or a national championship. It’s right under there.”
Aside from the game itself, Portorreal, Haffner and senior offensive lineman Chris Fournier all said they will miss the atmosphere on campus during the week leading up to the game, with flags and posters lining the windows of dorms and off-campus houses.
Lafayette senior running back Selwyn Simpson said while traditions differ at both schools, the energy and buildup to the game is similarly special. He, too, was drawn into Lafayette by the history and tradition of the rivalry.
In 2019, Simpson had to leave The Rivalry early for two excessive celebration penalties. Sitting in the locker room, he said he felt like a fan watching the game unfold. Filled with anxiety and nervousness, Simpson watched the Lafayette fans’ reactions to figure out what was happening on the field.
With Lafayette eventually closing out a 17-16 victory, Simpson said that game is one of his most memorable as a player. Having lost his freshman and sophomore years, he said it would be disappointing to not have an opportunity to even the series at some point his senior year.
Simpson said, regardless of record, the Le-Laf game is always treated separately, like its own Super Bowl.
“There’s something about that game that gives me the goosebumps,” Simpson said. “The night before the game I normally can’t sleep. I try to get to bed really early or do a hard workout so I’m really tired. Just something about the game, the feel, the pregame, you’re just so locked in and can see in your brother’s eyes that he’s locked in, and that you’re ready to go for a battle.”
Former Lehigh quarterback Nick Shafnisky, ’17, said he has tremendous pride for the game and the history behind it.
A two-time Le-Laf player of the game, Shafnisky said seeing how Lehigh alumni embrace the game has elevated his sense of pride for its history. He said he has talked to alumni who played at Lehigh decades ago and may not remember anything but the Le-Laf game, but can describe in detail a game-winning touchdown from the 1940’s, for instance.
In 2014, Shafnisky sat down with former quarterback Mike Rieker, ’78, to discuss the history of The Rivalry. Rieker, just like Shafnisky, can vividly recall specific plays from the Le-Laf games he played in. Rieker said the excitement of The Rivalry is second to none.
“Just walking out onto the field to the biggest crowd of the year, with the game meaning as much as it did when I played — to me, it is something that cannot be matched,” Rieker said.
Shafnisky vividly remembers a two-yard run during his junior year, in which his momentum pushed Lafayette cornerback out of bounds by five or six yards. To the normal fan, the play was nothing noteworthy. But to the alumni on the sidelines, seeing their quarterback bulldoze a defender like that caused raucous cheering.
Shafnisky said that play, as small as it was, helped turn the game in favor of Lehigh.
“I look back at my sideline, just for a second, picked up my towel that fell, and I see all these older alumni that stand on the field, and they’re going nuts,” Shafnisky said. “I think it’s because they’ve seen a quarterback throw a defensive back out of bounds, and you’re just not expecting that from a quarterback, and once I saw them get riled up for a two-yard gain, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to win this game.’”
Due to all the history prevalent in The Rivalry, Shafnisky said he would be disappointed if the two schools did not make an effort to keep the tradition going in some form in 2020, even if it was just a coin toss with the captains.
To Shafnisky, The Rivalry was, and still is, a prideful part of his life. When he was a player, Shafnisky said former Lehigh head coach Andy Coen would hammer in the game’s importance.
“Coach (Andy) Coen would always say, ‘I don’t care if we’re 0-10 or 10-0 going into our biggest game of our lives in the first round of the playoffs, this game we don’t lose, and it’s our second season. The first season is everything else, the second season is Lehigh-Lafayette and the third season is the playoffs if you make it there.’”
Aside from its importance on the field, however, The Rivalry also holds importance to many members of the Bethlehem community.
For Tony Silvoy, owner of The Goose deli, Le-Laf week is one of his favorite times of the year. A South Bethlehem native, Silvoy grew up on Taylor Street just a block from the old Taylor Stadium.
From tearing down the goalposts at Taylor Stadium to bed races, the traditions surrounding Le-Laf have always been a piece of Silvoy’s life.
More than anything though, Silvoy had no hesitation when discussing what he’ll miss most:
“You might see (someone) for two Lehigh-Lafayette’s and then you won’t see them,” Silvoy said. “And then someone else that you haven’t seen in years will appear at your door. That’s the beauty of it, you don’t know who’s coming back and you don’t know who’s going to continue to.”
Silvoy said he doesn’t yet know what The Goose is going to do for this Le-Laf, but whatever is put together will not be able to match the usual excitement.
Whether it be the old friend in line that Silvoy hasn’t seen in 10 years or the group of guys that always come to watch the rivalry on The Goose’s 19-inch TV, Silvoy said the atmosphere will be missed.
Chuck Burton, ’92, the founder of the Lehigh Football Nation blog, described the cancellation of the football season as an “immediate sense of loss.”
Burton has been to every Le-Laf game since starting as an undergraduate student, with the exception of the 2001 season when he was with an ailing family member.
Burton said he starts planning the Le-Laf weekend with friends around August, and it is an opportunity to reconnect with his peers. He said he was immediately drawn into the atmosphere of the game his freshman year at Lehigh.
“It’s Lehigh’s chance to be a bowl game atmosphere,” Burton said. “I’ve been to a lot of games during the season, and some of them have some decent attendance, but nothing hits Lehigh-Lafayette in terms of the intensity, the energy coming from the crowd. I think it is a tough loss for the athletes and their parents, and to the alumni as well, but more so for the athletes. That’s who I think of most in all of this.”
For the two schools, players, alumni and the Easton and Bethlehem communities, The Rivalry will be missed. After 155 meetings, the traditions of Le-Laf will eventually resume. Just not in 2020.
“It’s really sad to see because I fully appreciate the history that’s involved in The Rivalry, and I think everyone involved appreciates it as well, so you never want to see that end,” Gilmore said. “It would’ve had to take something like (the coronavirus pandemic) to force this.”