“I was kind of curious to see if they [would] start throwing punches,” he joked.
Stuart-Falls Church, like so many Washington area high school football rivalries, still matters, whether the games are for provincial bragging rights (Madison vs. Oakton in Vienna), Catholic school domination in the District (Gonzaga vs. St. John’s, rivals that first met in 1889), poll-topping/recruit attracting (Good Counsel vs. DeMatha, teams that have finished atop The Post rankings seven times since 2000) or long-standing traditional tiffs (Episcopal-Woodberry Forest, since 1901) that transcend distance (87 miles separate the elite private schools).
In an era of colleges dumping conferences and longtime opponents for money-grab opportunities time zones away, and NFL players being discardable fantasy football pawns for many, high school rivalries are as passionate as ever because they usually include three of the basic indicators of meaningful relationships — similarity, proximity and familiarity.
In other words, local equals personal. If the Washington Redskins lose to the Dallas Cowboys, quarterback Robert Griffin III is unlikely to bump into Tony Romo at the gas station or the local gym. But it would not be out of the question for, say, Old Mill offensive lineman David Dunn to encounter Arundel wide receiver Tyler Young at a restaurant somewhere along the seven miles that separate their campuses in Anne Arundel County.
“My assistant coaches drive by the other Arlington County schools and see [the teams practicing],” Yorktown Coach Bruce Hanson said. “You’re not spying on them, you’re just driving.”
Local rivalries are about where you go to school. Or where your parents went to school. Or both. Children usually know what high school they will attend, so that emotional affiliation becomes ingrained early, sometimes through older siblings.
Players can grow up competing against the same peers in youth leagues and middle school before meeting on the grand stage on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons in high school. Middle school classmates can feed into rival high schools, heightening the “familiarity” part of the equation.
With rivalries, it’s all about inter-group comparison, said Christian End, a psychology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati who researches fandom. And when it comes to high school sports, the personal stake often transcends my-team-beat-your-team joy and disappointment. It runs deeper because it’s more difficult to distance yourself from a loss based on the proximity of the opposing group.
It’s not only a team you’re pulling for, it’s your school or child or brother or some other first-hand bond, so more of you is wrapped up in the outcome. That’s unlikely to be the case at higher levels of football, where that personal connection is largely absent and team members hail from all over the country, not one town or neighborhood.