County high school football rivalry subject of new book

It’s dead now, gone since 1999, a victim of demographics.

But there was a time when the annual high school football game between Bellefonte and State College was the premier athletic event in the county.

The two schools played each other from 1890 through 1999, with a couple of interruptions in the series, but it was from 1940 through the 60s when the rivalry burned hottest as the two schools played for the Iron Kettle.

Crowds that reached 9,000 turned out for the yearly battle which, looking back on it now, was a slice of Americana, a glimpse of Small Town America.

But then the shifting population that saw State College hit a huge growth spurt, and the mandated consolidation of rural schools throughout the state that saw the formation of the Bald Eagle Area school district that shut off a pipeline of talent from the Unionville-Milesburg area that fed Bellefonte, eventually led to the rivalry’s demise.

Each year the memories of those games fade a little more as the participants grow older and pass on.

Fortunately, those memories have been preserved in print.

Ralph Gray, who taught at Bellefonte and Penns Valley, became enthralled with the history of the series and has produced a meticulously researched book called “The Battle of Benner Pike: A History of the Bellefonte-State College Football Rivalry.’’

It’s 300 pages of facts, statistics, photographs and anecdotes and if you have an interest in the history of scholastic athletics in Centre County, it’s your window to the past.

In great, or slim detail — those early games got barely a mention in the local newspapers — the accounts of each game are there.

And while the numbers in the box scores tell the bare bones story, it’s the anecdotes and factoids that make the reading interesting.

Most interesting, or most significant, is the impact the formation of the BEA jointure had on the series. At least one person had the foresight to see what was coming.

The late Bill Luther, legendary athlete from Osceola Mills and Penn State, was the head coach at Bellefonte and when he decided to resign the position six days before the 1964 Kettle game, he cited two reasons for his decision, saying that coaching had become hard work and that the formation of the Bald Eagle Area School District had the biggest impact on his program.

A prime example was in 1954, two seasons before BEA went under roof at Wingate, when two Bellefonte players were named to the Central Counties Conference first team: two-way tackle Gene Bennett and halfback Roy Butler. Bennett lived directly across the highway from what would become the BEA practice field at Wingate, and Butler lived just outside Milesburg. Butler rushed for 1,280 yards in 1954 and was one of Bellefonte’s all-time greats. Two years later both would have played for BEA.

Still, the rivalry thrived until eventually State College outgrew it, thanks to a population boom and the happy coincidence of the arrival of Jim Williams as the head coach and the sons of the Suhey and Sefter families who were the cornerstones of the great Little Lion teams of the early 1970s. Williams holds the distinction of being the only person to have played in the game and then coached it on both sidelines, serving as an assistant to Luther before taking the State College job in 1969.

When the rivals met in 1970, 9,000 fans packed Bellefonte’s stadium for the game. A bonfire and pep rally was held in State College prior to the game while in Bellefonte a bonfire, parade and pep rally was held.

That was indicative of the importance of the game to the two schools and communities.

But the Little Lions won that game 44-12, and that was the ominous beginning of the end of the rivalry.

It ended in 1973 when most of State College’s long-time opponents in the central part of the state — including Bellefonte, BEA, Philipsburg-Osceola and Tyrone — dropped the Little Lions, who had outgrown them. The Kettle game was resumed in 1976 and ran until 1985, dropped again and then played again from 1992-1999 when it finally died out.

You could seen the shift in demographics just by looking at the team photos in Gray’s book. Early on there was little difference in the number of players on each team, but over time the size of the State College teams increased while Bellefonte’s stayed basically the same. The most pronounced disparity showed in 1997, when State College fielded almost 100 players for the game at Bellefonte while the Red Raiders dressed 50.

And so what was a competition that captured the attention of both communities faded into history.

Bellefonte now counts BEA as its biggest rival while the Little Lions, now playing the District 3-based Mid Penn Conference, really have no one to stoke the fires the way Bellefonte did in the rivalry’s heyday.

But in its time, from 1890-1999, it embodied all that a rivalry is supposed to be, from pranks like students kidnapping the Kettle and hiding it in an elevator shaft at State High, to the packed stadiums, bon fires and pep rallies.

If you love high school football, or are interested in the history of Centre County during the last century, The Battle of Benner Pike will entertain you and inform you.

Gray, along with former Bellefonte coach John Wetzler, will be at a book signing at the Centre County Historical Museum in Bellefonte on Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and will be at the Nittany Mall near The Gap store on April 25 with Jim Williams from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.