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Jayden Blair pulled an old-fashioned Columbus East football helmet over his head, squared his shoulders and threw the football toward one of the openings at the Colts Quarterback Challenge.
The 6-year-old had gotten the helmet from his father, who used to play for East. He was determined to keep throwing until he completed a pass to the image of a Colts football player.
A few feet away, North fan Dave Bozell had his picture taken with two smiling Colts cheerleaders. He then walked to a growing line of orange- and blue-clad fans who waited to get a seat.
But the Blairs and Bozell weren’t at the Colts’ preseason camp at Anderson University or outside their home field Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. They were enjoying festivities before the must-see event of the year in Columbus: The annual crosstown North-East football game, this year played Friday at East.
The annual North vs. East football game has changed in the decades since Columbus High School split into two schools in 1972 — a change that fans say is for the better.
Forty years ago, emotions flowed on the field and in the stands, just like they did Friday. But attendance at the game has grown from about 4,000 10 years ago to about 7,500, East Coach Bob Gaddis said before the game.
And the game itself has become a mainstream local phenomenon that is more than a sporting event. It’s become a can’t-miss piece of heart-thumping theater that has grown larger than the game itself and more intense as the football programs have improved.
For evidence, look no further than the special events that have become a staple preceding and during the North-East game.
Fans had a chance Friday to:
Participate in the Indianapolis Colts Friday Night Football tour, where they could meet Colts cheerleaders, take part in a social media trivia challenge and get free prizes, among other activities and perks.
Dunk someone at a dunk-tank fundraiser for the East girls’ basketball team.
Get free “Live United” T-shirts at halftime from the United Way.
Bob Poynter, the corporate sponsor of the game, participated in the opening coin toss as the game got underway.
A couple of years ago, ESPN broadcast the game nationally as a showcase for former East quarterback Gunner Kiel, who recently transferred to the University of Cincinnati.
Athletic directors, coaches and players from years past said such hoopla was unheard of during their day. But they said the change is fantastic, creating an energy that makes the event — not just the game — memorable.
Hedy George, who was North’s athletic director from 1998 to 2008, said she thinks at least part of the credit for the electricity surrounding the game is the rise in popularity of football in general. She said that popularity, which she struggles to explain, extends across the country.
But there’s more to it than that.
“The North and East programs are just better now than they were,” George said. “When that happens, fans get excited.”
From 2004 to today, East has won six sectional and five regional championships. From 2004 to today, North has won three sectional and three regional championships.
Matt Blue, who co-owns the Blues Canoe Livery in Edinburgh and was a running back for North in the late 1980s, remembers attendance for North games being rather humdrum until the team won some close games. The fans quickly followed, starting to pack the stands at every home game.
The meeting of crosstown rivals always was a big deal, Blue said. Both sides wanted desperately to win. But Blue said that would be accompanied by a fantastic level of community support that makes players feel special.
At Friday’s game, some fans wore paint, wigs, hats, funny glasses — anything to stand out and announce loudly to anyone who meandered by which local team they were there to support.
John Stephens Sr., who wore an East T-shirt and cap, talked with his nephew about the charged atmosphere as fellow East fans tailgated and enjoyed a picnic behind him.
“My son graduated from East last year,” he said. “I told him that he’ll never regain this. It’s something special. It’s hard to explain.”
Ike Dougherty, who played for East from 1998 to 2001 as a tight end and linebacker, said he doesn’t see any comparison between the energy of the games when he was playing and the energy just 12 years later.
“It’s a lot larger crowd now, and the student bodies seem more involved,” he said. “I thought it was electric when I was in school, but it’s a whole different level now.”
North quarterback Michael Vogel, a senior, said he draws energy from the crowd. He doesn’t know exactly what’s going on outside of the white lines during a game, he said, but is glad it’s there. He said it shows that the fans support them.
“It’s the icing on the cake,” he said.
East wide receiver Sean Owens, also a senior, said the game means as much to the fans as it means to the players, who think about the showdown year-round.
Dennis Sylvester, who was East’s first athletic director in 1972, credited the increased popularity and electricity of the crosstown rivalry game to the teams finally having some significant history behind them.
When the old Columbus High School split into two schools 41 years ago, East didn’t provide much of a challenge to North, he said. That was because North got to keep all the seniors, and East had nothing but underclassmen who couldn’t hope to compete against bigger players.
But Sylvester said that, as the years went by, East became a school to be reckoned with. He said the first generations at East and North had children of their own to whom they passed a growing spirit of competition.
At the same time, students and players at both schools share a sense of oneness with each other that grows from living in the same community, running with the same friends and crossing paths in adulthood.
Jeff Beck, a local attorney who played in alternating positions for North from 1986 to 1988, said some of his best friends today are the same East players who were “threatening to break my bones” during their games.
Such friendships were put on hold for a couple of hours Friday while the players from competing teams tried desperately to outscore each other on the field.
“That edge will never be gone,” Sylvester said.
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