When Columbus East High School graduate Mitch Dwenger showed up at DePauw in Greencastle three football seasons ago, he thought the Monon Bell Classic was just another rivalry game.
Then he played in it.
“You don’t understand until you get there,” Dwenger said Wednesday before going to prepare for his third Classic, at 1 p.m. Saturday at Wabash’s Little Giants Stadium in Crawfordsville. “This is the biggest game of our season, for sure. It’s everything. It’s what matters.”
I’m sure every college football team in America plays a rivalry game, but having lived in Crawfordsville for four years, I had an up-close look at the Monon Bell Classic. And like Dwenger, when I arrived in town, I thought it was just another rivalry game.
It is, indeed, so much more.
The game has all the ingredients that the very best rivalry games have to offer.
It’s old. Saturday’s game will be the 119th game in a series that began in 1890. It is the 12th-most played football series game at any level.
It has a great prize. The 300-pound locomotive bell that goes to the winner was introduced in 1932. It’s so big it’s kind of tough to hide. It has been stolen nine times over the years by one school or the other, the most recent time in 1998.
The series has been close, with many games being decided in the final seconds.
Wabash leads the series 56-53-9 after winning the past three seasons.
Those things all matter, but the series is best defined by something else.
You can bet that the 2012 version of the game won’t be that much different than the 1890 contest. Well, let’s not think about the rules, or the forward pass, or the equipment for a moment.
This game is played by athletes who truly love the game.
These guys are not quasi-professionals shipped into town to entertain the local folks. These truly are college students who enjoy football so much that they sacrifice their free time to play a sport that means the world to them.
They are not getting paid to play ... not cash and not athletics scholarships.
Those who live in the communities know they will not be paying their money to watch football played at an elite level. It’s more of a your favorite sons against our favorite sons feel.
And that’s just fine.
A perfect example of that is Dwenger, a junior linebacker who has played through heel and hamstring injuries this season after being the Tigers’ leading tackler a year ago. DePauw is going through tough times,winning only two games after seeing its head coach, Robby Long, fired Sept. 16.
It would be easy for Dwenger, who is fifth on the team with 56 tackles even though he missed two games, to hang up his cleats and concentrate on his studies.
“It is tough,” Dwenger said. “We are going through a transformation because we lost our head coach early and we’re dealing with that.
“And school is my main focus, by far. It can be hard to stay focused. But there is a lot of pride, and I love football. I’m not going to be able to do this the rest of my life.”
Dwenger, 20, comes from a family of athletes. His father, Rick, is a longtime coach, and there there are Mitch’s siblings Erich, 22, who played traveling club football for Miami (Ohio) University; Emma, 18, one of the state’s top soccer players at Columbus East; Sam, 14, a freshman at East who should make an impact in football, wrestling and track; Alana, 10, Express soccer; and Norah, 7, Express soccer.
It’s a family commitment to a lifestyle, not an occupation.
Those who follow the two schools and attend this very special game know that all the players on Saturday will share that kind of commitment. That makes the game a classic.
Besides Dwenger, junior Kevin Ude (a 2010 Seymour graduate) will play for DePauw. Ude has caught 21 passes for 160 yards and touchdowns this season. Freshman Jeremy Minor (2012 Columbus East graduate) plays for Wabash. The game will be telecast on AXS TV.
Jay Heater is the Republic sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 379-5632.