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Lower Merion-Radnor football rivalry: a 120-year colorful history

“Imagine an oxford-grey sky pouring rain over the muck that was Villanova’s football field. And see the boys of Lower Merion and Radnor High Schools, arch-rivals, primed to win and win only, locked in a soggy, shifting struggle that kept 7000 water-soaked fans at their seats ‘til a ref hollered stop.”
“Lower Merion won it, 7-6. Won it on a pass-play in the second period. But in a way, this is not as important as the game these two teams played for the good people who came in the rain to watch them.”
“There were no favors asked. None given. Lower Merion played the kind of football that they write about in movie scripts. Radnor matched it. Ask the crowd.” [Main Line Times, Nov. 24, 1952]
Today, the Main Line is witnessing the lead-up to the 120th matchup, to be held Nov. 7 at 6 p.m. at Harriton High School, in a rivalry considered to be the longest continuous public high school football showdown in the United States.
Vibrant autumnal hues recall the October 26, 1897 inaugural game. Historians readily admit that the first contest, played on the plebeian Old Cricket Club Field above the tracks off North Wayne Avenue, was a fundamental rugged running game.
In 1897, three years before the first Army-Navy game and twenty years before the start of the National Football League, two boys, Harvey Hinkle of Lower Merion and O. Howard Wolfe of Radnor asked their school principals for permission to set up a game, the first of two that year.
As The Suburban of October 1897 tells it, “The streets and roadways around Wayne seemed almost choked with carriages and wagons, carrying people from outlying districts who came to watch the contest.”
“Radnor has only twenty-five boys enrolled in the entire school which was organized last year (1896), and all the boys don’t play the game of football which is new to the Main Line.”
Add to that description a touch of humor, “It was noted that only one man on the Radnor line-up is old enough as yet to sport a mustache. Howard Colby has a cute one, and it must have been genuine for it was still there after the game.”
As legend has it, according to the official 1949 program bearing the names of sponsors John Vertes’ News Shop on Haverford Avenue in Narberth and Wayne Hardware on Lancaster Avenue, “in the fall of 1897, two small schools participated in a strange game called football in the wilds outside Philadelphia.”
“Few heard the results, with the exception of friends of those who saw the game. From this unheralded beginning has sprung one of the most famous rivalries in the East, as well as the oldest Public School rivalry in Philadelphia.”
“In 1930 the crowds became so large, it was necessary to change the location to spacious Villanova Stadium. No matter the season records of the two schools, when they take the field at Villanova they meet on even terms.”
In 1947, in order to perpetuate the fine sportsmanship by Lower Merion and Radnor during the previous fifty-two years, a group of prominent men from Radnor and Ardmore settled on a bronze trophy, termed The Lower Merion-Radnor Gold Trophy, which would go to each year’s victor for the next fifty years.
The two eponymous gold plates positioned at the base of the trophy provided a record of all the scores of the first fifty games, with the scores of the next fifty matches to be engraved starting with 1947.
In the early years, horse-drawn carriages brought the spectators to witness the two teams line up, with formal coaching, according to Lower Merion records, beginning with Coach Hale in 1908, followed by Walter Short from 1909 to 1913.
Both schools have memorialized their respective most prominent coaches. Radnor’s field has long since been dedicated to Jules Prevost who piloted the Radnor Raiders from 1926-1953. During the longest coaching tenure held by an Aces Head Coach, John “Fritz” Brennan was at the helm from 1952 to 1968.
Of special note was the success of Garrett Hill’s Emlen Tunnell who, after a remarkable career at Radnor (Class of 1942), earned starting positions at the University of Toledo and the University of Iowa, followed by stints with the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers.
Tunnell’s exceptional career culminated in his selection as the first African-American player to be inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1967.
Among the 78th game standouts were Radnor’s Ted Dean (Class of 1956), who eventually played for the Philadelphia Eagles and in the 1960 NFL Championship game scored the winning touchdown.
The Aces’ running back Charlie Hall, Lower Merion Class of 1966, went on to University of Pittsburgh, then was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the third round of the 1971 NFL draft as a defensive back.
Also, Lower Merion’s Joe Conwell, offensive tackle, played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986-1987, after a solid career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 1996, Lower Merion hosted the 100th Anniversary game on the General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold Field, with the Aces captained by QB Adam Solow, Carl Leneis, and Brett Shore, prevailing over the Raiders in a breathtaking finish as Solow’s searing pass downfield tipped the game in favor of Lower Merion at 27-20.
Players, coaches, families, fans, and friends give many reasons for the pedigree and longevity of the Radnor-Lower Merion rivalry. Perhaps the persistence of the game is best described by the following vignette.
As the Radnorite of December 1919 reported, “Mr. John Dotterer gave a pin to all the men who had ever played on a victorious team against Lower Merion.
The pin is a five-pointed star with the letters T. D. B. L. and M. in the points. These letters have a meaning which the fellows have facetiously translated into ‘These Devils Beat Lower Merion.’ Dotterer’s real meaning for the initials, however, was ‘Teamwork, Duty, Brilliance, Loyalty, and Merit.’”
As we head into the days leading up to Game No. 120, I would like to think that Dotterer’s “real meaning” has prevailed, and that the Lower Merion-Radnor game will be hard-fought and done fairly so it continues to be “the game with a score and a winner, but a game with no losers.”

Since 2008, Mary Brown, former long-time Latin teacher at Lower Merion and the 2001 recipient of the John “Fritz” Brennan Award, has sponsored the annual Lower Merion co-ed youth football clinic held at historic Arnold Field, and dedicated to Dr. Joseph W. Foote, to raise monies for the Lower Merion Township Scholarship Fund.

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