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Lafayette-Lehigh above all others

There are rivalries in college football, and then there is "The Rivalry."

There are a number of big rivalry games played this time of the year - Georgia-Georgia Tech, Auburn-Alabama, Clemson-South Carolina, Ohio State-Michigan - but they all pale in comparison to the what took place this past Saturday afternoon in front of 15,000 fans in eastern Pennsylvania when the Lafayette College Leopards and Lehigh University Mountain Hawks squared off for the 142nd time in college football's most-played rivalry.

So you're wondering, what makes this game, played by two little-known schools in a small stadium in front of a television audience made up pretty much of only alumni "The Rivalry?"

First, some history and tradition.

Lafayette and Lehigh - located 21 miles apart in Easton and Bethlehem, Pa. - played for the first time in 1884. The teams played again later that season, and with the exception of the 1896 season, have met at least once a year ever since, a record-setting streak of 110 consecutive seasons. Lafayette leads the series 75-62-5.

By comparison, Harvard and Yale, which first played in 1875, have played 123 times (ranking as the third most-played rivalry behind No. 2 Princeton and Yale, with 129 meetings).

Alabama and Auburn have played a mere 70 times since first meeting in 1893, having taken a 40-year hiatus following the 1907 game.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lafayette was a football power with three national championships to its credit - 1896, 1921 and 1926. Tthis was the era when championships were determined by polls, before the BCS came along.

More recently, Lehigh won the Division II national championship in 1977, and was Division 1-AA national runner-up in 1979.

In the 17 years since the Patriot League was founded in 1990, Lafayette has won two league championships outright and shared three others, while Lehigh has won five championships outright and shared two others. The past three Lafayette-Lehigh games have determined the Patriot League champion.

But history and tradition are only a part of what makes this "The Rivalry."

The guys who play the game are true student-athletes. You know the NCAA commercial that talks about college athletes going pro in something other than sports - Lafayette and Lehigh athletes are those people. These kids come to college to get an education and to play football, not the other way around.

Lafayette isn't where football players with big-time aspirations go to school. Scholarships are based on need, not to build a winning program.

Student-athletes at Lafayette and Lehigh are treated pretty much like everyone else. They attend the same classes, eat in the same cafeterias, live in the same dorms and, most importantly, earn the same degrees and graduate like everyone else.

Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Lafayette and Lehigh alumni clubs around the country sponsor joint telecast parties where alums from both schools, along with spouses, children and friends, gather to watch the game. We proudly wear our school colors and cheer on our teams, because for most of us it's the only time each year we have an opportunity to do so.

I'm happy to report that this year Lafayette won 49-27 to claim a share of its third straight Patriot League championship.

When the game ended and the cheers and refrains of, "Wait 'til next year," had died out, nobody on the Lehigh side called for the coach to be fired or was seen tearing up a contribution check.

Make no mistake, the goal is to win not only this game, but every game, every competition that takes place between the two schools. There is no greater joy for a Lafayette fan than to beat Lehigh - at anything and everything. It doesn't matter; we want the bragging rights.

That said, Lafayette-Lehigh isn't big-time football, and we know it. It is a tradition that began 122 years ago and remains pretty much true to its roots. We come together each year, without regard for the win-loss records of the teams or if a Patriot League championship is on the line, to celebrate this most unique, this most-played rivalry in college football history.

What makes this rivalry unique, what makes this rivalry "The Rivalry," is that when all is said and done, Lafayette and Lehigh walk away friends - friends who, having given their all and their best, smile at each other, shake hands and say "Wait 'til next time."

Howard Reed is technology director for the Gwinnett Daily Post Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.