HOWARD — Tonight, the Bulldogs of East Knox and the Blue Devils of Danville will renew their rivalry in front of packed bleachers.
East Knox High School
2009 Devil Dog Game 2009
These two schools have been going head-to-head on the gridiron since 1960, with the Blue Devils, who have won ten of the last eleven meetings, leading the series 32-20. There has been one tie.
Fifty years ago, the matchup was the first of its kind. Danville and Howard (now known as East Knox) had never played on the gridiron. But the rivalry was already fierce –– even before the two teams took the field.
“There was always some bickering between the schools,” Howard graduate Carmel McFadden recalls. “You would go to the restaurants, to the bars, to the pool halls. That’s all you’d hear sometimes.”
Of course, it was all pure speculation before 1960. Howard had never fielded a team until 1959. The school had just an informal six-man football squad up to that point. And no deal had been struck between the two schools until the following year.
On game day, the little town with two schools had gathered at Howard’s football field. The whole town, it seemed, was ready for some football.
“You wouldn’t believe the crowd. It was standing room only. People were standing on the sidelines, 10 to 12 deep, all around the field,” said McFadden.
“It was a big crowd,” Danville grad Ken Banbury recalls. “It was always a big crowd when they played, even that first game.”
Banbury, a sophomore for that game, would know. He would go on to establish school records for all-purpose yards. His career mark of 5061 yards still stands today.
“All of the arguing was just among the parents. The players were all friends. I knew a few players from Howard, and became friends with them. Among us, the game was really about bragging rights,” Banbury said.
Even the coaches knew this was a big game. Ralph Holder was the head coach at Howard. It was his first head coaching job, and one he took very seriously.
“I loved playing for Coach Holder,” McFadden said. “He was like a father figure to me. He knew how to get the best out of you.”
On the other side, Danville had a veteran coaching staff, led by Red Nugent.
“He was a really nice guy, and a good coach,” Banbury said.
The matchup may have seemed one-sided –– an established power versus a brand-new team –– but Howard had a surprise. The school had acquired a number of transfers from other schools. These players added some experience to an otherwise inexperienced group.
“Our linebackers, especially, were a scrappy group,” McFadden recalls. “We had some transfers from Gambier, and some of those boys wouldn’t have weighed 145 pounds soaking wet.”
“They (Danville) thought we were a bunch of hambones. They didn’t give us a chance,” then-Howard senior Bob Berry said.
Berry would play a big part in showing Danville that they did indeed deserve respect. He led the way with three touchdowns. Bobby Gaines added another. For Danville, Dan Durbin rushed for two touchdowns, and Banbury added a third. Howard eventually came away with a 28-18 upset victory,
McFadden’s interception helped seal the game for Howard.
“Durbin was trying to throw to Mike Hagans in the end zone,” McFadden recalls. “I snatched it in the back of the end zone and took off. I ended up at the 45 yard line. Durbin knocked me out of bounds.”
“There was no Devil-Dog trophy back then,” Berry recalls. “Hell, we were lucky to have helmets.”
“I remember it got foggy by the end of the game,” Banbury said.
An appropriate picture for Danville and its fans. As for Howard, the win was a fitting beginning for a rivalry which hasn’t lost steam.
So what was the secret? How did a scrappy team, assembled from parts of other teams and an informal six-man football squad end up beating an established football school like Danville?
“We were tight-knit. Football players are a tighter group than baseball or basketball players. They’re more like a family,” Berry said.
Fifty years later, the rivalry continues. Now there’s a trophy, a blood drive, some rallies. But it still comes down to 48 minutes on the gridiron.
“They still don’t like to lose. It isn’t as competitive now, and I don’t think they approach the game the same way. But they still don’t like to lose,” McFadden said.
“Back then, if you lost that game, there was no tomorrow,” McFadden added.
But winning then, just as it is now, can be summed up in one quote.
“Coach Holder told us if we win, we wouldn’t have to sneak around the dark alleys anymore. We could walk down Main Street with our heads held high,” Berry said.
They still are.