Best untold stories of college football’s Rivalry Week

Ah, Thanksgiving weekend, when the family gathers around the table and digs into a smorgasbord of traditional family dishes that instantly take us back in time by way of taste, smell and the memories to which those sensations are forever connected.

But it is also Rivalry Week, when college football contests involving teams and fan bases who do not particularly like each other find themselves in the midst of a similar holiday experience. When the sights, sounds and sensory overload of being inside a college football stadium also open the doors to the deepest recesses of our memory banks.

And then there is that region in between, where the truly bizarre and barely explainable kick-start the strangest of recollections. You know, like that casserole your Aunt Edith uncovers that leaves the family to spend the rest of the afternoon wondering WTH was baked in that CorningWare.

Or that jersey number being worn by the guy four rows in front of you, in the colors of thine enemy, that spawns stories of seething spitefulness that could only be born in the bizarro world of college football.

Or Aunt Edith’s ice box.

Or when her sister, Aunt Connie, gets into the sherry and starts spinning yarns about your parents that you’ve never heard before. Especially that one about them during Rivalry Week back in the day when they helped steal State U’s mascot.

The untold stories. The ones that give our lives — and college football — a little extra. That’s what we’re here to share with you. The untold stories, little-known details and forgotten tidbits that make Rivalry Week so special. Slow cooked to perfection over all these years. Like Aunt Edith’s casserole. — Ryan McGee

Jump to a section:
Ohio State’s double-bird man
Bad blood between the hedges
Playing for the platypus
Deeper than hate

Buckeyes’ double-bird man

Ohio State at Michigan, Saturday, noon ET, Fox

Marcus Hall knew all about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry long before he became a member of the Buckeyes.

A Cleveland native, Hall could recount the star players, the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler battles, the gold pants tradition and the spiciest moments, like the fight between Ohio State’s David Boston and Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997. After signing with Ohio State, Hall couldn’t wait to be part of college football’s highest-profile series.

Ten years ago, he unexpectedly carved a place in Ohio State-Michigan lore — with two fingers.

The 2013 game pitted the third-ranked Buckeyes, 11-0 that season and 23-0 overall under coach Urban Meyer, against a 7-4 Michigan team at Ann Arbor. Hall, a fifth-year senior, was Ohio State’s starting right guard. He had started the previous season against Michigan, helping the Buckeyes to a win that capped a perfect first season under Meyer (the team was ineligible for postseason play).

“I was nervous as heck, but playing in that game, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m officially a Buckeye,'” Hall said. “That’s like your stamp.”

Hall couldn’t wait for his final go-round in The Game. He remembers the trip up to Michigan and hanging out with quarterback Braxton Miller and his other close friends on the team. The pregame atmosphere was “intense,” as the teams exchanged words in the stadium tunnel.

After Michigan took the lead early in the second quarter, Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson returned a kickoff and was tackled, only to get up surrounded by Wolverines. Pushes and punches ensued, and within seconds, players from both sidelines had entered the field as flags flew.

“I thought it was a bench-clearing brawl,” Hall said. “I’m like, ‘I’m definitely going on this field to protect my guys.’ I was an offensive lineman. That’s naturally what we do. I wasn’t going to be the only guy not out there.”

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Marcus Hall’s infamous salute to Michigan fans

In 2013, Marcus Hall added to the OSU-Michigan rivalry lore by giving a double-finger salute to Michigan fans after getting ejected from the game.

The fracas turned out to be much tamer than Hall thought and was extinguished within seconds. But after a long huddle by the officiating crew, referee Mike Cannon announced the penalties, including three ejections: Michigan’s Royce Jenkins-Stone, Ohio State’s Wilson and, the last to be called, Hall.

Just like that, Hall’s career in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was over.

“I didn’t hear anybody in the crowd, I didn’t hear anything,” Hall said. “All I was thinking was, ‘It’s my senior year. I’ve looked forward to my senior year playing Michigan for so long.’ The energy and preparation that goes into that game, you’re so invested in that game. For it to end before halftime, I just blew up.”

As ABC cameras followed him, Hall threw his helmet down on the Ohio State sideline, kicked a bench and then pumped his fist in anger. Then, as he turned into the stadium tunnel, he raised both of his middle fingers toward the Big House crowd.

“I compare it to, when you’re fed up on the job and it’s time to go, just let ’em fly,” Hall said.

Hall’s double bird would become the most memorable moment from the game, which Ohio State won 42-41 after intercepting a 2-point conversion pass attempt with 32 seconds left to ward off a furious Michigan rally. Other than the ejection itself, Hall said the worst part of his day was having to stew in the visitors locker room, which had no TVs and lousy cell phone reception.

Stan Jefferson, Ohio State’s director of player development, accompanied Hall and tried to calm him down. Hall kept his uniform on until the fourth quarter before showering.

“My adrenaline was still going,” he said. “I was trying to walk out the locker room and see what was going on, but they kept directing me back in. All I could hear were the oohs and ahhs and cheers from the crowd. That just had me on edge.”

Hall tried to track the game on his phone, which began buzzing with notifications as soon as he got back to the locker room. The middle-finger moment had gone viral.

Although his parents weren’t at Michigan Stadium, his uncle and aunt, who had never seen him play and aren’t big sports fans, showed up that day.

“They’re the most polite, great people, religious,” Hall recalled, laughing. “After the game, I talked to them and they’re like blown away, like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve never seen you act like that. Are you OK?’ I had to calm them down, let them know I just had a moment.”

Hall had never been kicked out of a game before. There had been some fights, but mostly in practice. He received a public reprimand from the Big Ten and did not start in the league championship game the following week. His parents were supportive, although they said he had to control his anger.

The double-bird image immediately gained traction. T-shirts were made showing Hall’s gesture, but since it was the pre-NIL days, he couldn’t profit. Hall’s attorney later contacted the company making the shirts and obtained a percentage of sales for Hall. Eventually, Hall made his own shirts, complete with his signature at the bottom “to make it more authentic.” He said he also signed “a lot of pictures” showing his salute.

Demand was high initially, and Hall still sells quite a few T-shirts around this time every year.

“It was a big moment in the rivalry,” he said.

Hall, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent and later played in the CFL, worked in sales after his playing career. He lives in the Columbus area, where he has worked with youth in group homes and is trying to become a firefighter. Hall tailgates at Ohio State games with former teammates like Miller and Christian Bryant. He’s considering making the trip to Ann Arbor for Saturday’s showdown, 10 years after his notable ejection.

“It wasn’t the best thing for me, but I can be humble and say that rivalry and everything that goes into it, it’s bigger than me,” Hall said. “It’s been here way before me and it’s going to be here way after me. Just to have a piece in that, I’m thankful. I started more than 30 games at Ohio State, but if my legacy has got to live on through the rivalry that way, I’m cool with that.” — Adam Rittenberg


Bad blood between the hedges

Georgia at Georgia Tech, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Given the trajectory of the Georgia and Georgia Tech football programs the past several years, it might be difficult to remember the Bulldogs lost to the Yellow Jackets at home in 2016, coach Kirby Smart’s first season.

After the Yellow Jackets rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half and won 28-27 on Qua Searcy’s 6-yard run and the ensuing extra-point kick with 30 seconds left in the regular-season finale, many Tech players — as had become something of a tradition — celebrated by taking home a souvenir from the famous hedges surrounding the playing field at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia.

Shortly thereafter, then-Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity and then-Tech counterpart Todd Stansbury agreed the damage needed to stop. Bulldogs players had been retaliating by taking home chunks of the natural-grass turf at Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.

The rivalry, long known as “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate,” was getting a little ugly when it came to vandalizing stadiums.

“It was back and forth between the hedges and the turf at Tech,” McGarity told ESPN last week. “We called each other and said the time to deface each other’s facility needs to come to an end. We both agreed it needed to stop. Kirby was adamant that we don’t do that anymore, that’s not going to happen. It didn’t help the rivalry at all. All it did was add fuel to the fire.”

Tech players had been taking home parts of UGA’s hedges going back to a 35-18 victory over the Bulldogs on Dec. 1, 1984. Yellow Jackets quarterback John Dewberry, a transfer from Georgia, broke off a piece of the Chinese privet hedges and clenched it between his teeth for photographers.

Tech players haphazardly pruned the hedges six more times over the next 32 seasons, including in 2016, when the hedges were especially damaged.

“They were mangled,” said McGarity, now president and CEO of Gator Bowl Sports in Jacksonville, Florida. “Because it was the last game of the season, it didn’t do permanent damage. Those hedges grow back so fast. It was just the symbolic gesture of defacing them. I’m sure Tech was frustrated when Georgia players dug up some of the natural turf on their field.”

Georgia has security officers protecting the exterior of the hedges from visiting fans who might want a souvenir, but McGarity said he didn’t think it was a good idea to have officers surrounding the interior perimeter.

“You didn’t want to have a situation where law enforcement was getting involved with players,” McGarity said. “That would be the story the next day. We more or less protected the exterior from the fans. That’s what we focused on — preventing fans from damaging the hedges because we could control that.”

Of course, beating the Yellow Jackets at home solves the problem for the Bulldogs. Georgia has won 18 of the past 21 games in the rivalry going into Saturday’s game in Atlanta. The Bulldogs have also won each of their past 25 games at Sanford Stadium, the longest active home winning streak in the SEC. — Mark Schlabach


Playing for the platypus

Oregon State at Oregon, Friday, 8:30 p.m., Fox

The front page of the Eugene Register-Guard on Nov. 20, 1959, trumpeted two new additions to the festivities surrounding the next day’s football game between Oregon and rival Oregon State. It was also homecoming weekend, and about 50 freshmen from what was then called Oregon State College planned a run from Corvallis to Eugene, though it’s not clear if they made the whole 40-plus-mile trek.

The second addition was the unveiling of a rivalry trophy.

“Other traditional college rivals have ‘little brown jugs’ or ‘old oaken buckets,’ but there has never been a trophy for the UO-OSC ‘civil war,'” Richard Baker wrote in the newspaper.

So, naturally, the Platypus Trophy — “with the head and bill of a duck and the tail of a beaver” — filled the void. Oregon student Warren Spady sculpted the trophy from maple, and for three years, it was awarded to the winner of the game: Oregon State in 1959 and 1961; Oregon in 1960.

And then, like that, it was gone.

For four decades, the Platypus Trophy faded from public consciousness. Legend has it that it was stolen in the early ’60s and reappropriated as a water polo trophy. Spady told the Register-Guard in 2007 that in 1986 he saw the trophy in a glass case at Oregon’s Leighton Pool, but the full route of its journey following Oregon State’s football win in 1961 is best left to the imagination.

It wasn’t until 2004, thanks to a column from John Canzano, writing for the Oregonian, that the trophy’s existence was thrust back into the public eye. Like the Register-Guard story from 45 years earlier, Canzano’s column noted the rare lack of a trophy for a college football rivalry game, only for him to be informed after publication that once upon a time one did exist. And it still might.

So, in the same year “National Treasure” hit theaters, the search was on. The trophy was finally located in 2005 in a storage closet, and since 2007 has been entrusted to the winning school’s alumni association for safekeeping after every Oregon-Oregon State football game.

On Oregon’s student alumni association website, the Platypus Trophy is described as “a symbol of pride and a long-forgotten history for the Civil War games.” The website also says, “As every Duck knows — Whether you live in Eugene or in New York, the Oregon State Beavers will always be our rival.”

Headed into this week’s game, with Oregon set to depart for the Big Ten and Oregon State left with an uncertain future, the Platypus Trophy is more representative of what college football used to be: a quirky, regional sport that connected generations.

It seems those days are just about over. — Kyle Bonagura


Deeper than hate

Georgia Southern at Appalachian State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ESPNU

Georgia Southern and Appalachian State first met on a football field in 1932. Or maybe it was 1934. It depends on where you look. Someone forgot to write it down. Which is even more hilarious when one realizes the schools were then known as South Georgia Teachers College and Appalachian State Teachers College.

Today, their rivalry has become one of the platforms upon which the league of true regional bile, the Sun Belt Conference, has been built.

One year ago, GSU outlasted App State 51-48 in a contest that produced more than 1,100 yards and a dozen lead changes. On Halloween night 2019, the 4-3 Eagles stunned Eliah Drinkwitz’s No. 20 and New Year’s Six-dreaming Mountaineers with a 24-21 win in Boone, North Carolina. There has been a quartet of games in which the No. 1-ranked FCS team was upset. There was GSU over ASU in 2007, just seven weeks after App State’s legendary defeat of Michigan. There was even a game in 2015 that was interrupted by a laser pointer from the stands, a fire alarm in a dorm adjacent to Kidd Brewer Stadium and a stolen ambulance.

But the roots of the title that has been bestowed upon this series — “A Feeling Deeper Than Hate” — reach back to Dec. 5, 1987, the schools’ first post-World War II meeting. It was the FCS (then I-AA) quarterfinals. The Eagles were the two-time defending national champions, coached by College Football Hall of Famer Erk Russell, who earned national notoriety as Georgia’s defensive coordinator under Vince Dooley. Erk was the godfather of the legendary Junkyard Dawgs and left Athens for Statesboro to help Georgia Southern restart its program. Using the brain inside his famous bald head (which he routinely headbutted his helmeted players with, leaving a trail of blood trickling down his face at kickoff), Russell won quickly, posting a pair of 13-2 seasons that led to those nattys.

When Georgia Southern arrived in Boone for the second round of the NCAA I-AA playoffs in 1987, the Eagles were greeted by an 11-2 Mountaineers team helmed by future South Carolina head coach Sparky Woods. They were also greeted by snow. A lot of snow. And under that powder was a totally frozen playing field.

For three hours, both teams slipped and slid, but App State found better footing at home and pulled off a 19-0 win. App State students rubbed ice into the wound during the second half when they used their boots and gloves to inscribe a snowy hill overlooking one end zone with a message: CAN YOU SCORE?

A group of angry Southern fans stormed the hill and ignited a snowcapped brawl. When police intervened, one officer pulled a move worthy of the “Home Alone” Wet Bandits on the cellar stairs, lost his footing and slid down the hill to crash into a sideline fence.

It was the only time Russell, who added a third and final national title in 1989, ever coached against Appalachian State. Even now, after all these years and all the games the Eagles and Mountaineers have played, through FCS playoffs, the Southern Conference and now the FBS and the Sun Belt, App State fans still love to irk GSU loyalists by grinding up that Erk stat. Meanwhile, every few years Georgia Southern fans still file petitions to the NCAA to have that 1987 Ice Bowl reclassified as a hockey game. — Ryan McGee




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