“He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem
The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.
As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.
Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.
In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.
I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?
Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.
Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.
Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).
Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.
I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.
It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.
Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.
As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.
“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”
I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.
“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.
I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.
Yeah, I thought, just wait until next time!”