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October 12, 2007

M&M rivalry conjures sweet memories

Their stories vary a bit. So Ed DeMeuse has asked Dale Svoboda if the latter wants to watch the videotape and remember exactly how their last high school matchup unfolded.

Both 41 years old, the two are teammates now for the M&M Timberjacks, a semi-pro football team featuring players from Menominee, Mich., and Marinette, Wis.

Sure, they remember each other from high school - the small towns are adjacent along Lake Michigan at their states' shared border and are separated only by the quarter-mile wide Menominee River.

But in 1983, DeMeuse and Svoboda faced each other in the 86th game of what has become one of the nation's longest football rivalries - DeMeuse for Marinette and Svoboda for Menominee.

Svoboda, a tight end, said DeMeuse, a defensive end, lined up on the opposite side of the field from him. But the way DeMeuse tells it, he beat Svoboda to make tackles for losses on the first three plays of the game.

It's all jovial jabbing these days. Former opponents are now friends, and DeMeuse likes to let the past remain there. Still, Svoboda's Menominee team won 9-0 that year, capping off a four-year winning streak against DeMeuse's Marinette. And that comes with something that can't be erased.

"We give each other (bull) once in a while, but even not playing 24 or 25 years now, the good thing is always having bragging rights," said Svoboda, who lives in Menominee. "You know you won. It's just a good feeling. You say, 'You know, we won.' When I was in high school, we won all four years. I never had to suffer what it was like (to lose). I couldn't imagine."

Saturday's M&M game at Menominee will be the 101st in the series, which began in 1894. The National Federation of High Schools recognizes the series as the second-longest interstate rivalry in the country behind only Bradford Area, Penn., vs. Olean, N.Y., which began a year earlier - and tied for 10th-longest rivalry overall. Menominee has won the last six M&M games, but Marinette holds a 49-44-7 edge.

There's more than longevity to the game's intrigue:

  • Culture: Consider that, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the cities' combined population was only about 21,000. But Svoboda, a substitute teacher at Menominee who works the games, said last year's drew about 5,000 fans - and that that's average.

  • Legendary coaches: Aside from 1972-74, Menominee coach Ken Hofer has led the Maroons since 1964 and guided them to two state titles. Marinette coach Joel Hanner returned to the team this season after a three-year hiatus and a previous 18-year stint with the Marines that included one state championship. Menominee's old-school single wing offense - in which the center snaps directly to a running back instead of a quarterback - adds a little spice amid an era dominated by spread offenses and option attacks.

  • Legendary players: Standouts from both sides went on the big-time football careers during the middle of the last century. Among them were Menominee's Dick Deschaine (two NFL teams), Billy Wells (three NFL and one AFL team) and Billy Rademacher (two NFL/AFL teams) and Marinette's Earl Girard (three NFL teams). A number of others since have gone on to college success at various levels.

  • Tradition, of course: Although not now, for years the M&M game was the regular-season finale. It was also the Homecoming game for both schools, and some years was played after a two-week break like the NFL's Super Bowl. Both schools would have the usual Homecoming festivities - floats, a combined parade - and the host school for the game would also host a combined dance that night. The winner gets the Cedar Log, a traveling trophy featuring a plank of wood with a football resting on top.

  • Good games, simply put: Granted, there was the 1919-26 period during which Marinette held Menominee scoreless (and didn't score itself in 1920's 0-0 tie). But of the 100 games, 40 including ties have been decided by seven points or fewer.

    "As a kid, we'd always go. It was something to look up to," said 20-year-old Randy Hoheneder, who played for Marinette in the 2004 and 2005 games. "It's a lot bigger (than you realize while playing). Just all the fans, a lot of people come from different towns and cities, come to watch you play. You understand it more afterward. You're all up in the speed playing the game, you don't realize it."

    Plenty has changed over the years. During the 1980s, it wasn't rare to see fans throwing eggs at opposing players or other pregame vandalism. Although beefed-up security has ended some of the in-game shenanigans, the host stadium's lights are still kept on all week to discourage pranks.

    Menominee's recent dominance and a break from 1993-98 may have sapped the game of some of its tradition, said DeMeuse, who has a senior daughter at Marinette High. Before that, the teams had never gone more than two years between games against each other. Back before playoffs, or when formats made qualifying tougher, the M&M game often capped seasons - and careers.

    "It meant so much so much to guys around my age and older because of what the game is about," he said. "The 25-to-30 age bracket, a lot of these guys didn't care."

    But the vein of tradition will exist as long as the game continues. DeMeuse is one of four brothers who played in the M&M game. Svoboda's two brothers both played as did his dad Frank in 1948 and 1949.

    "When there are 6,000 people in that stadium from both sides, (the teams) are playing for all the people that have played in the M&M games. When I'm there Saturday, these people playing are playing for me," Svoboda said. "They want to win for parents, for their grandparents.

    "It's the 101st M&M game. These coaches will bring that up, that they're playing for their great-grandparents, playing for their grandparents, and they all will know what their grandparents did."

    Geoff Kimmerly is Prep Sports Editor at the Lansing (MI) State Journal.



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