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Like the thousands who have played in it over the past 119 years, Nate Eimer will never forget his first East-West football game.
“Just the atmosphere is what’s so memorable,” said the second-year West Aurora football coach, whose Blackhawks play host to the Tomcats Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Ken Zimmerman Field.
“We get pretty good crowds for every (home) game, but there’s something about East-West that makes it a special event. And the history of it adds to it. It’s always gonna be the oldest rivalry in the state and one of the oldest rivalries in the country.”
It dates back to 1893, when the two schools on the opposite sides of town divided by the Fox River got together for their first meeting, won 28-0 by East High on Thanksgiving.
“(Thanksgiving) was a big time for rivalry games and they were emulating the colleges at the time,” said Aurora Historical Society Trustee Steve Solarz, who has spent countless hours over the last 10 years, poring over microfilm copies of this newspaper at the library to chronicle the history of the rivalry.
The teams apparently didn’t play in 1894 or 1897, but there were two games each year in 1896 and 1898.
And next year, said Solarz, the teams will play for the 121st time on the 120th anniversary of the first game.
The game was played at Hurd’s Island Park on the Fox River “until the 1920s when the railroad came through and cut the island in half and it was no longer feasible to hold it there,” said Solarz.
The game continued to be played at Thanksgiving, though, until 1953 when the West school board decided to schedule it earlier because it was interfering with the start of basketball.
Eimer’s first one?
“My sophomore year,” he said of the 1998 encounter that was won 12-6 by the Blackhawks. “I started at tight end and linebacker (for the 1998 game), both ways, because we had some injuries.
“I got two picks (interceptions) in the game. I know I got hit pretty good on one of them because I was running straight up and down (on the return).”
That win allowed the Blackhawks to even the series between the two teams at 47-47-12.
Eimer was also on the field two years later in 2000 when the Tomcats claimed a 26-23 decision.
“That was the last time we lost,” he said. “I know that left a bad taste that was there all year.”
The Blackhawks are riding an 11-game winning streak in the rivalry and hold an overall edge of 59-48-12 entering tonight’s game against East and first-year coach Kurt Becker. The Tomcats come in having lost 30 straight games.
Becker, a 1977 East graduate who went on to play at Michigan and in the NFL, also played in the game. He remembers a 34-0 East win in 1976 his junior season and a 20-14 loss his senior year.
“There’s always been a rivalry and always will be a rivalry,” said Becker. “There’s no bigger game on our schedule than the first one. The only one close will be when we’re playing for a state championship.”
Becker has invited 96-year-old Warren Dickson to serve has his team’s honorary captain for the game. Dickson played in the game for East in 1934.
“I understand traditions, having played at Michigan for Bo Schembechler and for George Halas, who started the NFL,” said Becker. “To me this is something special. I want our kids to feel that it is a privilege to put on a Tomcat uniform and represent East Aurora. It’s an honor to play in the oldest rivalry in the state.
“We live in a different world (these days) but the game is still the same.”
Warren Dickson, by the way, can tell the current players about his team’s 7-0 win.