What could be crowned America’s top high school football rivalry nearly suffered a surprising end in 2004.
Brookfield and Marceline, towns separated by 9 miles of farm fields in Linn County, Mo., had a scheduling nightmare that threatened a football series dating to 1909.
But thanks to rallies, relentless hollering and aid from opponents, the Bell Game survived and now is among four finalists for USA TODAY High School Sports’ first “Best High School Football Rivalry” award.
The competition began Nov. 19 with 153 top rivalries, three from each state and Washington D.C. After two weeks of voting in the state round, the 51 winners advanced to a regional round.
The regional round ended Wednesday with four rivalries advancing into the national competition with a $10,000 prize on the line. Brookfield-Marceline will represent the Midwest Region, and compete against Vermont’s St. Johnsbury Academy-Lyndon Institute (North), Alabama’s T.R. Miller vs. W.S. Neal (South) and Arizona’s Douglas-Bisbee (West) rivalries for the national title.
The combined population of Brookfield and Marceline is roughly 6,500, yet the rivalry received 232,235 votes in the first two rounds of the competition.
“We’ve heard a lot of buzz about this contest and it’s been advertised quite well around here that we’re in the thick of this competition,” said Kent O’Laughlin, Marceline’s athletic director. “It’s something that shows how well these communities support their high school athletics and especially these football programs. We’ll have 3,500 to 4,500 fans at those Bell Games.”
The prize of this rivalry – a 30-pound brass bell from a Brookfield fire engine that’s been awarded to the winner since 1937 – is the symbol of this rural county in north-central Missouri. The bell stopped ringing temporarily eight years ago when Marceline dropped down a classification, meaning it could no longer meet Brookfield in districts. The rest of Brookfield’s schedule was filled with conference games and there was no opening to play Marceline.
Word spread within hours of the realignment and the phones at both schools began blaring with residents calling to see if this awful rumor was legit. It was. The Bell Game was dead.
The issue consumed both communities for seven weeks, prompting a meeting with the Missouri State High School Activities Association. Finally, resolution arrived when the Tri-Rivers Conference voted to allow Brookfield out of a conference game to play Marceline.
Both schools erupted in applause when the announcement was made.
“I was in a neighboring conference when all that was going on and they were talking about forfeiting conference games just to play that game,” O’Laughlin said. “Shows you it means a lot when you’re willing to forfeit another game just to play this one.”
And now, all that fighting to keep the rivalry alive could result in a national championship. The Bell Game, though, has plenty of competition in the final round:
The South represented the closest regional competition, as Alabama’s T.R. Miller vs. W.S. Neal edged the Kentucky rivalry of St. Xavier vs. Trinity. The Alabama rivalry received 182,285 votes in the regional round, finishing 3 percent ahead of the Louisville schools.
In the West, Bisbee vs. Douglas in Arizona rolled to a West Region win, receiving 38.7 percent of the final vote (91,973 total votes) after getting 52,690 votes to win its state round. The Bisbee-Douglas rivalry began in 1906, with the Copper Pick first awarded to the winner in 1945. Until 1955, the teams met twice a season; once prior to Thanksgiving and once on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This year's meeting marked the 142nd game in the series.
In the North, the Vermont rivalry of St. Johnsbury Academy-Lyndon Institute received the most votes of any rivalry in the regional round, with 309,655 votes over the past week alone. The teams have met 107 times since 1894 in a matchup known simply as The Game, which draws more than 4,000 people despite a combined population of only 12,000 in the two communities.
“This is a big deal in our part of the world,” said St. Johnsbury marketing director John Suitor, who started a voting campaign that incorporated social media, the daily newspaper and contacting alumni across the world. “It’s really been something that has caught fire up here and it’s a great rallying point for our communities. We’re in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the state and to be able to have the schools work together, rally together, for this has been fantastic for the communities.”